Food Is More Than Food for Esquivel


I’ve been teaching Like Water for Chocolate in my Magical Realism course and suddenly have a new insight into the whiskey cake that I have been serving to my students since the early 1980s. Laura Esquivel makes it clear that food is never just food.

One of my mother’s prized recipes has been her whiskey cake, and at the end of every class I serve it to my students. I figure that, by now, over 3000 students have eaten it. My mother gave me the recipe on condition that I not share it, but I now have permission to give it out and am doing so left and right. Most of the hundred copies I made up for my “last lecture” were taken, and I include it at the end of today’s post.

The college filmed me making the cake so, if you want, you can see the video here.

In Like Water for Chocolate, food has magical properties. When Tita, under her mother’s tyrannical orders, gives up Pedro to her sister, she cries into the wedding cake batter, ruining the wedding everyone eating it begins to cry. When she cooks quails in the petals from roses that Pedro gives her, the meal so inflames her other sister that erotic consequences follow, beginning with a shower that Gertrudis takes to cool down:

…the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame. Terrified, she thought she would be burn to death, and she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.

By then the scent of roses given off by her body had traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle. …A pink cloud floated toward [the rebel commander], wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch.

And then:

Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away….The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies as they made love for the first time, at a gallop and with a great deal of difficulty.

On the other hand, when Tita is deprived of her beloved nephew, worms invade sausages that the farm has made. Later, ox-tail soup pulls Tita out of the deep depression into which she has fallen. And so on.

All literature uses figurative language, and in magical realism, the central symbols involve magic It’s as though realistic metaphors don’t give the authors the “oomph” they want so they turn to the supernatural. Food defines Tita, who is the family cook, and to capture her larger-than-life emotions Esquivel makes the food magical.

The other magical realist works I taught this past semester operate the same way. For instance:

–Toni Morrison sees African Americans haunted by their slave past, which wreaks havoc upon their relationships. Therefore, in Beloved the former slaves have their family destroyed by a literal ghost;

–Salman Rushdie believes that India was seized by magical thinking once it gained its independence from Britain. He captures its unrealistic hoping through magical children with special powers who never live up to their potential and who are neutered in the end;

–Gabriel Garcia Marquez feels that Columbia’s historical past has a mythical quality and so, in 100 Years of Solitude, he creates a magical town that is living out a destiny predicted by mystical gypsies;

–Haruki Murakami, seeing that Japan’s repression of its violent past is damaging the psychic lives of the current generation, has his protagonist go down a well and into a mysterious underground hotel, where he confronts a shadow version of Japan’s buried anger.

Esquivel’s novel got me to examine the symbolism of my whiskey cake. I bake it is partly to celebrate the works we have been reading, partly to thank my students for all they have taught me, partly to nourish their bodies as (I hope) I have nourished their minds and their souls.

Since most of my students are under drinking age, the cake has a transgressive dimension, as all great literature does,while its sweetness/tartness echoes the sweetness and light tension that (according to Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, and Jonathan Swift) also characterizes literature.

I can’t say that the cake has a magical dimension except insofar as it has assumed mythical dimensions in the mind of some alumni, the way that St. Mary’s itself has. I imagine my former students eating it as Proust eats his madeleine and being wafted back to what some describe as the happiest period of their lives:

[My mother] sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

For that reason, I am sharing it, even as I think of an experience with a song fragment that Rousseau describes in Confessions. Rousseau couldn’t remember the entire verse but deliberately didn’t track it down because he figured it was far sweeter as a partial memory. Likewise, Proust discovers a second bite doesn’t live up to the first.

So perhaps alums should make the cake, take a single bite, and then give away the rest. In remembrance of times past.

Recipe for Phoebe Bates’s Whiskey Cake

Dirty secret: I cheat by using a cake mix although you of course can make it from scratch if you so desire.


1 yellow cake mix
4 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup whiskey (almost any brand works; I go cheap)
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1 cup of coconut flakes

For the glaze:

1 cup of sugar
1 stick of butter
½ cup of whiskey

–Mix together the mix, the eggs, the oil and the whiskey
–Add the chopped walnuts and mix
–Add the coconut flakes and mix
–Pour into a greased Bundt pan
–Bake at 350 for around 45 minutes
–Melt together the butter, sugar and whiskey
–Spoon over the cake, either while it’s still in the pan or (my preference) after removing it
–Refrigerate (ideally for 2-3 days but it’s good anytime)

This entry was posted in Esquivel (Laura), Proust (Marcel), Rouseau (Jean Jacques) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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