Earlier, around a week ago, at a dinner party, the same thing happened: several people insisted that I had to read Like Water for Chocolate when they heard I was reading The Last Chinese Chef -- the books just seem to go together. And in a neat coincidence, when I got home from Culinary Book Group, a package on my doorstep contained Like Water for Chocolate -- a gift from two of my guests. I've now read it thanks to my thoughtful friends.
Both of these books combine their authors' vast knowledge of food and cooking with a romantic story in an exotic setting. The Last Chinese Chef is set in present-day China. It embeds observations of foodways in a very modern love story. The author invented many quotes from a book by a fictional chef from an earlier era as a way to provide historical and sociological background. (I previously wrote about this book here.)
Food plays both a natural and an imaginative role in Tita's life. In her passionate feelings for her chosen lover, "Tita knew thorough her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn't been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour." (p. 67)
Above all, Tita excels at cooking the foods that have long been traditions in her family. She has strong relationships with the cooks in their rural kitchen, who even after death can "dictate a prehispanic recipe involving rose petals." Through cooking, Tita struggles with her oppressive and hateful mother who was a pro at "dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying, or dominating." (pp. 49 & 97)
In our Culinary History discussion, we talked about the way both books focus on the relationship of food and family: both play a significant role in their respective cultural milieus. In the case of The Last Chinese Chef, this is explicitly contrasted to the way Americans are more alienated from food, especially the way Chinese people do not feel it's right to eat alone. In Like Water for Chocolate, food and family intertwine in many ways, including magically.
Both novels combine theoretical food writing with a strong plot, which some group members like better than others do -- some would prefer to read a simple, strong essay without the fiction. As for me, I found that both authors were quite successful at combining fiction with more theoretical material, and I'm very enthusiastic about both books.