Citation
Transformational kitchen narratives in film

Material Information

Title:
Transformational kitchen narratives in film
Creator:
Leidich, Cheryl M
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
106 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Babette's gæstebud ( lcsh )
Fried green tomatoes (Motion picture) ( lcsh )
Como agua para chocolate (Motion picture) ( lcsh )
Feminism and motion pictures ( lcsh )
Women's rights ( lcsh )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 102-106).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Cheryl M. Leidich.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
40512546 ( OCLC )
ocm40512546
Classification:
LD1190.L58 1998m .L45 ( lcc )

Full Text
TRANSFORMATIONAL KITCHEN NARRATIVES IN FILM
by
Cheryl M. Leidich
B.A., Boston University, 1965
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
1998


1998 by Cheryl M. Leidich
All rights reserved.


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Cheryl M. Leidich
has been approved
by
Susan E. Linville
Kathleen M. Bollard
V Avis
Date


Leidich, Cheryl M. (M.A., Humanities)
Transformational Kitchen Narratives in Film
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Susan E. Linville
ABSTRACT
This thesis discovers and defines a new category of food film, the
transformational kitchen narrative. Films of this kind offer feminist visions and
contain five primary criteria subversive to the status quo. First, they consistently
defeat patriarchal values that disenfranchise women. Second, they encourage female
identity formation in ways that are creative, artistic, and relational. Third, they
redefine the kitchen as a place of liberation and self-expression where community is
celebrated and from which servitude is banished. Fourth, they value women and their
work equally with men and their work without forcing women to abandon
traditionally feminine qualities conducive to the maintenance of life-affirming
relationships between people. Fifth, they promote a more embracing definition of
family by placing emphasis on partnership and the validation of individual difference.
This paper investigates three films which fulfill these feminist criteria: Babettes
Feast (1987), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Like Water for Chocolate (1994).
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication.
Signed
Susan E. Linville
IV


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION......................................... 1
Historical Contexts for Food in Film............. 4
Food as Sexual Metaphor..................... 4
Linking Food with Suicide................... 6
Food, Cannibalism and Film.................. 7
Static Constructions of Women in Other Food Films... 9
Food and Sexual Politics............................. 11
The Kitchen as Engendered Space.................. 11
2. TRANSFORMATIONAL KITCHEN NARRATIVES..................... 16
A Working Definition................................. 16
Realizing the Radical Potential in Domestic Melodrama..18
Formal Ideology in Transformational Kitchen Narratives. 20
Psychic Factors Influencing Transformational Kitchen
Narratives........................................... 22
Social Determinants in Transformational Kitchen Narratives... 25
3. A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF BABETTES FEAST.................. 29
A Subtle Subversion of Patriarchy.................... 29
Female Identity Formation............................ 34
The Kitchen as Reclaimed Space....................... 37


Constructing an Empowered Feminine Position............39
A More Embracing Definition of Family.................. 40
4. FRIED GREEN TOMATOES: FEMININE PURPOSE.................... 45
Taking on the Symbolic Order........................... 46
Forging Female Identity Within Southern Culture........ 49
Elevating the Kitchen to a Place of Central Importance. 53
A Case for Gender Equality.............................. 56
A Viable, Alternative Family Structure.................. 60
5. PASSION AND PERSISTENCE IN LIKE WATER FOR
CHOCOLATE.................................................. 65
Deconstructing Matriarchy............................... 66
The Source: Mama Elena............................67
Rosaura and Matrilineal Matricide................ 71
Gertrudis: a Jefa for All Seasons................ 73
The Co-Creative Arts of Identity Formation and Recipe
Making.................................................. 75
The Kitchen as Alchemists Laboratory................... 80
Evening Up Traditionally Engendered Odds................ 84
Womens Sexuality Without Marriage or Procreation.. 84
Following a Female Format........................ 88
A Revised Definition of Family.......................... 89
VI


6. EPILOGUE
92
NOTES................................................ 96
BILBIOGRAPHY......................................... 102
vii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Food is the most durably rooted of all metaphors in lived experience:
the multiple meanings of hunger remind us of the link between body,
mind and soul realms that, for women, have often been the site of
cruel opposition rather than of creative balance.1
Tamar Heller
Food is as essential to life as its preparation and service are important to the
shape of individual cultures. Cooking fires have historically been the locus of
warmth, nourishment, security, and a sense of belonging; they are linked to oral
traditions that connect humans to each other and to their myths of origin and destiny.
Religions have relied upon food imagery and food sacrifices to insure spiritual
beneficence in life and death. Whether inside or outside, the importance of the
domestic fireside is reflected in the well-known adage that the hearth remains the
heart of the home. However, alongside these positive images connected with food
and hearth, there exists a parallel narrative dealing with women's oppression. In this
scenario, feminists have taken issue with women's economic, sexual, and
psychological exploitation.
For centuries the kitchen has represented a private place where women were
cloistered and contained by the prevalent patriarchal social structure. As Susan Bordo
points out in Unbearable Weight: Feminism. Western Culture, and the Body, the
1


"ideal of domesticity" (159) operates as an ideological deceit based on "the notion that
women are most gratified by feeding and nourishing others, not themselves" (118).
When this cultural construction is combined with the economic benefit of unpaid
female labor, the dye is cast, insuring that under patriarchy, women's ideal place
remains in the home. However, due to feminism's stress on equality of opportunity
and valuation for women and their work, formerly privatized, domestic space is going
public with a new emphasis on women's voiced experiences in the home and in the
world. There is a marked movement among many of today's women to reclaim their
right and talent for speaking about their lived experience in their own unique ways
and to face publicly the myriad thorny issues involving food: eating disorders
connected to negative body image, career conflicts with domestic roles, feelings of
anger versus nostalgia complicating relationships between mothers and daughters.
Significantly, these feminine voices are often situated in the kitchen, a familiar sphere
of influence, power or imprisonment. From this traditionally mute domestic region,
diverse women's voices are being aired in the reconstruction of women's history from
various feminine points-of-view. Their objective appears to involve a necessary and
overdue effort to resolve the "tension between needing to act as women and needing
an identity not over-determined by gender" (Bordo 37).
The purpose of this study is to examine the ways in which food is variously
represented in film to reflect the different positioning of women and men in
2


patriarchal culture where, as Deane Curtin notes, "food production and preparation
y
[have traditionally been] women's work and/or the work of slaves or lower classes,"
except in cases where public/private kitchens have featured highly paid and well-
reputed male chefs. As a result of such engendered treatment, women's lives have
been privatized and trivialized with regard to their work. Cultural enforcement of
women's enclosure in the kitchen allows patriarchy to construct a convenient
understanding and social acceptance of women's assumed natural altruism as
juxtaposed against male aggression, egoism, and domination of public spaces.
Cinema reflects and reveals and even influences prevailing social values,
making it possible to trace entrenched and/or changing social attitudes toward
domestic space. Within the past decade, food films have increased in number and
popularity. Perhaps their recent proliferation is an outgrowth of modem
preoccupation with pleasure and/or health. Perhaps the sheer quantity of cookbooks
cum diaries/testimonials has influenced cinema's attention to the topic of food.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that something dynamic and unprecedented is
happening within food films that appears to be connected to contemporary feminist
social and political concerns.
The following brief genealogy of food films traces the evolution of
engendered attitudes toward food preparation and service over the past four decades
to the recent emergence of what I define as transformational kitchen narratives. To
3


my knowledge, no critical work has yet been written on this category of food film, a
category which presents an enlightened feminist perspective on women's work in the
kitchen, uses the motif of food as a metaphor for nourishing body and soul, and offers
insights about the prescriptive healing of relationships. This new class of food film
emphasizes rebuilding, nourishing and sustaining health in self as well as others and
reflects recent feminist scholarship. Transformational kitchen narratives feature what
Heller terms "the hitherto untold stories of women revealed in their relationships to
cooking and eating."3 Significantly, these feminist narratives involve Jwmembering
cultural presuppositions in the process of remembering /zerstory.
Historical Contexts for Food in Film
Prior to the emergence of transformational kitchen narratives in film, food
films reflected the prevailing patriarchal hegemony by portraying an engendered
understanding of women as objects of desire rather than subjects of discourse. The
films that I discuss in the following paragraphs represent examples of what
transformation kitchen narratives actively seek to subvert.
Food as Sexual Metaphor
Tom Jones (1963) and Eating Raoul (1982) both exemplify the cinematic use
of food as sexual commentary that objectifies women. In each of these films, women
4


are construed by men as the means of appetite satiation. Tania Modleski demystifies
the traditional connection between women and food as perceived by/within patriarchy
when she draws an equation between eating and copulating in her book, The Women
Who Knew Too Much. Although her analysis concerns Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.
her point is relevant here. In essence, Modleski addresses the problem of a
symbolically structured social order in which the masculine is associated with
devouring and the feminine with being devoured.4 The tavern scene from Tom Jones
is a case in point. In close-ups that alternately frame the male and female face stuffed
with food and dripping gravy, an implied visual connection is made between sexual
foreplay and the joyous tearing of cooked meat off bones to the sensual
accompaniment of other tongue gymnastics. When passion is sufficiently heightened
and hunger somewhat glutted, a mad dash upstairs to satisfy sexual desire quickly
follows. Such a sequence presents viewers with an encoded and engendered message:
in the words of Susan Bordo, "When women are positively depicted as sensuously
voracious about food... their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for
their sexual appetite" (110). This sequence is further complicated by the fact that
Tom is bedding a woman whom the narrative has revealed to be his alleged mother.
It is not difficult to read between the lines in this food spoof: the young male seducer
remains likable and unscathed in his sexual abandon because he is compromised by a
more experienced, corrupting woman whose voracity for sex matches his own.
5


Tom's irresponsible sexual indulgence is excused on the basis of the film's depiction
of his female partner as socially disreputable, sexually uncouth, and maternally
Oedipal: a woman deserving comic and sexual exploitation. While boys will be
boys, women are threats who must be consumed by cinematic imagery and male
appetite. Likewise, Eating Raoul opens with a sequence in which a male patient's
unwillingness to eat liver puree during hospital feeding time is verbally played off
against his suggestion that he will cut a deal with his physically well-endowed nurse:
he will open his mouth if she will open her legs. Under the camouflage of comic
satire, a patriarchal agenda positions women where they belong in a male-centered
culture: associated with the consumption of food (in the kitchen) and the
consummation of sexual desire (between the sheets).
Linking Food with Suicide
La Grande Bouffe (1973) explores the mutual decision of successful,
prestigious male friends to eat themselves to death during the course of an hedonistic
weekend. Their binge eating is accompanied by a parallel over-indulgence in sex
with prostitutes who have been hired to satisfy every masculine fantasy and appetite.
What remains most bleak about this film is the narcissistic and self-destructive
behavior of men who possess too much of everything and therefore are unable to
respect anything, even their own lives. Gluttony takes on new meaning as it comes to
6


include not only food but sexual perversion and depravity as well. Cross-cuts
between flamboyant food preparation, eating and drinking to excess, and sexual auto-
stimulation with a dismembered car manifold all contribute to La Grande Bouffe's
view of a disposable world where women prostitutes are exploited/devoured by male
appetites before those same masculine appetites self-destruct.
Food, Cannibalism and Film
Eating Raoul and The Cook, the Thief. His Wife and Her Lover (1990) go a
step further in illustrating misogynist tendencies within patriarchy. These films deal
with the interaction of violence and sex encased within misleading contexts: the
home and an elegant restaurant. Again, women who are used and abused by
misogynist males tend to define themselves primarily as sexual objects. This leads
them to flaunt their physical attributes in order to obtain positions of power, yet they
reap the consequences in male punishment for their presumption. Both films
demonstrate a postmodern disenchantment with familiar and familial contexts. Eating
Raoul parodies the sensibilities of food and wine gourmands by structuring Paul and
Mary's domestic kitchen as a homicidal experiment for disposing of inconvenient
acquaintances or lovers. The Cook, the Thief. His Wife and Her Lover inverts upper
class rituals of gourmet dining, revealing them as facades for the basest sorts of
crimes. Behind the scenes of posh grandeur in a five-star dining room, sodomy, rape,
7


battery, and murder compete with moments of stolen love enacted in food-filled
freezers. Each film features cannibalism as the appropriate epitaph in a dog-eat-dog
world. The view reflected here is one of depressing rottenness at the center of
seemingly traditional experiences, an image of death and destruction whereby
consumers are themselves consumed and women are linked with multiple levels of
physical corruption.
While each film's social critique of materialistic society and its pretensions
may be valid, what remains highly problematic is the way in which women are linked
with food in a complex no-win situation. As Tania Modleski has observed, in other
Hollywood films, there is an insidious "connection between men's hostility to women
(the need to win or conquer or acquire her) and fear of the female Other" (106). This
engendered catch-22 works itself out in food films like Eating Raoul and The Cook.
The Thief. His Wife and Her Lover in a symbolic form whereby women are depicted
"as both edible commodity and inedible pollutant" (Modleski 105). Consistent with
the findings of Claude Levi-Strauss on the topic of culinary anthropology, a triangle
relationship between the raw, the cooked, and the rotten exists in various cultures that
symbolically parallels the culture's sociological structure.5 In this equation, women
are associated with food in its natural state (either raw or rotten) while men are
identified with food in its cooked (or cultured) state. As Levi-Strauss notes, "Stench
and decay... signify nature, as opposed to culture ... and woman is everywhere
8


synonymous with nature."6 Such signification underscores patriarchy's double
preoccupation with protecting masculinity and culture from the corrosive influence of
women and the paternal necessity of protecting women from themselves. Thus, chaos
is held at bay by the symbolic order, or so patriarchy believes, and the kitchen remains
an entrenched, gender-inscribed space.
Static Constructions of Women in Other Food Films
Food films of the mid-1990's seem to turn away from the from the crass,
disheartening parodies that preceded them. There is a more conciliatory stance in
regard to women's issues and the inclusion of women's experience. Ang Lee's films
demonstrate this sociological movement by dealing with healing of relationships
through a retrieval of honesty in family interaction. The Wedding Banquet (1993)
and Eat, Drink. Man. Woman (1995) both explore creative self-expression through
the medium of food. However, women in these films never escape their traditional
construction as extensions of the male ego. Feminine needs, wants and feelings are
still secondary to masculine privilege which is foregrounded throughout the
narratives. Likewise, Big Night ('19971 and A Chef in Love (1997) maintain
masculine creative prerogative at female expense by depicting women as beautiful
satellites revolving around the male center. In these two latter films, women are no
9


