Food and Female Identity in Fact and Fiction
Last fall I taught an Honors Seminar in Latina Literature in which I paired one of the classic works of the genre—Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate—with the little known work Cherries in Winter by Puerto Rican-American author, Suzan Colon. These works struck me as worthy of comparative study because both are organized around recipes which introduce the chapters and both use food as the primary tool of assertion, even identification, for each main female character. In Esquivel’s novel, this is Tita de la Garza, the youngest daughter of a Mexican family living at the turn of the twentieth century; in Colon’s work, it is Colon herself, who, having recently been laid off from her job as a magazine editor, uses her grandmother’s recipes to rebuild her life as an unemployed (or self-employed) writer, and thus, find herself.
In this guest post, I explore two ideas based upon these works: first, how the acts of preparing and cooking food empower, rather than limit, Latina women in general and these two female characters in particular; and second, how the use of food and the kitchen in Latina literature has changed (or not, as the case may be) in the twenty years that separate Esquivel’s work from Colon’s. This latter idea takes us from a study of Esquivel’s use of magical realism in her 1989 novel, to Colon’s vividly personal memoir, published in 2009.
In 1994, Teresa Cordova wrote that Latina women are traditionally regarded as “Tortilla makers and baby-producers, to be touched and not heard.” These words highlight the two realms that represent the most potent forms of constraint for the Latina woman: her sexuality and her role as obedient wife and caregiver in the domestic realm. Yet, as I argue here, Esquivel and Colon resist and revise the traditional patriarchal views of Latinas by giving the women the power to control not just their own, but the lives of others through the food that their respective female characters make. The production and consumption of food, is essential for not only sustaining but also reproducing life.
Neither Tita in Esquivel’s work, nor Suzan in her memoir, submit to traditional domestic roles even though both are found at the center of the house in the respective works; both women come to life in the kitchen and both provide life to others through their work in the kitchen. The domestic role has changed for these Latina women, though, for, by standing resolutely in a sphere once known primarily for its repression—and claiming it entirely for themselves—both women—and their authors—remake that sphere into one of total freedom. The kitchen in both works becomes the key to authorship, to creativity, and to life itself. In a sense it’s an incubator for much more than recipes.
This is not to say that the female domestic space of the kitchen is not a highly contested one. One critic, Maite Zubiaurre, writes in her essay, “Culinary Eros in Contemporary Hispanic Female Fiction” (2006), that a careful reading of Like Water for Chocolate reveals Tita’s “utter solitude” and “self-absorption” while in the kitchen, and that because Tita keeps her culinary power and knowledge largely to herself, she—and her sphere, the kitchen—reinforces her sense of isolation, rather than fostering a sense of solidarity or congeniality. Zubiaurre goes further to state that the kitchen environment is hierarchical and secretive, claiming, “The kitchen mirrors an authoritarian and segregationist society, instead of fostering an alternative sense of community, solidarity and equalitarian justice among women” (4).
Predictably, other scholars argue the opposite. Kristine Ibsen, for example, writing in her essay, “On Recipes, Reading, and Revolution,” in the Hispanic Review (in 1995), claims that Esquivel’s kitchen gives Tita power and control as the cook, and that by drawing others in to either help prepare certain foods, or to eat the food, Tita is able to establish a sense of security in the world, not a feeling of isolation from it. While both points of view are valid, Esquivel writes that for Tita, the kitchen is a safe haven, it is her “realm,” a space over which she exerts control, and in which she grows “vigorous and healthy” (7), words which invest the space with good qualities rather than deprivations. Throughout the novel, Tita counters her seeming isolation in the kitchen by inviting her sisters in to observe and to help; at times these moments end badly, but they also can be positive; for example, when Tita invites Gertrudis and Rosaura to sprinkle water on the griddle pan in the opening chapter, Gertrudis “found the game enticing and threw herself into it with the enthusiasm she always showed where rhythm, movement, or music were involved” (8). Similarly, the bond between Tita and Nacha, the actual cook, is unbreakable. Nacha is the primary caretaker for Tita throughout her childhood, and provides her with the love and support that Mama Elena fails to give; as the source of most of the recipes in the book, she is also the source of Tita’s sustenance, physical and otherwise. While she dies on the day of Rosaura's wedding, she returns throughout the narrative as a spiritual guide for Tita, and thus spiritually sustains her as well.
