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Food, Smell and Taste Evoke Memories

Still-life, oil on canvas painting by José Agustín Arrieta (Mexican), c. 1870, San Diego Museum of Art
Wmpearl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Still-life, oil on canvas painting by José Agustín Arrieta (Mexican), c. 1870, San Diego Museum of Art

Hi, I’m Valerie, a Radio Reader from Topeka and I just finished reading Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel as part of the spring read “In Touch with the World.” This is my second time reading the book and let me just say it is gorgeous. I’d forgotten what a beautiful writer Esquivel is, how much I enjoy Magical Realism and how sensual food can be.

So, the novel is told in monthly installments with one recipe per month. The general theme is a forbidden love that takes place at the turn of the twentieth century in northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. As part of this month’s theme is places around the world, I’ll start with the Mexican Revolution.

Their home is raided several times by revolutionaries in need of supplies and the main character’s sister runs away from home (while naked–there’s a good story there but you’ll have to read the book to find out why) and returns home months or years later (it’s unclear how much time has lapsed) as a general. The feminist in me likes this bit and for the record there were soldaderas (female soldiers) in the Mexican revolutionary army who made important contributions. The only thing that grates on me about this part of the plot is how the main character’s brother-in-law (her true love–see I told you forbidden love played a role in the book) was never conscripted by either side despite the fact that he’s a young man.

Here’s an example from page 71 of how the revolution wreaked havoc in everyday lives: the main character, Tita, sent her brother-in-law and true love, Pedro, to get the doctor because Pedro’s wife, Tita’s sister, was in labor with her first child. The doctor didn’t arrive in time and Tita had to assist in the birth by herself, “She hadn’t anticipated Pedro getting captured by the federales and summarily detained from getting the doctor, or Mama Elena and Chencha being unable to return because of shooting breaking out in the village that forced them to take refuge with the Lobos; so it turned out she was the only one present at the birth of her nephew.” Imagine how stressful it would be for everyday occurrences such as shopping in the market or getting a doctor to be marred by battle.

Another part of the book that I want to mention is the recipes. I love how Esquivel uses the cooking of food and the senses of smell and taste to evoke memories. Like July's recipe of ox-tail soup which reminded Tita of her surrogate mother who made her this soup as a child when she was ill. From page 124, “With the first sip, Nacha [the surrogate mother] appeared [even though she had been dead several years–this is part of the magical realism]. . .stroking her hair as she ate, as she had done when she was little and was sick, kissing her forehead over and over.” Coincidentally, I was eating a grapefruit while reading this book and my son asked me what I liked about grapefruit. I had to think about it a minute because the taste can be hit or miss–too sour sometimes–and I mainly eat it for the vitamin C, but then I remembered how my grandma used to eat grapefruit by cutting them in half and sprinkling sugar over the top to mitigate the sour taste as she scooped out the inside with a spoon. I have to say that this memory made me smile. I could picture my grandmother and I in her kitchen all those years ago. What food or aroma transports you to your childhood?

My last point about the book is that while I like how the book was divided into monthly installments for chapters with a recipe each month, this was also confusing. Who makes the aforementioned ox-tail soup in July or Three Kings bread in September? Three Kings Day is in January! I cannot suspend my disbelief that much even for magical realism. Also, sometimes months or even years would pass between months in the book, and it was unclear. For the first several months (chapters) I thought everything was taking place within the current calendar year, but this was not the case. Time had lapsed.

Anyway, despite these minor complaints, I hope you read the book because it will delight you. I’m Valerie for the HPPR Radio Readers book club.

Spring Read 2023: In Touch with the World 2023 Spring ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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