more than window dressing designed to admire and complement the sumptuous
culinary skills of their superior male counterparts.
As entertaining as these food films may be, they lack authentic representations
of what women think, how they speak in their own voices, and what their creative
contribution might be to the popular genre of food film. It may be true that women in
such food films are not altogether silent and sometimes prepare a great meal, but they
remain flat and one-dimensional characterizations due to their cultural construction
from a masculine point-of-view. Such static portraitures of women fulfill the
cinematic requirement for eye candy, but fail to satisfy the feminist appetite for
dynamic narrative realism in its contradictory complexity.
Cinema has traditionally been dominated and/or appropriated by patriarchy so
that the mirror it holds up to a viewing audience tends to distort rather than reflect the
truth of womens experiences. By its very nature screened truth remains partial and
incomplete, especially when it omits authentic feminine points-of-view. However,
according to film theorist Laura Mulvey, film has the potential to correct the
blindness and skewed vision that has typified patriarchy and oppressed women.7 My
objective in this paper is to search out and analyze those films that do, in fact,
contribute to a more authentic, egalitarian, and utopian treatment of women and their
creative work in the kitchen. In their contents, these transformational kitchen
narratives introduce elements of visual and narrative authenticity with regard to
10


women's lived experience, and they celebrate gender difference in the unique
vernacular of the feminine voice.
Food and Sexual Politics
The Kitchen as Engendered Space
Food is inextricably linked to the kitchen, traditionally a crucial site of
womens work and the primary locus of feminine confinement to private, domestic
space legislated by patriarchal decree. Within its confines women have been
relatively free to experiment, socialize, create, and contribute to the nourishment and
pleasure of their families, while simultaneously they have been denied access to larger
public spheres of influence. As Gerda Lemer points out in The Creation of Patriarchy
and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, under the political status quo of the last
twenty-five hundred years in Western culture, women have exchanged submission to
the dominant hegemony for protection. Within patriarchy males conceive of
themselves as the norm and the female as deviant. While men are seen as whole and
powerful, women are viewed as unfinished, physically mutilated and emotionally
dependent. Thus, womens confinement to the domestic sphere has been construed as
necessary for their own welfare.
Feminism in Western culture has sought to address these critical social,
economic and psychological inequities complicit in a system that uses women's
11


domestic confinement as a means of enabling men to define women and their work as
inferior and to silence women's voices in the one-sided construction of history.
Jonathan Culler states, "what women want is to stop serving as scapegoats (their own
... as well as men's and children's)."8 In order to change this imbalance, Lemer
believes women must leam to define themselves as central, not as "Other." This
suggestion that requires women to come to the forefront and center is highly
subversive and threatening to masculinity. What is intriguing about transformational
kitchen narratives is their inference that some of the finest work in the world has been
done in the kitchen, work that could never have been accomplished in the boardroom.
Further, consistent with Carol Gilligan's sociological research on masculine
deprivation of nurturing relationships too early in life,9 transformational kitchen
narratives offer a profoundly humanistic understanding of masculinity as
impoverished due to not enough kitchen time. This is a radical concept as it hinges
on Shoshona Felmans idea that "Femininity [is] uncanny in that it is not the opposite
of masculinity, but that which subverts the very opposition of masculinity and
femininity."10
In her book, The Chalice and the Blade. Riane Eisler adds another layer to an
understanding of engendered spaces. Here Eisler states that women have been
confined to enclosed spaces (the kitchen, the home) where they can be supervised and
controlled to ensure the economic benefits of their reproductive capacity and work.
12


The patriarchal social model in power, which Eisler calls the dominator model, has
relegated women to second-class citizenship. Her answer to power-driven, self-
destructive tendencies within patriarchy is to abolish the oppressive system and
replace it with what she calls the affiliator or gylanic social model in which a more
egalitarian partnership between the genders is stressed. According to Eisler, this is
not a new social construct but an ancient way of knowing and being in hunter/gatherer
societies that has gone underground with the political enforcement of patriarchy.
Since conflict is a historical hallmark of the interaction between masculine and
feminine genders, Eisler recommends that contemporary women make that conflict
productive. In terms of transformational kitchen narratives, this means reclaiming the
kitchen from the social margins and reinvesting private domestic space with value
commensurate with that which public spaces enjoy. Further, this also means
redefining women and their domestic work as intrinsically worthy, while at the same
time freeing women from deprecating associations with physical/sexual corruption.
In a marked departure from patriarchal tradition, transformational kitchen narratives
allow women ownership of their own voices; they insist on the legitimacy of feminine
creativity for women writers, chefs, healers; they encourage alterity in relationships
that is inclusive of difference; and they refuse to play by androcratic (male-
dominated) rules that insist upon rigid, circumscribed social spaces where "men act
while women appear [and/or] men eat while women prepare" (Bordo 117-8).
13


In Unbearable Weight: Feminism. Western Culture and the Body. Bordo
unravels the gendered dualisms that afflict contemporary culture, particularly with
regard to the female body and its relationship to political struggles within patriarchal
society. Bordo reveals mind/body dichotomies that code "the capacity for self-
management as decidedly male [while] all those bodily spontaneities hunger,
sexuality, the emotions are [associated with] the female" (205). Such a binary
system relies upon a number of constructed assumptions. The first is that women
possess so-called natural qualities, such as mothering, nurturing, and meeting the
needs of others at the expense of their own, which men lack. A second questionable
premise is that an enforced separation of private/feminine space from
public/masculine space is required for women's own good. The last erroneous
supposition sees women's roles as fetal incubators and/or objects of male desire and
supervision as a natural outgrowth of women's failure to achieve subject status. By
means of this last myth, women are blamed for their own oppression because they
have not succeeded in investing themselves with personal value, integrity, and
decision-making capacities in the eyes of the symbolic order. Bordo believes that
"deconstruction of the symbolic order can be accomplished by bringing margins to the
center" (41). It is my opinion that transformational kitchen narratives in film are well
positioned to accomplish this task by encouraging feminine alliances between
spectator and spectacle in public settings such as movie theaters where women's
14


unique and experiential ways of knowing, speaking and being can be brought into the
limelight from which they have been systematically excluded. This is the overt
agenda behind transformational kitchen narratives in film.
From a position of limited domestic power in an enclosed space, women
authors have expressed themselves in novels that became films with the power to
engage audience imagination and emotion. This politically subversive category of
food films features the kitchen as reclaimed space devoted to creative expression,
physical and emotional nourishment, identity affirmation, and healed relationships.
Consistently, the themes and motifs of this class of cinema explore a necessary
reinvestment of value in domestic space and autonomy for those who choose to work
there. Women's work becomes a subject of pride and self-expression intrinsic to
feminine physical, emotional, psychic, and relational well-being. Here the emphasis
is upon possibilities for change rather than maintaining the status quo.
15


CHAPTER 2
TRANSFORMATION KITCHEN NARRATIVES
A Working Definition
While other food films may stimulate sensory response, satisfy a range of
audience appetites, or offer various forms of social criticism, they stop short of the
lengths to which transformational kitchen narratives intentionally go to embody social
transformation. This sub-set of radical food films actively seeks to bring about a
change of heart, a new social order through the development of feminist
consciousness. Transformational kitchen narratives are distinguishable from other
food films because they contain five primary criteria subversive to the status quo.
First, they consistently defeat patriarchal values that marginalize or disenfranchise
women. Second, they encourage female identity formation in ways that are creative,
artistic, and relational. Third, they redefine the kitchen as a place of liberation and
self-expression where community is celebrated and from which servitude is banished.
Fourth, they value women and their work equally with men and their work without
forcing women to abandon feminine qualities conducive to the maintenance of life-
affirming relationships between people. Fifth, they promote a more embracing
16


definition of family where emphasis is placed on partnership and validation of
individual difference.
Three films best exemplify the criteria by which I am defining transformation
kitchen narratives: Babette's Feast (1987), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Like
Water for Chocolate (1994). All three films were adapted from novels by women
authors. In two instances, the novelists also wrote the screenplays for the films which
were subsequently directed by men. Such collaborative effort is significant because it
demonstrates that when men and women work together as equal partners, the whole
has the potential to become greater than the sum of the parts. In her book, When
Women Call the Shots, Linda Seger reflects on the fact that
The collaborative set not only works differently, it can be defined by different
metaphors ... "A set is like a kitchen," says Lee Grant, director of award-
winning movies ... "If my production company had a name, we'd call it
Kitchen Table Productions because I don't believe anybody does any good work
unless they're totally relaxed. Comfortable. The kitchen is the most
comfortable room in the house, where you can show up in your pajamas and
just hang out" (70).
This quotation seems relevant to the subject at hand because it is spoken in a woman's
authentic voice that recognizes the potential in male-female alliances which embody
Riane Eislers gylanic social model where gender cooperation and partnership are
enacted around the kitchen table.
Before discussing how each of these films meets the criteria for
transformational kitchen narratives, I want to situate this emerging genre of food film
17


in the larger context of melodrama, not as melodrama is popularly known for an
emphasis on sensational action and improbable events, but as it contains the potential
for radical social commentary.
Realizing the Radical Potential in Domestic Melodrama
Transformational kitchen narratives draw upon numerous melodramatic
conventions before expanding and enlarging them to develop melodrama's radical
potential. Traditional use of musical background to augment emotional effect in
theatrical and filmic melodrama is well suited to this category of food film because
music heightens cinemas sensual elements, its use of visuals and sound to show
touch and to imply both taste and smell. In The Melodramatic Imagination. Peter
Brooks analyzes various other attributes of literary melodrama which account for its
wide appeal. Those qualities he specifically cites, which also typify transformational
kitchen narratives, include the fact that good and evil are highly personalized (16); the
form is basically rhetorical allowing characters to verbalize their moral judgments
(36); physical gesture becomes a type of universal language of presence witnessing to
the dramatic power of silence (56-80); and experiences of "confrontation ...
purgation ... purification ... and recognition" elicit intense emotional responses
from readers/viewers (205). Brooks concludes that "Fictions count; they act on life,
they change it" (150). This is the basic power contained within the melodramatic
18


form to which transformational kitchen narratives in film lay claim and which they
manipulate for feminist ends.
Because melodrama is a form of sentimental fiction, it is "mistakenly thought to
have a trivial or simplistic relation to social context,"11 according to Susan Gillman.
On the contrary, various melodramatic forms favor problematic issues, such as
conflicts in families or between genders, races, generations, cultures and classes, and
these frequently function as serious social critique. Two specific forms of melodrama
are found in transformational kitchen narratives: domestic and maternal melodrama.
These narratives, which are never tidy nor particularly discreet from each other, are
subsumed under the category of women's film because they feature women heroines
dealing with real life issues under patriarchy. Both melodrama and the woman's film,
as Christine Gledhill observes, share a "preoccupation with the home and personal
relationships." Consistent with the feminist struggle to maintain a balance between
what Lauren Berlant terms "individual specificity versus generic gender identity,"13
transformational kitchen narratives also seek a universal feminine voice that links
women's experiences across different continents, cultures, and historical periods
without the loss of their individuality. Babette's Feast takes place on the Jutland
Peninsula in the mid-eighteen hundreds, yet its message about the power of female
creativity to heal and reconcile communities is relevant worldwide today. Like
Water for Chocolate concerns events on the Mexican-American border along the Rio
19


Grande at the turn of the twentieth century, yet its message about feminine passion
and persistence spans both years and disparate cultures to speak directly to
contemporary women of the world. Fried Green Tomatoes also presents a timeless
illustration of the power in female alliances to counteract injustice and to protect the
downtrodden in society. This combination of universality and specificity can be
analyzed further by means of formal, social, and psychic factors which, when taken
together, demonstrate transformational kitchen narratives' use of the radical potential
in melodrama to foment change.
Formal Ideology in Transformational Kitchen Narratives
Specific conventions of domestic/matemal melodrama which transformational
kitchen narratives employ in a subversive agenda contain three ideological
components. First, Chistine Gledhills exploration of the literary sense in which
sophisticated melodrama can "confront falsity, self-deception, and consoling lies"14 is
also applicable to my cinematic study. In each of the three films under investigation,
there is a progressive exposure of falsehood as important questions are raised about
the trustworthiness of the symbolic order to structure and maintain justice, and
personal or social well-being. An emotional confrontation of the audience with the
establishment is inevitable as the dynamic between oppressed and oppressor is fleshed
out in plain view.
20


A second formal aspect of transformational kitchen narratives is their
ideological function to investigate and expose important socio-political
contradictions. Each film enacts an oppositional dynamic between the prevailing
hegemony and those who are marginalized within the system. Consistent with more
elevated forms of melodrama, these radical food films depict profoundly moral
dramas that resist simplistic, traditional solutions. Transformational kitchen
narratives take the complexities of life seriously and thus are unwilling to minimize
dilemmas facing human agents of change or the obstacles that stand in their way. At
stake is the task of persevering against entrenched forms of discrimination which
actively rob everyday lives of significance and empowerment.
A third formal determinant of transformational kitchen narratives concerns their
preference for realism. A similar preoccupation with realism exists in "the basic
conventions of melodrama: real events, seen either objectively or as the summation
of various individual points-of-view,"15 as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith points out in
another context. In the case of the films I am currently discussing, what remains both
realistic and dramatically powerful is the ability of these radical food films to
convincingly demonstrate the paradox that melodrama, like life, cannot solve its own
problems. Consistent with Nowell-Smiths observations about other sophisticated
melodrama, I find that transformational kitchen narratives share this recognition of
shameless contradictoriness"16 in their refusal to settle for happy endings
21


uncomplicated by real loss and profound conflicts of interests. For example, even
when Like Water for Chocolate uses the literary/cinematic device known as magical
realism, this technique that normally blurs the fine line between myth and reality is
circumscribed within the realm of real social issues: matrophobia, racial and ethnic
discrimination, emotional and psychological abuse. This insistence on raising issues
without necessarily resolving them is consistent with real life experiences, builds
narrative credibility, and encourages audience identification.
Thus, the critical, contradictory, and realistic formal components of
transformational kitchen narratives work to construct an inner layer of meaning that
calls upon our collective experience of life. For this purpose, melodramatic
conventions are employed and enlarged, thereby demonstrating the protean quality of
this highly adaptable literary and cinematic form. By means of a socially responsible
melodramatic format, transformational kitchen narratives explore possibilities for
personal and social change, however imperfect, by countermanding established forms
of power with equally powerful feelings of sympathy.
Psychic Factors Influencing Transformational Kitchen Narratives
There is a recognizable borrowing from melodramatic conventions in
transformational kitchen narratives' emphasis on the internal world of feelings.
22


