The first time I read this line, I was walking down 300 South in Salt Lake City, UT, and I stopped dead in my tracks. It struck me as profound. The whole novel, Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, is about food and emotions, but this sentence stood out as a very simple way to explain something possibly very complicated. I’m not a writing-in-books guy, but if I’d had a highlighter while I was on that sidewalk, I would’ve highlighted the shit out of that.
The story is pretty easy. Tita is the youngest daughter in her family. According to tradition, she must remain single and virginal and take care of her aging mother while her sisters marry. Just in case, Mom arranges for the dude Tita loves to be married to Tita’s sister. Now this forbidden fruit brother-in-law is always around giving Tita all kinds of powerful feelings. It so happens that Tita does the cooking, plus it so happens that she lives in a book about magical realism. Tita’s wild mood swings spill into the food while she cooks, and then into the people who eat it. When she’s feeling lustful, they feel lustful. When she’s furious, they get furious. And when she’s despondent, well, that too. They swoon, they sweat, they laugh, they weep. Just from Tita’s home cooking.
Magical realism, folks! Ain’t it bananas??
Actually, is it though?
Everyone recognizes that artists imbue their work with their feelings. For millennia, poets, painters, dancers, and musicians have been driven to use their work to communicate their raw emotions. Those emotions are then evoked by the audience. We are easily moved to strut to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition or stare awestruck at Michelangelo’s Pieta. Of course, anyone who cares at all about food will agree that cooking is an art. Cooks infuse their dishes with emotion as much as any other artist. They can cook with the fervor of an erratic Pollack painting or a bombastic Sousa march. It doesn’t take a radical suspension of disbelief to allow that same emotional transference to extend to the art of cooking. Are our senses of smell and taste really that much less keen than our hearing and sight?
The novel even doubles as a cookbook. Each chapter starts with a recipe from the family kitchen, so if you want to try to send your family/friends/boss/pastor on an emotional rollercoaster, you can play along at home.
If you haven’t read the book, you should. It’s brilliant. If you haven’t seen the 1992 film adaptation, you should. It’s great. It’s about a lot of things, of course, but most blatantly the transferal of emotions from cook to dish, and from dish to diner. Clearly, food serves more of a purpose in our lives than just basic fuel. It’s laced with cultural, familial, and emotional meaning.
Only fools and sick men don’t give it the attention it deserves.