While Zubiaurre and Ibsen take opposing views towards Tita in the kitchen, I would like to propose that the kitchen in Like Water for Chocolate functions in yet a third way. It may be the site of a congenial community (most of the time, only Tita and Nacha are in the kitchen; others remain outside, and that’s where the community bonding takes place—i.e.: at the dining room table or at the baptismal banquet for example) and an isolationist zone, but it also, for Tita, grows to be a sanctuary, a place where she discovers herself and comes to accept and love herself. Even when the kitchen is a source of suffering for her, as it is when she feels Pedro no longer loves her (69), she is able to “juggle ingredients and quantities at will, obtaining phenomenal results,” just as “a poet plays with words” (69). Here Tita functions as an author; her authority in the kitchen is unrivaled and her culinary mastery sustains her through periods of deep pain. Tita also evinces authority (and functions like an author) in the way she “breaks rules” in the kitchen. While her mother (when alive) expects Tita to follow recipes to “the letter,” Tita can’t resist “the temptation to violate the oh-so-rigid rules her mother imposed in the kitchen…and in life” (198). Tita sees her rule-breaking as evidence of her “creativity”; she improvises as an actor or poet might.
By October, and nearing the end of the book and calendar year, Tita has found her voice enough to stand up to her mother, who chastises her for having had sex with Pedro. When her mother shouts “Shut your mouth! Who do you think you are?” Tita retorts full of vengeance and power, “I know who I am! A person who has a perfect right to live her life as she pleases!” (199). These words—the entire exchange in fact—speak volumes about the distance Tita has traveled psychically as she has found her power in the kitchen. Because of the power she has tapped into there, she is finally able to express herself in this manner towards her mother. Tita’s gifts in the kitchen extend to other types of nurturing as well, another reason why the production and consumption of food becomes so empowering for her. When Pedro’s son, Roberto, is born, and unable to feed, Tita is suddenly able to produce milk and fill the baby up. She in essence saves Roberto’s life and becomes a “Goddess of plenty” (76).
Most important in this novel perhaps is the fact that food evokes the past and allows one to tap into memory, bringing the past into the present and thereby informing it. This cannot be clearer than it is at the end of the book, for there we find that Tita has traveled through time and space via her kitchen, to remain eternally present for her great-niece, who invokes Tita as she peels onions, tears flowing freely, in the present moment: “Perhaps I am as sensitive to onions as Tita, my great-aunt, who will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes” (246). The fact that Tita will “go on living,” to my mind suggests a solid presence in the lives of her descendants, and thus enables the strongest sort of congeniality and community. To remain alive in spirit is to remain eternal and thus the bonds between women in this book are unbreakable.
We find the same sort of unbreakable community and lasting connection to the past—and one’s heritage—created through food in Suzan Colon’s memoir, Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times. This work, a first person memoir, travels between Suzan’s present in 2008 in Hudson County, New Jersey, where she lives; the early 20th century Bronx, where her grandmother lived; and the mid-20th century New York City where Suzan was raised by her single mother. For Suzan, preparing food creates a specific nurturing atmosphere that fosters community among women. She explains that in the writing of her memoir, she’s learned the difference between “showing up for dinner at my parent’s house and making dinner with my mother” (213). The essential difference for Colon as for Tita is that “as the ingredients go into the food, the stories come out of the making” (213). These stories in turn provide one with an identity and a history. In both books, the cook’s recipes (Nacha’s in Like Water for Chocolate and Nana’s in Cherries in Winter) keep the family’s heritage alive and allow people to connect with the spirits of the past.
Suzan Colon in her book reconnects with her grandmother—Nana—through the family recipe box. Suzan describes the recipes not simply as instructions for how to make certain dishes, but as physical proof of her past and as a tangible way for her to connect with her Nana, as well as her mother and grandfather. “They’re artifacts,” she writes, “from times both good and bad—not vague references, but proof that we’ve been through worse than this [her current unemployment] and have come out okay” (9). The recipes function as conversations between Colon and her ancestors; each recipe—typed in small font or written in Nana’s small hand and reproduced as such in the book—tells Suzan a different story about her past and imparts wisdom with it. She learns, for example, that “her ancestors transformed their suffering into gratitude, and finding their recipes and hearing their stories made me realize that many of my happiest memories are associated with food” (228).