According to Thomas Elsaesser, the popularity of family melodrama in the United
States during the post-war era was directly connected to the rise of Freudian
psychoanalysis.17 In my view, Elsaessers analysis of melodrama's thematic emphasis
on "deep psychological phenomena... discontinuities ... fissures ... ruptures in the
fabric of experience"18 lends itself to visual representation in cinema by mise-en-
scene elements. In this psychic equation, internal realms become externalized in
visuals that take on added levels of meaning. Titas recipe for Quails in Rose Sauce in
Like Water for Chocolate functions as an edible love letter to Pedro and possesses
power to satisfy lovers or nauseate the loveless. Evelyn Couch's ever-ready snacks in
Fried Green Tomatoes are a material substitute for the emotional food she craves. In
Babette's Feast Cailles en Sarcophages symbolize the creative power of a culinary
artist to bring forth new life from dead, entombed ingredients. Mise-en-scene
elements constitute powerful melodramatic imagery that symbolically explicate the
narrative. In a similar fashion, suppressed psychic states have a way of finding their
way to the surface indirectly through language.
Psychoanalysis is known as the talking cure because the nature of conflict and
the dynamics of repression are brought to the surface from the realm of the
unconscious through dialogue with a therapist. In many ways, cinema is a vicarious
talking cure whereby spectator identification with screened spectacle publicly mimics
the private process of psychoanalysis and reveals the close affinity between
23


psychoanalysis and melodrama. However, as Kaja Silverman observes in The
Acoustic Mirror, the problem with talking cure films is that they de-privilege the
female psyche by denying women any possibility of self-knowledge without the
intervening agency of doctor or analyst" (65). Transformational kitchen narratives
move past this psychological impasse by proposing a more just vision of women than
Freudian theory validates. In Like Water for Chocolate. Dr. John Brown may have
begun Tita's healing process, but she leaves him behind as she finds her own way
toward emotional wholeness and fulfillment. In both Fried Green Tomatoes and
Babette's Feast, feminine self-knowledge is never contingent upon male agency. This
new psychic direction enlarges both psychoanalytic and melodramatic conventions by
recognizing that psychology was disconnected from reality19 as a patriarchal
construction of feminine consciousness. This is not to say that all psychoanalytical
theory is incorrect, but that Freudian theory in particular is incomplete, inadequate,
and often prejudicial toward women. Feminist scholar Carol Gilligan's research
proposes "that [women] know in relationship that [they] cannot know apart from
relationship."20 Basically, this means that the psychic dimension which
transformational kitchen narratives explore in a melodramatic format recognizes that
when women "constantly revisit the scenes of their youth, repetition and return are
[not simply] manifestations of another relationship to time and space, desire and
memory," as Tania Modleski believes. In the context of my study, such revisitations
24


are in fact manifestations of a feminine healing process that requires recognition,
confrontation, and assimilation of a fundamental dilemma. According to Gilligan, the
problem for women concerns "How we keep our relationships with the power
structures of the world and also stay in relationship with one another and
ourselves?"22 This question leads to a consideration of the social factors intrinsic to
transformational kitchen narratives.
Social Determinants in Transformational Kitchen Narratives
Expanding a consistent melodramatic preoccupation with gender and
generational conflict, transformational kitchen narratives act in a radical fashion to
establish a socio-political vision, unmask inequities in the symbolic order, and thwart
discriminatory practices. These radical food films insist on depicting women as
responsible, autonomous equals of men rather than as stereotypical female victims.
As Linda Williams notes, "women can and do resist" whatever separates and
disadvantages them with regard to men, themselves, or each other.
In regard to men, transformational kitchen narratives share what Modleski
describes as "one of the appeals of... [the woman's film, which] is precisely its
tendency to feminize the man, to complicate and destabilize his identity."24 This is
especially evident in Like Water for Chocolate where Dr. John Brown functions as a
male double for one of Tita's female mentors, Nacha, and acts as the embodied voice
25


of his maternal grandmother by verbalizing her healing wisdom and insights. A
similar male character appears in Fried Green Tomatoes in the person of Big George
whose intimidating size belies the gentle, protective spirit his masculine bulk
contains. In Babette's Feast, evidence of the feminized male is much more subtle,
appearing primarily as the two appreciative and supportive male workers who assist
Babette in the kitchen and quietly, behind the scenes, enjoy her feast. In each of these
films, the important issue is simply that, to borrow Modleskis words, "the man with
feminine attributes frequently functions as a figure upon whom feminine desires for
freedom from patriarchal authority may be projected."25
With regard to social relationships between women, transformational kitchen
narratives foreground female alliances where the dominant structure of relationship
revolves around a supportive community of women rather than the traditional
patriarchal family. Such female solidarity is critical to issues of justice, truth, and
healing, and provides a basis for the films examination of the frailties built into
traditional family relationships. Additionally, in these radical food films, women's
sexuality is allowed more variable and self-determining expression. Greater tolerance
of difference contributes to an acceptance of motherhood conceived of in emotional
rather than biological terms in Babette's Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, while
inferences of lesbianism enrich and complicate Fried Green Tomatoes.
26


In its basic form, domestic melodrama crosses classes and cultures. The issues
of social justice which elevated melodrama raises are universal to the human
condition. Transformational kitchen narratives both recognize and resist this highly
problematic generalization whereby, according to Harryette Mullen, "class, race,
ethnicity, domesticity, sexual practice ... dissolve in the simulacrum of generic
gendered experience."26 There is real danger in collapsing critical differences
between groups of women of various economic, educational, and cultural
backgrounds which can result in what Berlant terms a misleading "sentimental
ideology [that] is the public dreamwork of the bourgeois woman." When womens
individuality is overshadowed by their generic definition, feminism loses a crucial
foothold in the argument about personhood. Transformational kitchen narratives
actively contrive to avoid this stumbling block. Fried Green Tomatoes explores the
unique ways in which different women achieve heroic status: Sipsy as a black
rescuer/ murderer/ heroine; Evelyn as an overweight, middle-class heroine; Idgie as a
masculinized, southern heroine; Ninny as an aged, middle-class, storyteller heroine.
Similarly, Like Water for Chocolate emphasizes the unique cultural contribution of a
mestiza servant (Nacha), a Native American wise woman (Morning Star), and an
militant activist (Gertrudis) all of whom share with Tita an appreciation of food that
can be both fine and therapeutic. Finally, in Babette's Feast there is once again a
subtle examination of economic class differences between Babette, who is equally
27


fulfilled cooking for French aristocracy or Danish commoners, and her female
friends/sponsors whose lifelong economic deprivation leads them to believe that any
indulgence in physical enjoyment is excessive and evil. Complex personhood issues
which melodrama has a tendency to homogenize, are revisited and re-invested with
greater significance in transformational kitchen narratives.
In summary, it is clear that while transformational kitchen narratives draw upon
certain melodramatic conventions, these sophisticated food films also stretch those
confining conventions into more flexible shapes that mirror social issues needing
reformation. While there is a universal quality in these films that appeals to
contemporary audiences and sutures spectators into an alternative social reality that is
friendlier to the female gender, there is also an emphasis on specificity and
particularity in women's experience that resists homogenization. Similar to the
concept of haute cuisine, these radical food films embody a form of high melodrama
that has evolved in response to social hunger for truth and justice. With these factors
in mind, it is time to take a closer look at all three transformational kitchen narratives
in film and bring each one under critical scrutiny.
28


CHAPTER 3
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF BABETTE'S FEAST
A Subtle Subversion of Patriarchy
The story of Babette's Feast involves the lives of two spinster sisters who live in
a Danish fishing village on the Jutland Peninsula between the years 1854 and 1885.
Their father, the Dean, founded a religious sect before his death and raised his
daughters alone by the precept that "earthly love and marriage were of scant worth."
As a result, Martina and Philippa, both named by their father for male heroes of the
Lutheran faith, have chosen to renounce the love of two men from the outside world
who are enchanted with their beauty and talent. Babette Hersant enters their quiet but
harsh lives one stormy evening with an introductory letter from Philippa's former
music teacher and suitor. This female refugee from the 1871 Paris uprisings
following the Franco-Prussian War has escaped to Denmark after the death of both
her husband and son. The sisters' Christian charity is prevailed upon as Babette has
nowhere else to go, and thus, a gentler more subtle revolution begins in this austere
Danish home.
If patriarchy is to be subverted without a fight or militant resistance, then the
effort must be slow, patient, and gracious. Where two men have failed to loosen the
29


Dean's severe grasp on his daughters' lives, Babette Hersant ultimately succeeds. In
the past the Dean's symbolic order has been threatened twice from outside his devout
enclave by two male suitors for his daughters affections. In the first instance, Lorens
Lowenhielm, a young military cadet with heavy gambling debts and hearty ambitions,
woos Martina but is defeated by the Dean's powerful and disapproving presence. He
leaves, beaten by a stronger patriarchal authority than his own, choosing to relinquish
love for a military career. Martina carries on her filial duties unquestioningly and
without rebellion. In the second instance, the opera singer Achille Papin courts
Philippa for her divine soprano voice and promises to recreate her as a diva in Paris.
He too is defeated by Philippa's devotion to her father who raised his daughters as his
"right and left hands." Even after the Dean's death and well into their own advancing
age, the sisters remain committed to their familial patriarch's memory and persevere
in their rigorous duties as caretakers of his declining religious community.
The film's narrative and visuals work together to reveal multi-leveled forms of
patriarchal bankruptcy: Lorens' material bankruptcy, consisting of gambling debts
and career goals; Achille's emotional bankruptcy, relating to his melancholic
temperament and fear of death; the Dean's spiritual bankruptcy, resulting in a chaste,
loveless faith in good works without reference to grace. When Babette enters the
story, the Dean's small sect is dying out as a result of his impoverished religious
vision that understands the life of faith in terms of sacrifice and self-denial with little
30


room for satisfaction and self-fulfillment. As a consequence, the necessity of
bringing new life into the community is disregarded in the grueling work of
maintaining the spiritual status quo. Even worse, the Dean's once youthful and
thriving religious sect is reduced to divisive bickering at prayer meetings. A joyless
dualism between the spiritual and the carnal presides in this static community,
alienating the genders and affecting even the food the sisters prepare for their charity
wards: alebread soup and dried fish. Their tasteless meals serve as a daily reminder
of the need for constant warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Babette joins this bankrupt community with nothing except her talent, her
certainty that she has something worthwhile to offer, and her gratitude for the sisters'
shelter. She asks little of the sisters save the chance to do her best, which turns out to
be more than enough to transform their penurious financial accounts, their creative
time, and ultimately even their ways of knowing, speaking, and loving. Time
seems to fall into two eras: before Babette and after Babette. In the former era, under
the constrictions of an inflexible patriarchy, the sisters were inhibited from individual
self-expression whenever it contradicted the Dean's agenda. In the latter era, under
Babette's competent benevolence, the sisters are empowered to discover their own
voices and rediscover a childlike sense of wonder. As their world view warms, so
does the lighting director Gabriel Axel uses to convey the gradual transformation of
31


monochromatic scenes and lives toward the colorful and sumptuous feast Babette
prepares for her adopted family fourteen years after her arrival.
On the occasion of what would have been the Dean's one hundredth birthday,
Babette quietly overturns the Dean's impoverished patriarchy by offering a delicious
alternative to his empty legacy based on the denial of pleasure, the importance of
sacrifice, and the deification of his Lutheran precepts. She introduces this closed,
disheartened community to the idea of grace (or unmerited favor) through her
generosity with her lottery winnings and her talent as the former head chef at the Cafe
Anglais in Paris. Babette's culinary skill and desire for authentic self-expression,
which were formerly employed to wine and dine French aristocrats, are bestowed as
gifts upon a poor working class community for the sheer joy of the giving. Such
generosity and abundance act as transformative agents that finally loosen the dead
Dean's stranglehold on his sect and family, opening them to the possibilities for
healing, reconciliation, and celebration. What two determined male personalities
failed to accomplish earlier in the story, Babette now succeeds in doing: she subverts
a stifling patriarchal definition of self, relationship, and meaningful activity. Amid
crystal, china, fine wines and gourmet fare, the Dean is finally laid to rest and his
followers introduced to an authentic demonstration that real, material blessings are
possible in this life.
32


A gentle sense of irony informs the end of this story where expectations are
swallowed up by something larger and more wonderful. The sisters who were the
original donors of charity have come to depend wholeheartedly on their charity ward,
'x
Babette, and are recipients of greater gifts than their own giving. Lorens accompanies
his elderly aunt to Babette's feast anticipating a lowly meal, similar to those he
experienced before in the sisters' home, only to be delighted instead by haute cuisine
and the rarest of wines. The brethren's superstitious dread of sensuality and
wickedness believed to be associated with a witch's Sabbath is replaced by their
sensual enjoyment of a banquet which loosens their tongues and hearts to seek
forgiveness from and reconciliation with each other. Their facial expressions are
comically and innocently gluttonous as their narrow assumptions about the nature of
the sacred and the profane are gently reversed. Film critic Annette Insdorf comments
on the irony that "it's Babette who shows the most religious commitment of all
because she's given up the greatest temptation bodily seduction, food, wine. She
gives them up after having known them, whereas the sisters hadn't been tested."
There is no better spiritual leveler than seeing a woman unexpectedly bring joy to
believers inside the austere bastion of religious patriarchy.
33


