“I spent the first years of my life beside the hearth in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, seeing how these wide women, upon entering those sacred places, became priestesses, great alchemists who dealt with water, air, fire, and earth—the four basic elements that comprise the entire universe. And the most surprising thing is that they did in in the most humble manner…as if they weren’t transforming the world with the purifying power of fire, as if they didn’t know that the foods they prepared and the rest of us ate remained in our bodies for many hours, chemically altering our organisms, nourishing our souls and our spirits and giving us an identity, a language, a legacy.”
So begins a series of essays and stories by Laura Esquivel. Like Water for Chocolate has been a longtime favorite, and this little book, Between Two Fires, sat on my shelf for a long time. One of the perks of moving is that you get to re-examine all your accumulated stuff—books you forgot to read, music you haven’t played in years—discovering treasures you already own is a pleasure.
As the plaster dries in my office, I’ve taken my writing life to the dining room table. This works well for the “How Do They Feast?” series I began a few years ago. The cooking experiments and the writing occur together.
After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel was approached by Vogue to do a regular column where a story featured a recipe. It worked for a while, but the magic of that formula began to wear thin. The stories within this anthology are delightful—a view into the author’s philosophy and experiences—the Mexican culture in which she was raised comes to the forefront, alive with folklore and family stories.
The book features several recipes, including a Oaxacan black mole and an intriguing apple soup. In the story, an apple soup is beloved—and made for a favorite uncle every time he visits. After learning about his dark double life after his death, the soup never tastes the same again—as though it’s been haunted by his ghost.
The recipe that inspired me the most was manchamanteles. Also known as “the stew that stains the tablecloth,” it’s a rich mix of pork, chicken, plantains, pineapple, sweet potato, and spices. Ancho chilis are the star of the show. Not being fond of bananas, I wondered if plantains would overwhelm the flavors for me, so I chose the greenest ones I could find. Being married into a Puerto Rican family has taught me a bit more appreciation for plantains, and when done well, I actually really like them.
This was not a small dish. It took the largest cast iron pot in the house to pull this one together, and it smelled amazing as it cooked. A search online brings up many versions of the recipe—some have just chicken, others pork, or both. Though one of my all-time favorite cooking magazines, Saveur, offered a recipe for manchamanteles, the one I went with for the more complex version from the Food Network. (Rather than a re-do with my own spin on the recipe, I’m simply linking to it. Go forth and live adventurously—give this stew a try!)
“Intimate Succulencies: A Philosophic Treatise on Cooking,” takes a historical perspective. Esquivel writes passionately about women’s roles, and an account of a woman forbidden from learning who takes her scientific experimenting into the kitchen is moving.
Of course, Like Water for Chocolate is mentioned several times. Esquivel explores how she developed the relationship between Tita and her mother in the final essay, “Mother Witch.” It’s always interesting to learn how an author creates motivations—what drives them emotionally, be it cultural traditions or personal ambitions—and weaves them into a story that you can fall into. Laura Esquivel paints rich character portraits, so much so that they seem like real accounts rather than fiction.
Her connection to culture of the kitchen is delightfully portrayed in Between Two Fires. The sensuality, the folklore, and the techniques developed by those who cook in those kitchens are wonderfully described.
I rarely look for “30-minute meals” and recipes with fewer than five ingredients for simplicity’s sake. As much as I love to watch cooking shows, the prospect of designing and making a meal in a short amount of time is a source of anxiety. Especially when watching something like Chopped—duck, rutabaga, fermented anchovies, and wintergreen Altoids—what?! I’d probably stand there crying. I like to spend time in the kitchen. It’s a meditative process, and I’m happy to spend hours making something for family and friends to enjoy. So it’s not a surprise that one of the quotes I related to most came from the first essay, “At the Heath”: “The time it took to prepare didn’t matter, because there is no such thing as wasted time in the kitchen—rather that is where we are able to recover lost time.”