Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Como agua para chocolate (on mole and melancholia)



The idea that we can use cooking to transmit an intangible thing is not a novel one. I'm thinking of Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)—the book is practically required reading if you're any kind of Latin American—, in which Tita is cruelly forbidden from marrying the man she loves, Pedro, as part of a family tradition in which the youngest daughter must remain unmarried and commit her life to caring for her mother. In a desperate effort to stay close to Tita, Pedro decides to marry one of her sisters, and as luck would cruelly have it Tita is responsible for baking their wedding cake. This is, as you can imagine, a harrowing experience. Tita's heartache overwhelms her, and in what has become the most memorable passage from the book (and scene from the not terrible film adaptation), her inconsolable tears make their way into the batter, and the wedding guests become impossibly lovesick at their first taste of the cake. This is pure magical realism: it seems possible enough (though still unlikely) that someone's salty tears could spoil raw batter, but could they be charged with sorrow and make us sick with longing? Can grief withstand the heat of an oven, can it be licked off a spoon, can it lead to such collective katabasis as experienced by Pedro's unsuspecting guests?

Mole has hundreds of ingredients, many different chiles and crazy things like fresh epazote leaves which I like to pretend don't exist in the United States to keep the magic going, which is in full disclosure why I have not (yet) attempted to make it myself. But I have learned that if you can get your hands on mole in Mexico (not just from Mexico) it is as good as homemade. In fact, I enjoy this distance between myself and the multitudinously concocted mole. I imagine it being imbued with a kind of unrivaled Aztec wisdom in the same way Tita's cake is teeming with melancholia. 

There are as many stories about mole's origins as the dish has ingredients, and they are not all pre-hispanic. In one of these legends, a cook is asked to prepare a grand banquet for his diocese's visiting archbishop. Nervous at the prospect of a man so close to God sitting at his table, he trips and knocks all the ingredients in his kitchen into the simmering pot: chiles, cacao, spices, and more. This late in the game, he can only resort to the heavens, and kneels down to pray that the meal will turn out somewhat edible. The result of this holy episode in the kitchen is a satisfied archbishop and the birth of mole.

To my relief, I do not regularly summon the divine or weep for love as I cook, but I do believe wholly in the transmission, the role of cook as messenger of a moment or feeling, even if fleeting. Tita was born in the kitchen, and she lives and loves there too. For those of us who cook not just to eat or to feed but to create, to escape, or to become more real, she represents the inevitable way in which we bring our emotions to the kitchen. If "every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter," the same rule applies to food. When we are at our most vulnerable and open as we cook, our sensitivities translate very viscerally to the final dish, like in Esquivel's text. I don't think that's too romantic, is it?

"The moment they took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. Even Pedro, usually so proper, was having trouble holding back his tears. Mama Elena, who hadn't shed a single tear over her husband's death, was sobbing silently. But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication - an acute attack of pain and frustration - that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love." 
                                            — Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate

"Una inmensa nostalgia se adueñaba de todos los presentes en cuanto le daban el primer bocado al pastel. Inclusive Pedro, siempre tan propio, hacía un esfuerzo tremendo por contener las lágrimas. Y Mamá Elena, que ni cuando su esposo murió había derramado una infeliz lágrima, lloraba silenciosamente. Y eso no fue todo, el llanto fue el primer síntoma de una intoxicación rara que tenía algo que ver con una gran melancolía y frustración que hizo presa de todos los invitados y los hizo terminar en el patio, los corrales y los baños añorando cada uno al amor de su vida." 
— Laura Esquivel, Como agua para chocolate


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