Female Identity Formation
Babette's Feast is primarily concerned with an artist's self-affirmation and the
ripple effect from her creative self-expression. Before her escape from the 1871
lower/middle-class and workers revolt in Paris, Babette's reputation for haute cuisine
was well known among the upper classes, including the visiting General Lorenz
Lowenhielm. After her arrival in this poor fishing village, Babette's former status
and accompanying skills remain latent until she acquires the independence and
financial means to demonstrate and give away her genius. With regard to this need
of the artist to give of herself in an autonomous, creative act, Babette may double for
Isak Dinesen herself who wrote this novella while in the advanced stages of syphilis,
which literally caused her to starve to death. In both cases, desire for self-expression
and recognition acts as a motivator in the creation of culinary and narrative art. Any
sense of loss with regard to Babette's former life and lottery winnings, or Isak
Dinesen's physical health, or the community's narrow definitions of good and evil are
replaced by more important gains: Babette's artistic fulfillment, Dinesen's classic
creation, and the religious community's renewed life. Babette reassures the sisters
who learn she has spent all ten-thousand francs of her lottery winnings on the feast: "I
shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist!" There is a transcendent
quality here that supersedes and transforms material concerns. The art of writing or
34


cooking or rejoicing in relationship crosses barriers of gender, class, age, or
nationalism. Artistic self-expression satisfies a universal hunger for the transcendent.
In some miraculous way, Babette's creative gift of the feast sets in motion a
chain of events whereby, as Esther Rashkin explains, "the mouth is filled with food so
that a silence about loss can be filled with words so that an absence can be celebrated
in and with language about absence."29 Rashkins observation touches on a
psychological insight about our human inability to give out of emptiness. It is only
from fullness that people have resources to share with others. Babette also is aware of
this fundamental truth concerning the undeniable connection between types of orality.
We eat to fill the stomach and we speak to fill the mind, heart and soul. Both are
essentially relational acts which increase our pleasure when shared with others. In
cinematic visuals a parallel is drawn between bodily deprivation and emotional
starvation. The camera clearly reveals that when Babette's banquet guests allow
themselves to be fed and to participate in a celebration of life, when their mouths are
opened like little birds hungering for sustenance, then the song comes forth. Up until
this moment at the banquet table, the entire film has been typified by scant dialogue
and noticeable oral restraint. Little is spoken, less is eaten and then usually in silence.
At the feast, however, abundance overflows in the kitchen, on the table, and in the
grateful hearts of Babette's benefactors. When the guests have eaten and drunk their
fill, their hunger for genuine community surfaces as a still unmet need requiring
35


dialogue. In this satiated context, ancient grievances are aired, misunderstandings
addressed, confessions made, understanding extended, and old wounds healed. The
biblical connection between "what goes into the mouth and what comes out of the
mouth"30 is embodied redemptively at Babette's feast.
Babette herself benefits from the feast she prepares in more ways than one.
Certainly, her culinary aptitude is recognized and lauded, but more importantly, it is
with the gift of this banquet that Babette transfers her loyalties, hopes, and aspirations
for the future from a previous home in France to her new home in Denmark. Up to
this moment, she has gone through the motions of participating in community life as
maid and servant to the spinster sisters; now she brings her own worth and
contribution out into the open, formalizing her egalitarian position in the community.
Painful connections with the past are left behind as Babette moves with decisiveness
into full partnership with her adopted community. She chooses where and how to
invest herself and her resources, overcoming material losses with her reclaimed
identity as a great artist.
Philippa's accolade concludes the scene in which she acknowledges the mark of
a true artist in both Babette and herself by remembering the words her old suitor first
spoke: "In Paradise, how you will delight the angels!" A talented sisterhood is
established between these two women who are true kindred spirits. Distinctions
separating French and Danish, worldly and isolated, aristocrat and worker, carnal and
36


spiritual are overcome in this transformational kitchen narrative by means of an anti-
elitist point-of-view. Such an egalitarian environment validates feminine identity in
other-than-sexual terms: women are depicted as survivors of hardship rather than
victims; they are empowered in traditional women's jobs; and social, artistic, and
stylistic differences in women come to be viewed as abundance rather than lack.
Further, the women in this film enjoy universal gender qualities without losing
individual specificity.
The Kitchen as Reclaimed Space
Babette's Feast is visually embellished with religious imagery that elevates her
common kitchen and the sisters' spartan home to the level of temple. Preparation of
the elegant communal meal depicts Babette as high priestess going about her daily
office. Cross-cutting between kitchen and dining room sets highlights Dinesen's and
Axel's emphasis on the sacramental aspects of the feast. Mise-en-scene elements
compose a wealth of religious imagery: hearth flames leap and bum brightly,
reminding viewers of a fiery altar; the head of a sacrificial calf is centered on a table
overflowing with other ritual ingredients. In an austere dining room now transformed
into a banquet hall, a full table service for twelve is set. Associations with the Last
Supper are unavoidable. Twelve apostles gather round the table, one of whom has
betrayed the group earlier when Lorens (Judas) left to follow a secular career. A
37


thirteenth contributor is in the kitchen preparing the food in a way reminiscent of
Christ himself, who drew a symbolic parallel between his body/blood and the last
Passover meal his disciples consumed.
Death/rebirth symbolism arising from Judeo-Christian prototypes abounds. The
deliberate conversion of Babette's lottery winnings into the gift of a feast parallels
Babette's determination to conclude old attachments to France, enabling her to be
reborn in Denmark. The killing of the turtle, the calf, and the quail represent the
sacrifices that must be made to satisfy physical and spiritual appetites, transforming
dead substances into new life. There is also the implied killing of the Dean's deadly
grip on his congregation as Babette introduces her new family to the idea of grace
which they digest with delight. Lastly, there is a killing of old grievances so that
friendships can be reborn. Lorens speaks for the whole assemblys desire to lay to
rest past regrets when he summarizes their communal experience: "All things are
possible in this beautiful world of ours!" An epiphany that rejuvenates the
community occurs. Food is the signifying system that constitutes a culinary language
whose attributes in the hands of a female chef can transform silence into celebration
and death into new life.
38


Constructing an Empowered Feminine Position
Babette's Feast illustrates the creative feminine power to transform situations in
contrast with the masculine power to dominate them. Her power is contingent on
feminine values surrounding quality-of-life issues: a stable home, healthy
relationships, opportunities for generosity. In ironic ways, Babette functions as a
revolutionary figure, who brings about healthy change by supplanting patriarchal
influence. She overturns the Dean's lingering ethic of self-denial with the radical idea
of self-fulfillment. As a result, Babette's unique talent is acknowledged and those
who benefit from her gifts are encouraged to celebrate life. In contrast with the two
suitors who wanted to remove the sisters from their home, Babette makes no such
demand, choosing instead to make the sisters home hers as well. Unlike the men in
this film who promise love with strings attached, Babette offers herself and her talents
humbly and openly. No reciprocity nor circularity is involved in the feast she creates
"for her own sake." Such generosity frees her benefactors from any obligation other
than graciously providing an opportunity for the artist to "do her best." How different
this is from the attitudes of three male characters in the film (the Dean, Lorens
Lowenhielm, Achille Papin) who rely on manipulating relationships. Because
Babette is motivated by self-respect and the desire to serve others as an expression of
her own creative fulfillment, she succeeds in gaining power through relationship that
is denied to the men. Her stature is equal to that of the best chefs in Paris and the
39


most devoted ministers in Denmark. As a surrogate mother of elderly children,
Babette proves capable of forming, maintaining, and modeling a means of healing
relationships through her own feminine agency. Also as a full equal and partner in
her communitys life, Babette supplants the Dean's dictums with grace, opens the eyes
and hearts of the congregants to a sense of wonder, and enables the jaded Lorens to
regain his earlier faith here in the sisters' home where "mercy and truth have met
together" at last.
Peter Brooks states that "melodrama cannot figure the birth of a new society
<11
[or]... offer reconciliation under a sacred mantle," but that is exactly what happens
in this transformational kitchen narrative. Babette's offering of a sacramental meal
has profoundly transformed her community and freed them for transcendent
understanding. This sophisticated cinematic melodrama expands the confines of its
own formal conventions by conferring on women the spiritual power to renew and
redeem others by the feminine ability to work miracles with food in the kitchen.
A More Embracing Definition of Family
The family unit created in Babette's Feast is multi-leveled, consisting of an
inner and outer core. Comprising the inner circle are three women who share the
same home and a related mission of service to their community. Each is bonded to
the others by an independent decision to stay and work in the fishing village. Each is
40


gifted in some unique way: one with beauty, one with a lovely singing voice, one
with an artist's flair for food preparation. Each has loved and lost a man from outside
the community. All three are profoundly feminine while simultaneously able to
manage affairs in a way that would do credit to any man of their time. There is a deep
respect, gratitude, and love that pervades their relationship which is quiet,
undemonstrative, and restful. Without biological children, they are dedicated to
physically and emotionally nurturing those in need.
Outside this inner circle, but connected to it spiritually, are the remaining nine
members of the Dean's original congregation. In many ways these nine elders behave
like children in their naive artlessness, requiring the modified parenting of Martina,
Philippa, and Babette. In one scene, Babette enters a fractious meeting with a tea tray
that momentarily distracts the bickering members, and scolds them like children for
their misbehavior. A concluding scene counterbalances this adolescent and
argumentative portrait with the transformation of these same elders into a joyous
group of celebrants. After their encounter with grace at Babette's feast, the nine elders
join hands to sing and dance around the town well under the stars on a frigid winter's
night. Up until this moment, their obligatory singing of hymns in church and at
prayer meetings has been lifeless; finally it becomes heartfelt. They come together
again as if for the first time as an extended family, reconciled to self and others,
touched by ecstasy and grace. Each has experienced firsthand undeserved favor, each
41


is confirmed in value and importance to the rest. They sing to celebrate being part of
a larger familial whole in the scheme of life.
As this radical food film draws to a close, the audience also experiences a sense
of wonder at the possibilities for change, growth, celebration, and self-actualization.
Formerly static lives and relationships become dynamic through an understanding of
food as life and cooking as an artists love for her work.
Within transformational kitchen narratives, specific thematic bridges are
evident. Those that apply to both Babette's Feast and Fried Green Tomatoes, which I
will be discussing next, include the ways in which women are associated with time
and space. Summing up the ideas of Julia Kristeva, Patricia Bizzell and Bruce
Herzberg make this observation: "Kristeva notes that women are traditionally
associated with space, not time ... When women are associated with time ... usually
it is with two kinds of time; the repetitive or cyclic ... and the eternal or
monumental."32 While Kristeva apparently conceives of these feminine time
associations in restrictive terms, as in the repetitive linking of women to their biology
(menstruation) and the eternal linking of them to entrapment within unchanging social
conditions, I construe these linkages in more positive terms. In each transformational
kitchen narrative under investigation, women's association with repetitive/cyclic time
speaks of their melodramatic preference for memory as a means of revisiting the past
for the purpose of understanding and/or healing the present. In Fried Green
42


Tomatoes. Ninny Threadegoode's memory of the past becomes the vehicle for
transforming the present for Evelyn Couch. Similarly, women's association with
eternal time enables them to lay hold of transcendent values and meaning in Babette's
Feast. Here Babette embodies an understanding of Christian humanism by reviving a
forgotten belief in a creator God who really cares about the welfare and happiness of
Her people. By means of such associations, these transformational kitchen narratives
address Kristevas concern about the "task for a new generation of feminists:
reconciling maternal time [motherhood] with linear [political/historical] time."
With regard to feminine space, Elsaesser comments that "melodrama is
iconographically fixed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of the bourgeois home
and/or the small town setting ... reinforced stylistically by a complex handling of
space in interiors."34 These qualities Elsaesser associates with panic and hysteria per
the popular understanding of melodrama. However, in elevated cinematic
melodramas like Babette's Feast and Fried Green Tomatoes, there is no evidence of
hysteria (except perhaps when it occurs in an abusive male character like Frank
Bennett), or claustrophobia. Camera work depicting interior scenes in Babette's
Feast visually stresses calm domesticity and the sacramental. These interior shots are
counterbalanced by wide angle shots of open land and sea, composed to illustrate
Babette's broad options: to stay or to leave and reclaim her former life in Paris. Her
choice is both free and informed. The same can be said of Ninny Threadegoode, who
43


chooses to go to a nursing home with a friend who must go. There is no self-pity or
sense of entrapment here in a woman who decides for herself what she will or will not
do. Thus, while interior domestic spaces do define women in these films, they do not
confine them without their own free will.
Clearly, transformational kitchen narratives embody a feminist vision that builds
a more authentic and positive understanding of women in relation to time and space.
To accomplish this, these radical food films draw upon and enlarge melodramatic
conventions in much the same way as they actively work to open up liberating and
humanizing possibilities in the domestic realm of the kitchen.
44


