Taste of success

Nathanial Gardner’s pithy and succinct critical examination of Como agua para chocolate provides fascinating insights into the classic book and film


Como Agua para Chocolate:
The Novel and Film Version

Nathanial Gardner
2009, Grant & Cutler
113 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ORIGINALLY conceived as a screenplay, Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate represents a triumph of the will that should bring hope to aspiring young scriptwriters the world over.

Discouraged by producers reluctant to commit to a period drama, the story was transformed into a novel which, after its publication in 1989, quickly became an international bestseller.

It was only then that a film was made – by Esquivel’s then husband Afonso Arau – which, after its subtitled release in the US in 1993, became an instant box-office success, cementing the story of Tita de la Garza and her culinary magic in popular consciousness.

Nathanial Gardner’s pithy and succinct critical examination of the book and film provides fascinating insights into the story of the story but also the themes that made it resonate so much with its different audiences: the taut relationship between rebellion and tradition that was pulled to snapping point by the tumultuous Mexican Revolution; the favourable image of the US just across the border that is conveyed at every turn, and the malinchismo that defines the interaction between American men and Mexican women; castration and emasculation; and healing.

Erotic connotations

It is, nonetheless, the story’s references to food, and its erotic connotations, that will probably be remembered best. As Gardner suggests, the narrative of Como agua para chocolate strongly interwines sex and food. He explores fascinating examples in which food and its consumption symbolize love or the sexual act. When the family eats Tita’s roasted quail in rose-petal sauce, for example, magical events begin to envelop them. Rosaura leave the table feeling ill, Pedro consumes every bite in ecstasy with Tita, in effect, becoming his dish, and Gertrudis experiences the effects of an aphrodisiac and begins to fantasise about a Villista soldier.

Gardner’s critical account of Como agua para chocolate is split into two parts – the novel and the film – and his examination of the style and symbolism that distinguishes the cinematic version of this story also offers illuminating observations.

For example, magical realism, that very Latin American device, punctuates the book but was toned down in the cinematic version, possibly because of the difficulty translating this to the screen. The striking use of chiaroscuro – a strong contrast between light and dark – enabled Arau to give the film an authentic periodicity while also stressing individual characters at key moments in the plot. Subtle symbolism is employed to make complex points, not least the relationship between food and sexuality. The final dish to be eaten, for example, is chiles en nogada, with which the male organ is symbolized; the use of a pig’s head, blood and sausages sully Mamá Elena as Chencha enters the kitchen to announce the death of Rosaura’s son.

Gardner’s pithy and accessible work – one of Grant & Cutler’s Critical Guides to Latin American Texts and Films – will be a revelation to fans of Como agua para chocolate both as a book and film, steering them to a new and subtle understanding of this classic work.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

Read an INTERVIEW with Nathanial Gardner here

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