Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Like Water for Chocolate" and "The Last Chinese Chef"

Twice in the past week, groups of people have been astonished that somehow I have never read Like Water for Chocolate, and also have not seen the film. The American edition of the book was published 25 years ago -- how could I have missed it, asked just about everyone at my Culinary History Reading Group on Wednesday. They were comparing it to the book under discussion: The Last Chinese Chef.

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.)

In contrast, Like Water for Chocolate is set in Revolutionary Mexico (around 1910 to 1917), and involves the recipes cooked by the central character, Tita, for her family. While The Last Chinese Chef depicts people and events in a fairly conventional way, Like Water for Chocolate is a work of magical realism, where the intense emotions of the characters are highlighted by mystical or magical happenings. Tita can see and exchange thoughts or speak with dead people, and her feelings have material consequences. At the very beginning, Tita's birth is premature, brought on by her loud crying from the womb; for Tita "laughter was a form of crying." (p. 7)

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.


Pattie @ Olla-Podrida said...

I am so envious of y our having a "Culinary Book Group." There are so many wonderful foodie novels. I try to read as many as I can, but then have no one to discuss them with. I've not read The Last Chinese Chef, so I'll request that one.

Jeanie said...

I haven't read either of those either and while they both sound just fine -- I still like your Aggie posts and will go back tot those first! Too many books, too little time!