CHAPTER 4
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES: FEMININE PURPOSE
A verbal quip opens this food film and sets the tone for what follows:
"Southern women and assertiveness training are a contradiction of terms!" This is
clearly the case at the beginning of a female quest saga when an overweight and
under-appreciated Evelyn Couch first meets her aged mentor, "Ninny," or Mrs. Cleo
Threadgoode. But under the gentle and purposeful tutelage of Ninny, Evelyn is
encouraged to begin her own journey from feminine repression to self-expression.
This happens by means of Ninny's sharing her story about two heroines: Idgie
Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison. Significantly, their story involves a country
restaurant known as the Whistle Stop Cafe in the heart of Ku Klux Klan-ridden
Alabama in the early nineteen hundreds.
Parallel story lines structure this transformational kitchen narrative. By means
of flashback sequences and voice-over, time is divided into the present (1980's),
where Evelyn Couch fights for self-control and self-esteem, and the past (1920's -
1930's), where Idgie and Ruth struggle to establish their restaurant, an unconventional
family, and a safe place free from masculine abuse. In both time frames, male
antagonists who are belligerent and aggressive or disinterested and detached
complicate the action. Idgie and Ruth must actively confront Ruth's abusive ex-
45


husband at the beginning of the story, while Evelyn must deal with her husband's
neglect at the end. Cross-cutting between past and present expands the action,
enables Ninny as consummate storyteller to leave the nursing home by means of
memory, and opens up visual options within this woman's film. Emphasis is upon
exploring the conflict between Southern patriarchy and traditionally disempowered
groups such as women, blacks, and so-called white trash.
Taking on the Symbolic Order
A critical factor in this food film is the development of female alliances to
counteract male abuse or neglect. Ruth Jamison needs Idgie's help to leave her
battering husband, Frank Bennett, in the same way that Evelyn Couch needs Ninny's
encouragement and approval to stand up to her neglectful husband, Ed. Both female
rebellions reject the ways in which women are mistreated or ignored under patriarchy.
Ruth and Idgie's close friendship includes Sipsy, who is central to the plot. It is this
seemingly fragile black woman who kills the misogynist Frank Bennett when he tries
to kidnap his infant son from his estranged wife. A frying pan is the unlikely murder
weapon wielded by an even unlikelier hand. To protect this loyal black woman from
mob justice in the South, Idgie and Big George sink Frank's truck in the pond and
transform Frank's dead body into what some would call a deliciously radical meal.
Such cannibalism results from necessity, exemplifies this food films comfort with
46


black humor, and represents a fairly graphic statement about subverting the symbolic
order.
Sexism, racism, and homophobia are ingrained in Southern culture, attitudes
that a feminist revolutionary like Idgie Threadgoode feels duty-bound to change.
Consistent with her confrontational and socially irreverent behavior, Idgie's feistiness
is indicative of her belief that "a woman's place is anywhere she damn well pleases!"
While Idgie's operative ethic is to live and let live whenever possible, she refuses to
turn a blind eye toward issues of injustice. Her concerns for her black friends and co-
workers, for an alcoholic vagrant, and for truth and justice in general are cut from the
same feminist fabric. Idgie's life purpose is to defend those who are
socially/politically defenseless, such as Sipsy who would be hanged by a white jury
even for the crime of justifiable homicide against a white male. Fried Green
Tomatoes exposes and confronts Southern patriarchal culture where, as Karen
Sanchez-Eppler points out, "for both women and blacks, it is their physical difference
from the cultural norms of white masculinity that obstructs their claim to
personhood."35 Additionally, this radical food film fleshes out strong women, one
white and one black, who take on the white male establishment long before civil
rights issues constituted our national agenda.
Years later a similar self-actualization takes place in the life of Evelyn Couch.
She moves from a precarious, mincing femininity literally packaged in saran wrap to a
47


sledge-hammer wielding woman capable of tearing out walls or restoring them as the
mood suits her. Growing more self-confident, Evelyn works to establish herself in
her own household as a subject of discourse able to think and act independently and
confrontationally within Southern culture. Like other female protagonists in Fried
Green Tomatoes. Evelyn develops her own unique style of subverting the
establishment. First she becomes conscious of her cultural indoctrination; then she
finds her own voice which she christens Towanda, The Avenger; and finally she
chooses informed decision-making as the only legitimate way to live her life.
The diverse ways in which this ensemble film realistically portrays women as
capable, competent, and complex produce a montage of feminine characterization that
contrasts dramatically with women's historic marginalization within Southern culture.
What can be re-visioned does not have to be re-lived. Such cinematic portrayal of
realistic women contributed in large part to the box office popularity of Fried Green
Tomatoes.36 While female viewers were reported as leaving the screening of this
<37
food film feeling "strong, hopeful, and inspired," according to Linda Seger,
apparently men were equally attracted to the film by their desire to know what women
want and think. Perhaps the answer to that riddle is autonomy over one's own life.
48


Forging Female Identity Within Southern Culture
For the Southern cook, nourishing others physically or emotionally involves
issues of self-esteem, social status, moral soundness, spiritual faith, human
compassion, and community conscience. Under the powerful patriarchal bastions of
church and state, which conspire to define women's work as Christian mission,
individual feminine wants/needs have been constructed as secondary to those of
others. While meal preparation is a critical component of women's work in the South,
it is less important than social requirements for Southern hospitality which confine,
entrap, and enslave women.
Within this stifling context, Idgie defines herself in a variety of unconventional
ways. She is the owner/operator of a restaurant business in an era before women's
liberation. As a female impersonator of Railroad Bill, Idgie wins notoriety by
illegally hopping on freight trains and distributing surplus food to hobos, so-called
white trash, and poor blacks. She enjoys the male company of gamblers, can hold her
liquor, acts decisively to rescue Ruth from an abusive relationship, and protects her
black friends from becoming racial scapegoats. Her most colorful role, however,
must be that of mythic "bee charmer" who is immune to political stings as well as
natural ones. In effect, Idgie functions as a fulcrum upon which Ruth is able to
elevate her life in ways discouraged by patriarchy.
49


With Idgie's encouragement, Ruth evolves into an independent woman, beloved
single parent, and partner in the restaurant business. In the love these two women
share, there is a strongly implied lesbian relationship. Both the book and the
screenplay are deliberately oblique about this subject, hinting at but never fully
exploring the full sexual implications of Idgie and Ruth's intimacy. Film critic
JQ
Stanley Kaufman sees this skirting of the issue as "implicit cowardice" on the part
of joint screenwriters, author Fannie Flagg and director Jon Avnet. I am more
inclined to see this as a realistic treatment of homosexual relationship during an era
when it was unthinkable that lesbian love would expose itself publicly or explicitly.
According to the documentary The Celluloid Closet. "Hollywood learned to write
movies between the lines and some members of the audience learned to read them
that way."39 This open option allows viewers to interpret sexual innuendo according
to their own preferences and guarantees Hollywood a wider market appeal. Lesbian
screenwriter Susan Bright criticizes Fried Green Tomatoes in this regard because she
feels "women's passion for each other is not taken seriously"40 in the film. On the
contrary, I believe this radical food film presents a powerful, realistic, and profoundly
beguiling portrait of intimacy shared by two women friends/housemates whose sex
life remains a mystery. While it is certainly true that Hollywood is adept at playing
the box office game in order to appeal to diverse audience interests, it is my opinion
that ambiguities in Fried Green Tomatoes enhance rather than detract from the film.
50


Often what is left unsaid but implied speaks subtly about the loving potential in
relationship. As Tom Hanks remarked with regard to his homosexual role in
Philadelphia: "Love is love no matter who it's between."41 Whatever interpretation
viewers accept, both Ruth and Idgie accept and value each other for who she is
without recourse to artifice. True to the dictates of genuine affection, each enfolds the
other into the secret places of her heart. What is indisputable here are the ways in
which Ruth is reborn within Idgie's extended and accepting family.
In a later time frame through Ninny Threadegoode's friendship and counsel,
Evelyn too is metamorphosed from a "useless, powerless, overweight woman too
young to be old and too old to be young" into a self-assertive feminist who is able to
handle and return the mockery of glamorous female youth. In one hilarious scene,
Evelyn deliberately bashes into the back of a Volkswagen Bug after two abrasive
young women steal the parking place she patiently waited for. Evelyn's glib rebuff of
the girls' disbelief speaks of a wiser, tougher woman: "I'm older and I have more
insurance!" But it is Evelyn's realistic sense of balance in regard to feminist issues
that ensures her place among credible strong women characters.
Fried Green Tomatoes deliberately complicates Evelyn's character as she moves
toward self-actualization by including elements of apparent anti-feminism in her
journey. Specifically, Evelyn's search for self-definition in other than patriarchal
terms leads her into women's empowerment groups where the emphasis seems to be
51


exclusively upon sexual liberation. In one such group, she barely avoids vagina
exploration with a hand-held mirror by pleading a problem with her girdle. This food
film unabashedly ridicules the woman's group, especially when it defines itself
primarily in sexual rather than gender terms. Groupiness comes under fire as the
lowest common denominator for self-assertive behavior in contrast with serious
female collaboration like that between Ninny and Evelyn or Idgie and Ruth. Sexual
behavior disconnected from real life intimate relationships is comically exposed as a
cheat. The film insists that women like Evelyn want an interactive and credible
context for female sexuality. What remains clear is that female identity formation in
Fried Green Tomatoes is counter-culture, counter-patriarchy, and counter-
marginalization.
One final example of the ways in which women come of age in Fried Green
Tomatoes involves the film's depiction of women as interesting in both their youth
and maturity. Ninny's role as aged female storyteller, who passes on wisdom and
keeps memory alive, is intrinsic to the plot. Through her unguarded dialogue and
unmade-up appearance, she embodies both the joyful and painful experiences of the
elderly. Admirable character traits are linked visually and narratively to her persona:
love of life, ability to give of self, and spontaneity. Hollywood redeems itself here by
balancing painful aspects of ageism with more heartening treatment of this elderly
52


woman who actively demonstrates that everyone can make a difference for having
lived.
Progressive feminine self-realization in Fried Green Tomatoes begins with
Idgie, expands to Ruth, then to Sipsy, and concludes with Ninny and Evelyn. Each
must learn to define herself as central to the narrative, to grapple with pain and loss,
to confront truth, to leam to speak in her own voice, and to act on the strength of her
convictions. With these life skills, strong women enable themselves and each other to
confront and overcome various patriarchal forms of discrimination that seek to
immobilize and silence them. As a result, their true-to-life rounded female characters
succeed in winning femininity an important subject position in food films.
Elevating the Kitchen to a Place of Central Importance
Near the conclusion of Fried Green Tomatoes. Ninny's voice-over narration
explains that "When the cafe closed, the heart of the town just stopped beating. It's
funny how a little place like this brought so many people together." Cooking as an
expression of Southern hospitality historically informs Southern culture, but in this
radical food film cooking as social mission is removed from a traditional male
construction and redefined in terms of an assertive feminist agenda. Sipsy, the black
cook, is a good example. To begin with, she is friend, mentor, and tutor to both Idgie
and Ruth: a breach in class-conscious relations between blacks and whites at this
53


time in Southern history. Sipsy is admittedly the best cook in Alabama whose "secret
sauce" is able to disguise, tenderize, and transform a stringy Ku Klux Klansman into a
tasty meal. Both the film and Sipsy herself define her role in larger terms than just a
great cook. She nurtures and protects her integrated family, kills the white male threat
to their welfare, nurses Ruth on her death bed, and consoles both Idgie and Ruth's
one-armed son, "Stump." Her words on this occasion qualify her as an authentic wise
woman who intuitively recognizes that in death as on other important occasions, "A
lady always knows when it is time to take her leave." In many ways, Sipsy is an
archetypal personality from women's collective past who is sufficient and available to
meet every need. Her stature is one of authentic nobility, rock solid stability, and
quiet grandeur. Sipsey invests her designated realm (the kitchen) with significance
and meaning. The kitchen is just a space until those who abide there fill it with
purpose and personality, as Sipsy and her female confederates do. It is the distinctive
work of women that elevates the kitchen to a place of transformative potential in
society. When women leave, they take their power and presence with them, and the
kitchen reverts to being a place of waiting potential until the cook returns.
However, there is a problem here that feminist criticism must not overlook. As
Teresa de Lauretis points out in her essay on Rethinking Women's Cinema, Issues
of race and class cannot be simply subsumed under some larger category labeled
femaleness, femininity, womanhood, etc.... Differences among/within women
54


cannot be collapsed into a fixed identity."42 Lauretis is correct, and Sipsy illustrates
her point by suffering from a triple stereotype when gender, race and class are taken
into consideration. Cultural assumptions are often prejudicial against women
minorities who are poor and uneducated. By association with these class-based
characteristics, such women are also deemed less fully human, and therefore worthy
of oppression, exploitation and/or abuse. Lisa M. Heldke explains that typically "in
societies shaped by oppression/exploitation, the most time-bound [repetitive] jobs are
assigned the least value and given to those who are most oppressed/exploited...
Daily chores of the domestic worker ... are invisible to those who benefit from
them."43 If women in general were/are victims of gender discrimination in the South,
how much more so were/are black women. It is just such socio-politico-cultural
asymmetry between those who are privileged and those who are not that
transformational kitchen narratives confront.
The type of feminism evident in transformational kitchen narratives
demonstrates a respect for difference and a criticism of any behavior that is
misogynist, racist, classist, or sexist. Babette creates an egalitarian society at her
banquet table where a shared meal miraculously becomes a social leveler. Sipsey
creates a delicious bar-b-que from highly indigestible ingredients, transforming threat
into blessing. In both cases, these transformational kitchen narratives refuse to ignore
or minimize the problems of race, class or gender; but, more importantly, they also
55


seek to reconcile and redeem the genders who are at odds in a system built upon
social and political inequities. Carol Gilligans proposal for the next step in gender
relations is relevant here for the purposes of my own argument. Gilligan reflects that
it is necessary to "go beyond the righting of past atrocity or injustice to the very
fundament of life: the way we live with others who are different, the way we live
with one another in private as well as public life."44 In this regard, transformational
kitchen narratives share certain melodramas radical social vision: to foster a greater
clarity about cultural history, and to increase our understanding of historical problems
and the possibilities for their imaginative solution.45
A Case for Gender Equality
Almost from the outset of Fried Green Tomatoes. Idgie Threadgoode has
manifested her distaste for conventionally feminine appearance and behavior.
Perhaps this has something to do with the maudlin treatment of Southern white
women, but more likely it has to do with the early death of her brother, Buddy, whose
absence Idgie decides to fill with herself. From her youthful pronouncement that "I'm
never going to wear another dress as long as I live!" Idgie is a thoroughly
masculinized heroine in rebellion against the straight jacket of femininity. She
refuses to play by rules in which a double standard for male/female behavior is
embedded. She smokes, drinks, gambles, arm-wrestles, and confronts the bigotry of
56


the symbolic order. Idgie is a self-made, personality who commands the respect, and
perhaps a little fear, of men and women alike.
As I have discussed earlier, much has been made of the homoerotic elements in
the relationship between Idgie and Ruth. There is no question that a strong bond of
love and friendship connects the two women; although, in keeping with Hollywood's
reliance on ambiguity in its portrayal of gays,46 no explicit sexual interaction
transpires. However, the film lingers on the ways in which both women express their
sexuality outside patriarchal norms: an inebriated late night swim in their underwear;
Idgie's physical aggression against Frank when she realizes his abuse of Ruth; their
food frolic in the cafe kitchen; and Ruth's confession under oath that "Idgie is the best
friend I ever had and I love her." In my opinion, these instances of female intimacy
lose nothing of their poignancy and power even if denied a sexual context. Such
ambiguity actually works to satisfy a number of different vested interests.
Gaylyn Studlar asserts that "For both male and female [viewers], same-sex
identification does not totally exclude opposite-sex identification. The wish to
become both sexes to overcome sexual difference remains."47 This ambivalence,
which is consistent with Freud's recognition of the bisexuality of every human being,
helps to explain cinematic pleasure for viewers. Portraying women's pleasure in each
other resists male objectification and allows audiences who relate to lesbian content to
find it. As Modleski explains, "Women's bi-sexual nature ... is less a problem for
57