What’s different and unique about Colon’s book, and particularly, what makes Colon different from Tita, is that she was first a professional single woman, and only second, and much later in life, a married woman who learned to cook. She writes, “As far as food is concerned, I write about it a lot better than I can cook it… When I lived alone…I had dinners out with friends … or ate single-girl food—steamed vegetables and brown rice from the Chinese restaurant around the corner” (36). She knew her way “around an office much better than a kitchen” (36), she goes on, but once she marries and gets laid off from her day job, she writes, “I want to cook well…especially since I’m home all the time [now].” (36). Cooking is thus something that not only reconnects Colon to her grandparents through the recipe box, and to her parents by cooking for them, but a domain that awakens her to a new side of herself and enhances her life with her husband. Her newfound culinary skills do not restrict her; they liberate her in the same way they do Tita. Even though she can no longer afford to shop for groceries at the “designer store,” as she calls what is most likely Whole Foods, she gains several new identities. She writes, “I’ve gone from spending my days at an office to planning marathon supermarket trips to being both an imaginary CEO and my husband’s mistress” (166).
In some ways, Suzan Colon and Esperanza’s (unnamed) daughter with Alex Brown are literary sisters; Esperanza’s daughter learns the recipes of her great aunt, Tita, in the same way that Suzan culls them from her grandmother, Nana. Both third-generation women are empowered by following the recipes of their forebears. While we sense Esperanza’s daughter’s contentment and security in life, now two generations removed from Tita, we similarly feel Suzan’s. Suzan, for example, concludes her narrative by writing that she’s grateful that she’s been able to realize almost all of Nana’s dreams, the ones [she] never knew until [she] found the recipe file (217), among them going to college and becoming a writer. And just as Tita lives on in the onions which make her grand-niece cry, so Nana lives on in Suzan’s mind: “Now she’s inspiring me to go further, to aim higher than I thought I could go…” (217).
Suzan Colon offers a new way for Latina women to present themselves in Cherries in Winter: that is, in real life, versus in a realm infused with magic and spirit as in Like Water for Chocolate. Colon writes about quotidian rituals like turning forty, going to the gym, living on a budget, and getting mammograms. She tries to maintain a professional identity, seeking freelance writing or editing work. Perhaps her most significant divergence from previous Latina heroines (not unlike Tita, incidentally, though Tita takes on the maternal role to Pedro’s son Roberto whom she nurses through his childhood) is the fact that she remains child-free. This is a complicated issue for Suzan as she does not necessarily do so by choice. She writes: “When I started thinking about marriage and children, I vowed I’d wait for a man who would stick around and be a husband and a father. I didn’t realize that, in my case, waiting for the former might mean having to give up on the latter” (200). After more than two years of trying the “good old-fashioned way,” Suzan sought help from an acupuncturist, to no avail. When her husband plaintively asks, “What are we doing wrong?,” Suzan realizes that nothing is wrong and that they are fine. She concludes: “I said good-bye to my doctors. I gave up drinking forest tea. And now I stop trying to beat egg whites that, for whatever reason, aren’t meant to be meringues” (206). In this scene, Suzan conflates her relentless beating of egg whites and her unflagging efforts to make a baby; somehow seeing the endeavors for what they are—vain and unnecessary—allows her to drop both and move on with her life. She writes, “Now I have to accept that, for whatever reason, [these] [the child and lemon meringue pie] aren’t meant to be…Nathan and I share a slice of the tart that had hoped to be a pie, and I wouldn’t change a thing” (208).
Both Tita and Suzan achieve a certain reference for food but while Tita’s passionate affair with Pedro ends in a conflagration, Suzan, writing her own story—her own life—ends up with more love and appreciation for her life than ever before: “Now, every time I go to the market, every time I set a plate in front of my husband, I think of my family…Four generations of love are in my heart and in my hands, and I put my gratitude into the food I make” (228). Her love affair with both her family and her husband has been reignited and burns stronger than ever. Yet in an interesting way, Esquivel suggests that the very same holds true for Esperanza’s daughter, who cooks in reverence to the memory of her grandmother Tita; thus while 20 years separate these two books, very little actually separates the two women who live on in our minds today.
[Ben PS. What do you think? Responses to Elif? Other images and ideas of home in America you’d highlight? Last chance for the weekend post!]