Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Like Water

The bad news is that this is the last day in Judith Newton's stop here on Straight From Hel. The good news is that she's posting an excerpt from Like Water for Chocolate, as well as another recipe!

Like Water ( Davis, 2002)

          “How do you peel a walnut?” Hannah asked  as she looked, not too happily, at the mound of nuts on the kitchen table.  We’d spent three days in the kitchen preparing twelve dishes for a large buffet, and chiles en nogada, or chiles in walnut sauce, were the final stage of our cooking marathon.  That very evening some forty faculty and students from all over campus would be arriving for a celebration of the fact that our shared graduate program was entering its third year, and if any dish could instill a sense of  community it would be chiles en nogada.
            Making simple recipes like tacos de crema, macaroni with serrano chiles, and refried beans had been easy and pleasurable, but the chiles in walnut sauce were posing a challenge. I’d combined Frida Kahlo’s recipe with one I’d taken from the Internet, and the latter called on us to peel the walnuts before pulverizing them for the sauce.  
         “Mom,” said Hannah, rubbing at one of the walnuts, “this brown stuff isn’t coming off.” She brushed some long brown ringlets from her face and looked up at me with arching eyebrows and large blue eyes. She was seventeen now and, in terms of cooking, she’d arrived.
           “This is a window into the lives of generations of women,” I said, ineffectually rubbing another nut. “Can you imagine how much time they spent in kitchens?”
          “I love cooking with you like this,” Hannah had said when we’d first began.
          “I love it too,” I’d said. Our years of cooking together and of struggling through difficult recipes had created a strong sense of love and solidarity.
          In the end, we decided not to peel the walnuts, since Frida’s recipe didn’t call for it, but we did roast the two-dozen poblano chiles and then pulled off their skins. Then we chopped a picadillo out of shredded meat, fruits, nuts, and cinnamon, and, cradling the chiles in our hands,  began to stuff them with the sweet and savory mix. Although we were treating those chiles as if they’d just been born, they were developing some ugly splits. We decided not to flour them, coat them in egg mix, or fry them in hot oil as Frida’s recipe required.
          It’s too risky,” I said, entertaining grim visions of the chiles bursting at their sides and spilling their colorful innards into a smoky pool of oil. Did Frida fry her own chiles? I wondered. Then came the sauce—easy, sweet, and cool. Four cups of (unpeeled) walnuts pureed with cream cheese, Mexican crema, cinnamon, and a fragrant fourth-cup of sherry. Finally, seeds from six pomegranates and sprigs of parsley to go on top.  Red, white, and green—the colors of the Mexican flag.
          I had been thinking about Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate for the entire three days. I’d been imagining Hannah and me as Tita and Chenca, two of the novel’s characters who spend much of their lives in the kitchen. A takeoff on nineteenth-century Mexican romance, Like Water for Chocolate is about love and politics, the latter being represented by the Mexican Revolution and the ongoing struggle of Tita and her sister Gertrude against patriarchal culture.
          Each chapter is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish-—the grinding, the toasting, the chopping, the boiling, the frying, the cracking of eggs—is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes as central to the story as romance and revolution. Cooking, indeed, becomes an emblem of the domestic work that makes romance and revolution possible. It is the force that keeps women and men alive not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.  
           Cooking is like that, always there, and if it is as it should be, it not only nourishes our bodies but gives us the comfort of feeling loved, cared for, and secure. Eating what is cooked and served with good will evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.
          Like Tita and Chenca, Hannah and I were cooking in the service of politics and love. The shared  graduate program was meant to be revolutionary—cross racial, multicultural, and oriented toward political activism, not just inside the classroom, but outside as well. And I had done enough organizing by then to know how cooking for others, with generosity and lightness of heart, can develop and sustain ties of feeling that are, at bottom, what make political community possible.
In Like Water for Chocolate, food is given magical force.  Quail in rose petal sauce invites Tita and Pedro to enter each other’s bodies both spiritually and sensuously as they sit at the dining table. It prompts Gertrude to run away with a revolutionary, sitting behind him, naked on his horse. The chiles in walnut sauce provoke the guests at Tita and Pedro’s wedding to make passionate love. Magical realism like this suggests the power of emotion, of the unconscious, and of cooking as emotion work in the day-to-day activities of our lives.
           Like life, the novel is full of mothers—those who nourish and those who do not. The bad mother , Elena, controls Tita, insists that she serve her until she dies, and forbids her to marry Pedro, the man she loves. Cruel, repressing, she is the mother who denies. Even after death, she reappears, forbidding Tita to be happy. Like a force of nature, she returns again and again, suggesting the lasting influence of how we are mothered. But Tita finds good mothers to take Elena’s place: Chenca, the cook who tends to Tita in the kitchen, and Dr. John and his Indian mother, Morning Light, who feed Tita healing foods after Elena brutally entombs her daughter in the Dove Cot. Tita herself becomes a nurturing mother to Esperanza, her sister’s daughter.
           My relation to my own mother had remained difficult throughout the years, but as she grew older I had resigned myself to being the “good daughter,” calling and visiting from time to time, taking what good there was, ignoring the barbs.  And like Tita, I, too, had found alternative mothers—in Dick, in my women friends, in colleagues I had come to love. But most of all I had found mothering in being  motherly—to Hannah, to my program, to my political community. Cooking for, and eating with, others had all but eclipsed those days in my mother’s house: the shame, the lost identity, the spilled water on the floor. Like Chenca, I wanted to pass on, to Hannah and to others, the recipes, the utopian practices, and the ways of being that make history more than a tale of struggle; that make it also a love story, a story of caring for others.