women... than it is for patriarchy... the notion of a double desire on the part of the
female spectator [represents] a desire that is both passive and active, homosexual and
heterosexual."48 Fried Green Tomatoes acknowledges and validates an inclusive
reading of feminine curiosity and desire for lesbians who want to find it in the film
and contributes to a more egalitarian and authentic portrait of women. Positive
images of female friendship that stress respect and cooperation, in contrast with
traditionally masculinized dominator relationships, empower women's self-esteem
and enable a viable, alternative construction of reality for female spectators in general.
Female bonding in an other-than-sexual context facilitates viewer identification with
audiences who are uncomfortable with lesbian content and who choose not to see it.
Thus, sexual ambiguities allow an open reading of the content, while simultaneously
providing an empowered feminine position that recognizes womens subject status as
equal to that of men.
Linda Williams postulates that cinematic ambivalence taps into another aspect
of feminine double vision by appealing to "female voyeurism with a difference: [the
feminine ability to] juggle all positions at once."49 This is an important point as it
relates to women's preference for real life complexities that contradict overly-
simplistic definitions of the human condition. Such feminine taste for the complex
reflects a parallel ambiguity attached to melodrama, an art form women prefer.
Dependent on specific historical contexts, melodrama can be subversive or escapist or
58


possibly both. Such ambiguities heighten audience enjoyment because they reflect
human experience. Understanding this feminine preference for complexity
incorporates Williams observation that "women's pleasure ... cannot be measured in
phallic terms."50 In fact as the success of Fried Green Tomatoes indicates, womens
pleasure is far more subtle, complex, even contradictory than patriarchy knows. In
this transformational kitchen narrative there is substantial evidence of feminine
writing to produce a multi-faceted understanding of womens pleasure in cinema
involving feminine pride, self-actualization, and egalitarian status with male interests.
Besides Idgie, a second fully-developed female character who levels the playing
field between men and women is Ninny Threadegoode. Even in old age, she is still a
self-determining woman who can decide to accompany her friend to a nursing home
or leave upon her friend's death. She may wear dresses at this stage in her life, but she
opts to keep her high-top sneakers as well. In passing, we learn that Ninny has been
married for forty years and given birth to a retarded child whose life she considered a
blessing. Because of such balanced human qualities, Ninny becomes a female role
model to Evelyn. Somehow, Ninny has managed to integrate the best parts from all
aspects of her life and mold them into a cohesive whole without abandoning either the
conventionally masculine or feminine components of her personality. She remains a
person who commands respect and affection, an accomplished storyteller who can
instruct and enchant a listener, and an experienced tutor in the art of self-esteem.
59


Ninny stands as one of those classic female characters who embodies a realistic
reflection, in the words of Linda Seger, of "what is natural and beautiful in women:
partnerships ... and how they change over time."51 Her story and her style in telling
it offer all women hope as we confront the inevitable aging process. Ninny
encourages other women to believe in what George Sand observed about herself:
"The old woman I shall become will be quite different from the woman I am now.
Another I is beginning."52 Clearly, women of various ages and backgrounds occupy
powerful subject positions in this feminist food film.
A Viable Alternative Family Structure
Just as two parallel story lines compose the narrative in Fried Green Tomatoes.
two families, exist in relationship to women whose motherhood is primarily emotional
rather than biological. One mother figure is Ninny Threadegoode, whose mentorship
of Evelyn Couch leads to the formation of a new family unit of choice rather than
obligation. Evelyn's emotional hunger for meaningful relationship parallels Ninny's
hunger for home life and companionship. One talks, the other eats and listens. These
activities are critical bonding elements in their evolving friendship where mutual
acceptance and valuation cement the relationship. A woman's alliance is formed that
empowers Evelyn to act autonomously in her marriage, amid her women's groups,
against the injustices of thoughtless youth, and in reclaiming her own health. On the
60


other side of the equation, Ninny gains a female acolyte, an opportunity to keep
memory alive, and a physical home.
Another unconventional mother figure in Fried Green Tomatoes is Idgie whose
extended family consists of those she rescues and befriends: a single mom and her
one-armed son, a variety of black helpers, and an alcoholic vagrant. Within a more
flexible definition of family, specific human needs can be better met, individual worth
validated, authentic friendships encouraged, and the welfare of the whole protected.
Because this food film presents a matrifocal construction of family, men like Big
George and Smokey Lonesone are not excluded from participation if only they are
willing to enter as equal partners rather than bosses. As a result of the film's
insistence on relational authenticity, a genuine sense of community results in Fried
Green Tomatoes as it does in the other two transformational kitchen narratives. The
alternative family structure on which this kind of egalitarian community is founded
allows diversity among its members, encourages difference, and insists upon respect.
Here too, mutuality between genders, races, classes, and generations provides an all-
inclusive social ethic. This type of self-actualizing community/family models Riane
Eisler's gylanic (cooperative) social structure, where "linking rather than ranking"53
presides, and offers hope as humankind moves into an uncertain future.
Diverse thematic elements in Fried Green Tomatoes establish this
transformational kitchen narrative as a postmodern document. An intrinsic
61


complexity in cinematic structure complicates both narration and characterization. A
deliberate blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction shrouds the story in
irreconcilables and questions. Is the aged Ninny really the original bee charmer, Idgie
herself? At the end of this film it would seem so, when a mysterious bottle of wild
honey and a love note show up on Ruths grave while Ninny is visiting the site, even
though Ninnys story refers to herself as an invisible relative and omniscient observer
in Idgie's former household. A similar blurring of boundaries takes place with regard
to Idgie's sexuality. An implicit gender instability is built into the character of Idgie,
who is visually positioned as a masculinized female in flashbacks, but narratively
positioned as a widow after forty years of marriage and as a mother of a handicapped
child in terms of her own storytelling. Where does the truth lie? Is it even essential
to an appreciation of the film? Perhaps not, as Fried Green Tomatoes seems to revel
in the possibility of a multiplicity of readings which enriches and diversifies thematic
interpretation in much the same way as a multiplicity of female voices deepens and
enlarges our experience. In one sense, this film acts a tall tale, an engaging yam that
parallels Idgie's repetition of the story about the lake that froze and flew away one
day. In another sense, it is a feminist treatise about the collective female experience
where the primacy of relationships, the necessity of obtaining sovereignty over one's
own life, and the moral requirement to take an informed stand against evil and wrong
are brought together in a cinematic recipe for social transformation.
62


By way of overview, it is interesting to note that the phenomenon of storytelling
is relevant to all three transformational kitchen narratives. The women authors who
created the texts were all consummate storytellers and included self-conscious
storytelling devices within their narratives to mirror their own interests and talents.
Female voice-over narration plays an important role in each food film, demonstrating
what Kaja Silverman observes in The Acoustic Mirror:
The female voice has enormous conceptual and discursive range once it is freed
from its claustral confinement within the female body. It is capable of talking
about terrorism, anger, melancholia, homosexual as well as heterosexual desire,
ancient Mexican divinities, soap operas... and even cinema itself.54
I would add gender, generational, racial, class, and ethnic issues to this list; all of
these are topically represented by the three food films under investigation, although
the story format changes. In Babette's Feast. Isak Dinesen chooses a classic
international novella form for her story. In Fried Green Tomatoes. Fannie Flagg
utilizes the American tall tale with its emphasis on humor and exaggeration. In Like
Water for Chocolate. Laura Esquivel employs literary techniques from Latin
American magical realism to blur the boundaries between myth and reality. In all
three cases, stories from the past are revisited with the intention of transforming the
present. Writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes remarks on the subject of storytelling:
Although some use stories as entertainment alone, tales are, in their oldest
sense, a healing art. Some are called to this healing art, and the best... are
those who have lain with the story and found all its matching parts inside
themselves... In the best storytellers I know, the stories grow out of their lives
63


like roots grow a tree.55
There is a visceral connection between women and their work, whether it be
storytelling or cooking. What women do and how they do it evolves from an
awareness of who they are and how they differ from others to whom they are joined in
relationship. Women's preference for storytelling as a personalized means of value
transmission rejects conventional realism in preference for more deeply nuanced
experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in Like Water for Chocolate where
Esquivel's diary-form narrative closely follows the rituals of everyday life, linking
realms of private and public existence, investigating a plurality of truths, and re-
inventing her story.
64


CHAPTER 5
PASSION AND PERSISTENCE IN LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE
Much like the onion that figures so prominently in the film's opening narrative,
the magic at work in this transformational kitchen narrative is multi-layered. A
contemporary proverb comparing the whole of life to an onion states that sometimes
as we peel the layers, we cry. This is both the beginning and ending place in a story
framed by Esperanza's daughter, whose voice-over narration recreates her Great Aunt
Tita's recipes and journal entries from an earlier time. In the establishing shot,
Esperanza sits with a slice of onion on her head to stop the flow of tears
accompanying her remembrance of Tita's harsh life on the Mexican-American
frontier. From the outset, the film's visual and verbal allusions to food and memory
work to construct something larger than a simple recipe collection. Like the
metamorphosis that takes place in cooking, transforming ordinary materials into
edible delights, under Esquivels pen, a narrative metamorphosis of personal history
transforms Titas oppressed life into something entirely different and far richer.
This analogy between cooking and storytelling is central to the film.
Laura Esquivel's acknowledged intention in her novel, which she later turned
into an equally popular screenplay, was to re-fashion Tita's known history through the
disassembly and reconfiguration of recorded events in her great aunt's life. In actual
65


fact, Tita never managed to escape familial expectations that robbed her of love and
kept her bound to a repressive tradition by which the youngest daughter was expected
to forego marriage to care for her mother until death. However, in the imaginative
recreation of herstory, no such constraints need apply. Thus, Esquivel constructs an
alternative story about Tita's life, weaving in her own preoccupations with feminine
liberation and self-actualization.
Deconstructing Matriarchy
Like Water for Chocolate addresses the question of whether or not matriarchy is
a better social alternative than patriarchy. Both social models can enforce dominator
characteristics that elevate the one(s) in power at the expense of others. To assume
that women are less inclined to abuse power than men when they have been socialized
into the prevailing symbolic order contradicts our common experience, as this film
documents. To idealize women as a gender, and to assume that women generically
and consistently rise above the masculine inclination toward paranoia is
unsubstantiated by biological and anthropological studies.56 Both Mama Elena and
Rosaura, in effect, are case studies of the masculinized matriarch whose manipulation
and oppression of others embodies an abusive kind of patriarchy.
These are tricky waters to navigate. On the one hand, Like Water for Chocolate
presents a feminist agenda that exposes conflicting patriarchal stereotypes of women
66


as Virgin or whore, questions an engendered treatment of the sin of female
scopophilia (pleasure in active looking), and confronts body/soul dichotomies. On
the other hand, the film voices concerns about women who internalize domineering
characteristics traditionally associated with masculinity. Within both contexts, this
elegant food film works to expose and depose perversions of power whether they
originate in male or female behavior, and actively favors a more egalitarian social
model consistent with transformational kitchen narrative criteria.
The Source: Mama Elena
Mama Elena is distinctly gifted with a talent for "breaking things up!"
according to Chencha, the Mestiza maid and Tita's confidant. Her excuse is tradition:
everyone in her family has enslaved the youngest daughter to care for her aging
matriarch. Mama Elena's means of having her way are inventive and diabolical: her
capacity to spy, interfere, threaten, and intimidate qualify this female gatekeeper from
hell as a conventional villain in old-fashioned melodrama. Without exception, Mama
Elena is represented as the hateful embodiment of male domination and insensitivity.
Her admonition to Tita that "You don't think! And that's that!" parallels similarly
repressive injunctions for Tita not to feel unless Mama Elena sanctions it, and to stay
out of trouble by always keeping busy in the kitchen and on the ranch. Director
Alfonso Arau highlights her disapproving presence by graphically framing Mama
67


Elena in unforgiving settings: straight-edged doorways with backlighting in stark
profile. Her dress is predominantly high-necked and severe. Even when she is filmed
naked in the bath house, Mama Elena spews verbal abuse that keeps Tita and the
camera at an insurmountable emotional distance. Never letting up for a second, she
steams and simmers in the tub while whipping Tita with criticism. By means of
sound bridges, her entrance into a room is usually preceded by the purposeful stamp
of footfalls on a wooden floor and her exits are often accompanied by the voice-off
sound of a crying child. While Mama Elena is biologically the mother of three
daughters, her vicious attitudes un-mother her emotionally and isolate her from
healthy interaction with her own children. She remains the watchful guardian of her
own will-to-power whose masculinized arrogance brings about her end.
When Mama Elena appropriates the masculine prerogative of scopophilia, she
ironically exposes herself to conventional cinematic punishment for violating
patriarchal mandates about active male versus passive female gazes.57 Her intrusive
investigation of everything Tita does, her suspicion that Tita is secretly meeting with
Pedro, her hypocritical assertion that she has already done whatever Tita might be
thinking of doing, all conspire in her overthrow. The final trespass on patriarchal
terrain which seals her fate is Mama Elena's discounting her need for masculine
protection on the ranch. She brags to Father Ignacio, who is concerned about her
isolation "without a man around the house during this political situation," that she is
68


well able to look after herself, that "men are not that important for living ... and the
revolution is not as dangerous as they claim." For these violations of traditional
gender norms, she is symbolically punished by the ruffians who push her over an
embankment to her death.
Mama Elenas overthrow is a complicated and circular issue because Like
Water for Chocolate illustrates the subversion of matriarchy by both feminine and
masculine forces. In a deserved backlash against the symbolic order that her mother
sustains, Tita rebels, speaks the truth about Mama Elena's responsibility for
destroying those she pretends to love, and escapes her mother's emotional and
psychological oppression. Such retaliation reflects what E. Ann Kaplan describes as
an intrinsic concern of feminists: the fact that "feminism was in part a reaction
against our mothers who tried to inculcate the patriarchal feminine in us." In an
wwdeserved backlash from the displaced masculine quarter, Mama Elena is punished
for her presumption in assuming patriarchal prerogatives. This second dynamic
illustrates Linda Williams observation about other womens films in which women
are punished because they represent a non-phallic threat to male power.59 Indeed, as
Susan Bordo confirms, "evil mother stereotypes are reflective of deep cultural
anxieties about women's autonomy."60 In essence, the character of Mama Elena
suffers from a complex, sexist dualism whereby she is personally debased at the same
time the institution of motherhood is sanctified.61
69


