Themes and Meanings
Like Water for Chocolate playfully imitates the steamy romances included in Hispanic women’s magazines and simultaneously pays tribute to the arts of the kitchen. The novel begins and ends in the kitchen, where Tita’s grandniece prepares one of Tita’s recipes, illustrating that the plot is above all a vehicle for the author to celebrate food and cooking as the center of daily lives and destinies. This message is also evident in the fact that cooking is the root cause for the events of Magical Realism or fantasy that pervade the novel. The importance of freedom for women is the novel’s central feminist theme.
Tita learns the most important lessons about life in the kitchen from the Indian cook Nacha. As in the book’s title, descriptions of how characters feel in various situations are presented in imagery from food and cooking. In addition, the unique ways in which food is prepared and the ingredients employed are shown as determining or redefining people’s fates, as with the wedding cake prepared by Tita that spoils Rosaura’s reception and destroys Nacha’s life. The novel equates understanding these secrets of the power of food with understanding life. In its language, food-related events, characterization in terms of attitudes toward food and cooking, and cookbook-like form, this novel makes culinary activity itself the captivating stuff of literature.
Central to conveying a message of liberation for Mexican women is the choice of a traditionally female space in Mexican society, the kitchen, as defining characters’ lives. To this end, the novel’s action is set temporally around the time of the Mexican Revolution, when women’s rights in Mexico were also being redefined and reevaluated. Clearly, however, it is not the kitchen but societal codes that have restricted women’s independence. Mamá Elena’s miserable death from poisoning and Rosaura’s grotesque demise testify to the evils of unquestioning allegiance to tradition in the name of keeping up appearances. The novel suggests that Gertrudis’s uninhibited happiness, by contrast, is the direct consequence of her rebellious freedom. The plainest evidence of this novelistic message of liberation, even if it applies principally to amorous freedom, appears in the marriage of Rosaura’s daughter Esperanza, who, through Tita’s guidance, refuses to succumb to the family tradition that has enslaved her aunt.
In the end, the blending of culinary and literary arts, which triumphs most obviously in the survival of Tita’s cookbook and diary at the novel’s conclusion, offers would-be cooks and writers new recipes for creative expression.