Chiles en Nogada (Stuffed Chiles with Walnut Sauce)

(Adapted with permission of Marilyn Tausend from adaptation by from Cocina de la Familia: More Than 200 Authentic Recipes from Mexican-American Home Kitchens by Marilyn Tausend with Miguel Ravago. Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc: New York, 1999.)

Marilyn Tausend kindly informs me that the secret to peeling the walnuts is to use fresh walnuts, right from the tree if possible.


2 lb beef brisket or 1 lb beef and 1 lb pork butt
1 small white onion cut into quarters
2 cloves garlic
1 T sea salt


4 T. safflower or canola oil
1/3 c chopped white onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp cinnamon (cassia)
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp ground cloves
3 heaping T. raisins
2 T chopped walnuts or pecans
2 T. chopped acitrón* or candied pineapple
1 fresh pear, peeled and chopped
1 apple, peeled and chopped
3 large, ripe tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped or 1 28 oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
Kosher salt to taste


6 fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded with stem intact**

Walnut Sauce:

1 c fresh walnuts
6 oz cream cheese (not fat free) at room temperature
1 ½ c Mexican crema or 1 ¼ c sour cream thinned with milk
½ tsp sea salt
1 T. sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon (cassia) (optional)
¼ c dry sherry (optional) (But I loved the sherry!)


1 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro leaves
½ c pomegranate seeds
1.   Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the broth. Then remove meat and finely Cut meat into large chunks; remove excess fat. Place meat in large Dutch oven with onion, garlic and salt. 
2.  Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Skim off foam if it collects on the surface. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is just tender.

2.   3.  Shred it.

3.   4.  Warm the oil in a heavy skillet and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until pale gold.  Stir in shredded meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, pepper, cloves.  Stir in raisins, 2 T walnuts, and candied pineapple.  Add chopped pear and apple and mix well. Add tomatoes and salt to taste.  Continue cooking over medium high heat until most of the moisture has evaporated.  Stir often so that the mixture doesn’t stick.  Let cool, cover, and set aside.  The picadillo may be made 1 day ahead.

4.   5Slit the chiles down the side just long enough to remove seeds and veins, keeping the stem end intact. Drain chiles on absorbent paper until completely dry. Cover and set aside. Chiles may be made 1 day in advance

5.   6At least 3 hours in advance, place 1 c walnuts in small pan of boiling water.  Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain the nuts and, when cool, rub off as much of the dark skin as possible.  Chop into small pieces.

6.   7Place nuts, cream cheese, crema, and salt in a blender and purée thoroughly.  Stir in the sugar, cinnamon and sherry, if using, until thoroughly combined.  Chill for several hours.

8.  Preheat oven to 250 F.  When ready to serve reheat the meat filling and stuff the chiles until plump and just barely closed. Place chiles, covered, in warm oven.  After they are heated, place chiles on serving platter, cover with chilled walnut sauce and sprinkle with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Notes:  *Acitrón is crystallized biznaga cactus and comes in bars. May be found in the US in some heavily Mexican-populated areas. **Poblano chiles are large and green. Chiles can be roasted directly over a gas flame or over very hot charcoal or gas grill as close to the coals as possible. Use tongs to turn them. The idea is to char the skin of the chiles but barely cook the flesh.  After the chiles are roasted put them in a paper or plastic bag and let them sit for about 5 minutes before removing the skin. Use your hands to rub, pick, and/or peel the skin away and if necessary rinse the chiles quickly under water. It is fine if some of the charred bits of skin remain. Slice open one side of the chiles and cut and scrape out the membrane with its seeds. Now they are ready to stuff.  


  1. I love the way the book is organized around recipes and the underlying theme of the story. Best wishes for the release!

  2. It looks like a wonderful book!

  3. Sorry everyone about the formatting of the post. Totally my fault. It looked fine when I scheduled it!


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