Such sexist double indemnity has a specific reference point in Mexican culture.
On one hand, Mama Elena occupies the position of high priestess in her own
household; on the other hand, she fulfills the role of traitor/whore symbolized by La
Malinche. Like this mythic stereotype, Mama Elena embodies a contemporary
version of the mother of modem Mexico, an Aztec priestess and interpreter who
betrayed her people to Cortez and mothered the Mestizo race. La Malinche is revered
by some Chicana feminists as the symbolic mother of La Raza and condemned by
other Chicanos as a traitor.62 She is seen as both victim and victimizer in this double
construct that represents an inescapable dead end for women who are linked to her as
her progeny and by their gender.
Mama Elena has betrayed her own family by forcing a loveless marriage on
Rosaura and Pedro, and by conceiving Gertrudis as the daughter of El Mulatto rather
than of her own husband. This hated matriarch carries the cumulative burden of
cultural blame that falls on women who seize power. Thus, matriarchy is felled by
forces coming from inside and outside its own gender. However, Mama Elena is not
the only woman in this film to be brought down by the collapse of matriarchy. Her
female heir experiences a similar fate.
70


Rosaura and Matrilineal Matricide
As the eldest daughter, Rosaura receives a double legacy from her powerful
mother: the ranch and a desire to entrap her own daughter in the same matriarchal
system that oppressed Tita. When Rosaura discovers she is unable to have any more
children, she opts to name her only surviving child after her sister Tita in continuation
of her repressive family tradition. This desire is soundly condemned in the film,
which contrasts Tita's life-affirming association with food and Rosaura's deadly
intention. In this sequence, Rosaura's sickroom is turned into a mock-kitchen by the
addition of a bubbling bean pot. Such subterfuge supplies the necessary cooking
aroma that will keep Rosaura's infant daughter from crying in protest over leaving
Tita's care and the family hearth. Tita renames the child Esperanza (Hope) to
counteract Rosaura's suggestion that she carry on the same discriminatory tradition
which has ruined Tita's own life. The contest between the two sisters over
Esperanza's future begins.
When Alex, the young son of Dr. John Brown, asks to many Esperanza after
they grow up, his suggestion is firmly rebuffed by Rosaura, now acting as the resident
maternal despot. Rosaura's refusal to let go of the past and move into a more
egalitarian era indicates an emotional and spiritual paucity that parallels her lack of
other maternal qualities. In contrast with Tita, Rosaura has no inclination toward
domesticity: she cannot nurse her own child, is inept in the kitchen, and aspires only
71


to filling Mama Elena's over-sized shoes. These short-comings set her apart from
life-enhancing attributes associated with the creative, feminine realm of the kitchen
and condemn her to a poetically just fate like her mother's.
Scenes and sequences in Like Water for Chocolate are flawlessly edited by
means of quick cross-cuts that blend parallel story lines and emphasize the
oppositional nature of the narrative. The sequence in which Rosaura's symbolic end
is sealed serves as one example. In a close-up of Tita's hands angrily chopping food
for her in-valid sister, accompanying voice-over narration reveals the impact of
Rosaura's destructive plans for Esperanza on Tita: "disgusting, repulsive, revolting
words! Tita wished she [Rosaura] had swallowed them and kept them inside until the
rot and worms ate them up!" Not surprisingly, Rosaura will suffer extreme
indigestion from this moment until her death as her insistence upon entrapping her
daughter within a heartless family tradition is inconsistent with health. As a result,
malevolent matriarchy guarantees its own demise from internal corruption manifested
in external symptoms: obesity, chronic indigestion, bad breath, excessive flatulence,
and ultimate death. Life, love, and food are the priorities of healthy, whole women
who choose the kitchen as their creative domain in this gastrotext.63. Patriarchal
attitudes and behaviors that marginalize this value-laden space are exposed and
subverted even when thinly disguised by cross-dressing.
72


In a like manner, patriarchal conventions of the bedroom are parodied by
Pedro's reluctance to impregnate Rosaura. His prayers for forgiveness and submission
to a masculine God at the expense of his own will cany sacrificial overtones. Their
unenthusiastic sexual consummation is viewed from an extreme high angle shot. In
the camera's detached and aloof eye, Rosaura readies herself under the formal
wedding coverlet in such a way as to call into question who is being compromised by
whom. Her seeming passivity belies the control she exerts over Pedro by marrying
her sister's sweetheart and conspiring with Mama Elena to enslave both Tita and
Pedro to a life of pretense. By such visual commentary, this transformational kitchen
nanrative insists that something is profoundly wrong with conducting business as
usual without reference to individual choice and feelings. To illustrate this humanist
point, it is necessary to refer to one assertive female protagonist who embodies a
liberated relationship to food, sex, and the symbolic order.
Gertrudis: a Jefa for All Seasons
A less formidable example of the subversion of patriarchy is its submission to
Gertrudis, female Generate of a squadron of border patrol troops for Pancho Villa.
Gertrudis begins her career by riding off naked with one of the soldiers, then she ends
it by marrying him and commanding the admiration of her male subordinates. Her
choice of men's work is juxtaposed with the former necessity of working in a border
73


brothel immediately after she fled Mama Elena and the ranch. In both instances, this
rebel with a cause pits herself against an establishment that tries to define her against
her will.
Gertrudis is consistently associated with idealized feminine qualities: love of
life, a talent for dancing, a healthy eroticism, and fondness for food especially Tita's
cream fritters. She is beautiful, sensitive, and competent. Her military leadership is
marked by mutual respect, an allowance for freedom of self-expression among her
troops, the ability to command discipline and gain results, and time out for play. The
fact that Gertrudis can embrace both masculine qualities of effective leadership and
feminine qualities of relationship within a single, integrated personality is the basis
for both her success and her happiness. In her androgyny, Gertrudis reconciles binary
opposites traditionally separated into masculine and feminine camps. She is both
emotional and rational, spontaneous and self-controlled, passive and active, a private
and public person. She is a lot like Idgie from Fried Green Tomatoes in her active
rebellion against the feminine straight jacket required by mother and/or culture. She
responds to circumstances in a way similar to Babette from Babette's Feast when she
makes her own opportunity amid revolutionary uprisings at an unstable time/place in
history. Gifted with charisma and organizational skills, Gertrudis is a kind-hearted
and fun-loving opportunist who embodies the friendly synthesis of traditionally
engendered dichotomies in this transformational kitchen narrative. Along the way,
74


she overcomes various forms of social, sexual, and political alienation with outlaw
playfulness that subverts matemal/patemal control.
A multiplicity of female experiences provides Like Water for Chocolate with
depth and detrivializes the work of women. Having already examined the ability of
one military mulatto to transform her personal circumstances, let us turn to an
examination of women artists whose work in the kitchen assures viewers that, as
Deane W. Curtin asserts, "cuisine is a normative art in which... description and
prescription can scarcely be separated."64
The Co-Creative Arts of Identity Formation and Recipe Making
According to Julia Kristeva who writes in another context but whose insight is
applicable here, "the vitality of culture depends on its capacity for interaction with its
own memory as well as with the memory of other civilizations."65 In Like Water for
Chocolate, two elderly women interact in the kitchen and/or through memory to
preserve food as heritage. Both share a common food-based ethos emphasizing
history, culture and relatedness. Their collaboration is both direct and indirect,
complicating the action in imaginative ways. Each of these women represents an
ethnic minority: Nacho is Mama Elenas Indian maid at the ranch and Titas
surrogate mother, Morning Star is John Browns deceased Kickapoo Indian
grandmother. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty observes, indigenous women
75


traditionally are defined in terms of their object status... as victims with needs or
problems but not choices a discursive strategy that denies [them] both political
consciousness and, more important, agency.66 Such gender/class/ethnic
discrimination that focuses on women as lack represents a socio-political situation
Esquivel actively undermines in this food film by elevating both Nacha and Morning
Star to the dignified status of wise women healers. Both indigenous women
transcend their economic and cultural oppression by means of ancient recipes for
food, medicine, and truth which they entrust to Tita.
Nacha acts as a foil for Mama Elena in numerous ways. Whereas Mama Elena
would deprive Tita of the right to live her own life, Nachas recipes are literally and
figuratively life sustaining for Tita. The teas and soups Nacha first makes for the
infant Tita compensate for Mama Elenas inability to nurse her child and later restore
health to an adult Tita after her depression. Nachas roles in Like Water for
Chocolate include those of teacher, mentor, cultural historian, healer, and benevolent
spirit. From beyond the grave she whispers instructions to Tita on how to use
tepezcohuite bark to heal Pedros bums. As Tita compiles her collection of ancient
Aztec recipes and records life events associated with them, Nacha spiritually oversees
the process, helping Tita to preserve her lifes story as well as the fragile and dying art
of indigenous cooking. Later Nachas spirit miraculously lights votive candles in the
shed where Tita and Pedro consummate their long-delayed love and enter eternity. As
76


a result, this Indian maid who lives and dies in physical servitude overcomes
limitations of time, space, class, and culture by means of her mythic stature as an
archetypal mentor.
A second wise woman influences Tita and her story powerfully but indirectly.
The wisdom of the Kickapoo woman healer, Morning Star, is mediated through the
voice and person of her grandson, Dr. John Brown. She appears as an embodied spirit
only once to second Nadias suggestion that Tita use an old Indian remedy on Pedros
bums. More importantly, her healing wisdom is validated and transmitted through an
equally benevolent male agency by her doctor grandson who preserves Morning Stars
art and understanding:
We're all bom with a box of matches inside [that] we can't light by ourselves.
Like this experiment [with phosphorus] we need oxygen and a candle. Except
in this case, the oxygen must come from a lover's breath. The candle can be
anything: a melody, a word, a caress, a sound; anything that pulls the trigger
and sets off the matches. Every person must discover what will pull his trigger
to enable him to live, because it is the explosive flare of a match that feeds our
souls. If there's nothing to trigger the explosion, our box of matches becomes
damp and then we'll never be able to light any of them. There are many ways
to dry a damp match box. You can rest assured there is a cure. It's important
to light matches one at a time, because if an intense burst of emotion were to
ignite them all at once; they would produce such a strong brilliance, there
would appear a tunnel of such radiance, showing the path we forgot at birth, the
same path that calls us back to our divine origins.
Such Indian wisdom liberates Tita twice in the narrative: initially by counteracting
Mama Elenas emotional and psychological abuse, and ultimately by acting as the
catalyst that transports Tita from earthly existence to a higher spiritual plane at death.
77


John Brown, whose character is significantly feminized in the film, defers to
important women in his life not once but twice: first to his grandmother and then to
Tita who decides not to marry him but chooses Pedro instead. However, his
masculine voice and authority are appropriated by Esquivel to speak for Morning Star
and to invest his Indian grandmother with mythic status.
By means of such feminist construction, two socially marginalized women are
brought into the limelight as agents of transformation. Both Nacha and Morning Star
supersede their cultural muteness when they enable Tita to write her memoir and
reclaim the kitchen as a place of creative power rather than merely of confinement.
Female solidarity and artistry moves margins to the center where they can contribute
their specific, multi-cultural store of healing wisdom. Female identity is built upon a
reinvestment of value in domestic space rather than its rejection. Inclusion of strong
minority women liberates gender and culture from stereotypes and provides a more
realistic depiction of female characters. As Isak Dinesen remarks, The cure for
anything is salt water sweat, tears or the sea.67 This saying reflects womens
struggles for autonomy and identity in all three transformational kitchen narratives:
womens sweat in Fried Green Tomatoes. Titas influential tears in Like Water for
Chocolate, and Babettes trips to the sea for supplies to stock her larder in Babettes
Feast. In each case womens identity is forged by a process that takes them, in Aniela
78


/fl
Jaffes words, not out but through, whatever challenges stand in the way of their
self-actualization.
With the help of Nacha and Morning Star, a third woman from the Mexican
middle-class redefines herself in this food film. Tita undergoes a personal
metamorphosis like that of a caterpillar into a butterfly. After years of abusive
manipulation, she finally confronts her mother's ghost with a hard-won truth: "I
believe in who I am a person who has the right to live as she pleases!" This act of
rebellion represents a main thrust in transformational kitchen narratives which work
to free the present from the limitations of the past, embodying Santayanas maxim
that we are not doomed to repeat what we can leam from.
Tita's gift for investing food with emotion is her primary source of awakening
power. At the wedding dinner of her sister and her lost lover, voice-over narration
informs viewers that the cake batter Tita mixes with her own tears affects everyone
with "a sense of melancholy and frustration... a yearning for the love of their lives,"
although Tita remains unaware of this phenomenon. Later, however, on the occasion
of her first anniversary as head cook at the ranch, Tita becomes self-conscious of her
power to speak in and through food. In this sequence Tita transforms the roses Pedro
gives her into the culinary means to invade Pedro's body voluptuously, ardently,"
according to Titas grand niece. Unlike sexist stereotypes of women as passive
beings, Tita positions herself as the initiator, the sender of sexual desire. Her success
79


with this edible form of communication is rewarded by Pedro's sensual but cautious
response and by Gertrudis forthright passion.
As she grows more self-assured, Tita develops a healthy femininity capable of
balancing competing demands upon her. Her refusal to run off with Pedro when she
believes herself pregnant, her confrontation with Pedro about his jealousy of John
Brown, her fights with Rosaura over Esperanzas future toughen her hold on personal
autonomy. She becomes self-centered in the best sense of the word she is able to
take into account her own needs as well as those of others. But then, Esquivel
constructed Tita as she wanted her to be in real life: a complex woman whose
integrity comprises traditional values and modem autonomy. A new whole results, a
more complete embodiment of a strong woman. Whatever can be re-imagined can be
vicariously re-lived in the realm of magical realism.
The Kitchen as Alchemist's Laboratory
Alchemy looks for a way to transform base metals into gold, identifying a
universal solvent, and discovering the elixir of life. In much the same way,
transformational kitchen narratives seek to transform competing engendered socio-
political relationships into something more balanced and healthy. A subtle parallel
exists between the medieval chemistry of alchemy and the modem recipe for
reconciliation that transformational kitchen narratives encourage. One searches for a
80


means of producing material gold; the other hopes to discover an equally precious and
costly product: greater gender, generational, class, and ethnic equity. The former
works to discover a universal physical solvent; the latter envisions a social model that
allows competing forces to be integrated into a larger, harmonious whole. Alchemy is
concerned with long life; transformational kitchen narratives are concerned with the
quality of life. How appropriate, then, that Like Water for Chocolate focuses on the
transformation of traditionally devalued space into a site of creativity, artistry, and
healing.
To begin the metamorphosis, this food film constructs a radical kitchen space
progressively freed from engendered dualisms. Tita relies upon her intellectual
capacities, her memory, and her emotions to blend ingredients into recetas that
function either as recipes for food or as prescriptions for healing.69 She is rational in
crises, saving Rosauras life with her knowledge of folk medicine and assisting
Pedros bums to heal. Her celebratory meals are culinary occasions never-to-be-
forgotten. She embodies and reconciles what Western philosophers have
traditionally ascribed to masculinity, the capacity for reason, with the feminine feeling
component. Titas growing maturity realizes the feminist vision informing
transformational kitchen narratives: exposure of the falsity behind mind/body
dualisms and replacement of binary thinking with a more holistic approach to life.
She accomplishes this by conceiving of cooking as an act of love that addresses
81


hungers deeper than appetite: mutual respect, human relatedness, individual worth,
meaningful work, and a healthy sense of wonder.
Cultural dualisms are also overcome by means of food motifs. Many Mexican
dishes contain an embedded language that symbolically refers to sex. In a parodic
use of the films title, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate),
Esquivel verbally plays with sexual innuendo. This phrase, which refers to the
boiling temperature of water before chocolate is added, can also refer to sexual desire
when ignited. In myriad places within the film, feminine voice-over narration draws
a parallel between sexual body politics and food imagery. For example, voice-over
narration explains that When Tita felt Pedros gaze on her bare shoulders, she
understood how dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil... The
heat was so real, she thought shed break out in bubbles on her stomach, heart, and
breast. Emphasizing a direct parallel between science, cooking, and loving, Titas
grand niece speaks of a secret alchemy [in which] Titas blood [accidentally drawn
by the thorns on Pedros roses] is dissolved into the rose sauce and into the quails and
into every aroma of the meal.
According to Janice Jaffe, this type of food-related, embedded discourse is
predominately a feminine narrative strategy,70 not necessarily limited to Mexican
authors, in my opinion. What better way to link the creative domains of kitchen and
artists studio than to invest your narrative with culinary/sexual double entendre. By
82


means of this equation, metaphors illustrating the essential connection between food
and all aspects of living embellish the subject and deepen the relationship of food to
real life. Both Esquivel and Tita are concerned with the therapeutic character of their
art. For each of them the kitchen remains a powerful realm that possesses a unique
potential for nourishing and healing genders, generations, and classes.
Appreciative men of a particular feminine sensibility are welcomed into this
domestic realm traditionally designated for women only. Those who avail themselves
of the opportunity to participate with valued women and their work are Pedro who
makes love to Tita with his adoring gaze as she grinds beans and chocolate for mole,
Sergeant Trevino who devotedly assists Gertrudis with the cream fritters, and John
Brown who draws a critical parallel between his medical laboratory and Tita's
kitchen. Men who are of a more open mind and disposition toward greater gender
equity find a comfortable place beside this transformational kitchen narrative hearth.
Class-conscious dualisms are also overcome in this cross-cultural space where
Nacha and Tita blend diverse spices, ages, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions in their
practice of culinary/medical art. Their joint efforts result in a prescription for healing
body/soul dualisms by which women and men are fragmented, individually and
corporately. Ancient feminine healing practices handed down from generation to
generation minister to the whole person in recognition of the truth that physical and
psychological needs are interdependent.
83


Food functions as a signifying system in Like Water for Chocolate by virtue of
its power to heal or to destroy, and acts as a transmitter of emotional information in a
ritual of wordless communication. The process of cooking parallels an interior
process of self-discovery and self-expression. As a result, the heart of this
transformational kitchen narrative is not a thing but a place. In this reclaimed and
elevated space, if one is willing, it is just possible to glimpse a sense of the sacred, to
rediscover the connection between earthly elements and humankind, to build a bridge
in place of a wall between the genders, and to refine that elusive elixir for a better life.
Evening Up Traditionally Engendered Odds
Women's Sexuality Without Marriage or Procreation
By parodying the conventions of magical realism that reflect a traditional view
71
of the Latin American family and the cliches that surround female domestic lives,
Esquivel critiques patriarchy and compensates Tita for the loss of her lover and
biological motherhood. In effect, Tita is miraculously enabled to nurse Rosaura's
first child in simple response to his hunger. So closely connected is Tita with
essential issues of feeding and family nourishment in this food film that her nephew
dies when he is forced to leave the ranch. In such a value-laden scheme, an important
point is made: life and health reside in a woman's willingness and ability to nurture
those she loves. Separation from the maternal source, even when she functions as a
84


surrogate parent, leads to death. In contrast with both Mama Elena and Rosaura,
whose biological motherhood is degraded emotionally, Tita represents the highest and
best qualities intrinsic to motherhood by her intimate association with the kitchen and
all that nurturing space implies.
Like Water for Chocolate insists upon the understanding of Tita as Pedros and
John Browns co-equal. Pedros petulant behavior diminishes him and contrasts with
Titas humanitarianism toward both men in her life. John Brown treats Tita with
courtesy and respect, refuses to undervalue her intelligence even when she is under
his treatment for madness, and insists on the happiness he believes she deserves. By
the end of the story, Tita is economically and emotionally independent: she owns and
manages the ranch, her own mind, and her body. Overcoming the oppression of
phallic matriarchy, Tita's legacy to her grand niece is the story of a strong, integrated
woman whose femininity is beyond dispute.
Director Arau portrays Tita's erotic sexuality in cinematic ways that visually
emphasize her air of fresh innocence and incredulity about the power of passion.
Depictions of a hard-working woman caught unawares in the midst of her daily
chores in Victorian or peasant dress contribute to a reading of her as uncompromised
even by her intense sexual response to Pedro. She successfully walks a fine line in
regard to her actual position as "the other woman" in Pedros life, creating a delicate
balance that works precisely because she has remained faithful to the love of her life.
85


In the concluding scene between Tita and Pedro, Arau assembles a profoundly erotic
portrait of this barren woman who has waited twenty-two years to freely enact her
love. Visuals are lush and moving as the director lingers on images, delays
gratification, and heightens dramatic effect in a montage of shots paradoxically
designed to fulfill and deny fulfillment. Tita is envisioned as the most desirable and
desiring of women. Her yearning for this moment has lost nothing in the passage of
years. Rather, she luxuriates in her opportunity for unfettered self-expression,
experiencing each moment with her whole body. This is a fully fleshed out woman
joyously in touch with her sexuality who convincingly embodies both mother and
lover. Her wholeness outside the patriarchal institution of marriage is cause for
celebration as the film visually records.
Titas delight in her own sexuality contrasts dramatically with the female lead
characters in both Babettes Feast and Fried Green Tomatoes. This Mexican food
film presents a graphic example of joie de vivre indicative of Latin American
temperament and spontaneity in contrast with Nordic expressive restraint or Southern
sexual ambiguity. Filmed in 1994 (three years after Fried Green Tomatoes and seven
years after Babettes Feast). Like Water for Chocolate exhibits a liberated view of
heterosexuality than eludes the other transformational kitchen narratives in this study.
It is interesting to speculate about why this is so. Perhaps the reason has to do with
the different cultures and eras represented: northern Europe in the late eighteen
86


hundreds, Alabama in the early to mid-nineteen hundreds, the northern Mexican
frontier at the turn of the twentieth century? I am more inclined to think the
difference has to do with the authors themselves and their personal passions. While
all three women writers exhibit a feminist preoccupation, Esquivel seems to be more
inclined toward conventionally romantic sexuality than the other two. In contrast to
the narrative restraint both Dinesen and Flagg show, Esquivel appears to revel in
romantic excess. At the time Like Water for Chocolate was filmed, Esquivel was
married to the films director, Alfonso Arau, and perhaps this collaborative situation
had an expressive influence on the film. Perhaps the Latin American heritage of
magical realism, a literary device fond of depicting loves grandiosity, plays a part in
Esquivels full-blown romanticism. What remains indisputable is that in all three
transformational kitchen narratives, feminine sexuality is variously represented in
ways that are appropriate both to the films historic/geographical contexts and to
womens different voicing of authentic experiences. I am of the opinion that this
variety strengthens womens subject position in each film and supports the five
related feminist criteria that all three films otherwise share.
87


Following a Female Format
Like Water for Chocolate draws on a number of Mexican traditions and
preferences that give the film its unique flavor and appeal to female audiences.
Author Esquival chooses a popular form of Mexican fiction known as libros
semanales (weekly, serialized books/magazines) as a model for her story. As Jean
Franco notes, defining characteristics of this type of feminine literature include stock
depictions of the family acting as an obstacle to the individual, adultery as a
consequence of extended families sharing the same roof, the movement of characters
from childhood through adolescence into maturity.73 However, Esquivel supplies a
twist to her use of these romantic conventions. In essence, according to Maria Elena
de Valdes, she parodies a genre of womens fiction never considered legitimate
literature by the patriarchal literary establishment,74 while at the same time she
critiques that establishment and its cliches about womens place/work. I have already
noted that her title, Like Water for Chocolate, is a simile for a sensuous relationship.
The epigraph in her book, To the table or to bed / You must come when you are
bid, addresses womens inferior position within the symbolic order. Valdes
explains how this telling Mexican proverb illustrates Esquivels self-conscious use of
feminine narrative strategy to explore the ways in which womens writing, highly
coded ... behind a simple episodic plot... [can] transform the conditions of
existence.75 By conflating serialized romance, diary entries, and cookbook recipe
88


writing, a recognizable formula for libros semanales is adapted and subordinated to
stories about life in the kitchen and related recipes. The resulting amalgamation of
styles includes recipe sharing that is repeatedly interrupted by romantic narrative to
heighten and sustain suspense. In the novel form of Like Water for Chocolate, a
pattern emerges whereby each chapter ends with a meal completed and a crisis
averted. Within her mimicry of serialized romance, Esquivel includes twelve recipes
and stories in monthly installments: a deliberate allusion to women's menstrual cycles
as a means of keeping feminine time.
In essence, the author constructs a layered text to foreground feminist issues.
From stylistic devices to narrative strategies, Like Water for Chocolate captures and
relates women's experiences with time and place. By such creative means, Esquivel
retrieves the past and guarantees an equal say for women in the present. Her written
and cinematic efforts comprise a form of testimonial that has been called the genre of
the nineteen-nineties. How appropriate that she chose this particular form to recover
women's history and convey the appeal of feminine stories embellished and retold.
A Revised Definition of Family
Similar to other transformational kitchen narratives, family in Like Water for
Chocolate is also multi-leveled. Working from the outside inward, there is a
recognizable movement away from family of origin to family of choice. At the
89


perimeter, there exists a formal unit composed of Mama Elena, Rosaura, Gertrudis,
Tita, Pedro and their servants. While these relationships have the structure of family,
they fail the test. There is nothing nurturing about Mama Elena's interaction with her
daughters whom she exploits and uses for her own ends. This matriarchally
structured family will be dis-membered in the course of the film and replaced by
something more healthy and authentic.
The first alternative family structure that takes shape is General Gertrudis and
her band of Mexican revolutionaries, one of whom is her husband. In their midst is
evidence of real warmth and concern for each other's welfare. A second family unit
is constructed around Tita and her mentors, Nacha and Morning Star, all of whom
share a reverence for food and the ways in which it can supply health to body and
soul. A third family unit consists of John Brown, his son, aunt, cook, and nanny.
These three satellite families intersect from time to time with the larger family of
origin and with each other until new entities are formed: Esperanza and Alex, Tita
and Pedro.
Within the conventional family structure, there is little room for difference or
individualism. Only in the smaller satellite units, where collaboration and
connectivity exist, is there flexibility to incorporate various kinds of identities and
allow individuals to be themselves. Thus, a community of women healers is formed
as an alternative to matriarchy. Smaller, egalitarian family units also thrive, as long
90


as love and mutual respect compose the core values at the heart of the relationship.
This understanding of changes that must be made to traditional family structures
mirrors similar concerns found in the other two transformational kitchen narratives.
In the final analysis, Like Water for Chocolate enacts a feminist vision in which
phallic matriarchy is supplanted, women's work is de-trivialized, history
reconstructed, women's voices encouraged, and alternative families validated.
Esquivels screenplay about a revolution that begins in the home, where cooking and
feeding combine in an original formula for true power, hits the desired mark. In the
reclaimed domestic space of the kitchen, women's food preparation and service are
the catalysts for deconstructing established gender roles that deprive both sexes of an
opportunity to realize their full, interactive potential.
91


CHAPTER 6
EPILOGUE
Transformational kitchen narratives propose a corrective social vision from
which all forms of slavery and tyranny are excluded and in which women and men are
encouraged to realize their individual potential and collective affiliation. This
innovative vision for society is intimately connected with the kitchen where food
operates as a culinary language capable of nourishing those who are hungry for
physical, psychological, or spiritual sustenance. The domestic realm of the kitchen is
liberated from past associations with womens enforced confinement and elevated to
the level of temple, gathering place, and/or alchemists laboratory. Those who
embrace this egalitarian vision and recognize its potential for moving reality in a
kinder direction are welcome to the metaphorical table where differences of gender
(and related differences of race, ethnicity, age, and class) are not seen as social
problems to be solved but as aspects of human diversity that strengthen and enrich
culture.
Subjective literary and cinematic techniques are employed by transformational
kitchen narratives to focus the cameras potential on shaping reality rather than simply
reflecting it. Contemporary societal preoccupation with issues of material enjoyment
and well-being are enlarged to include the possibility of healing relationships between
92


groups of people. Metaphorically and visually, these radical food films draw a
parallel between food as life, cooking as art, and women as keepers of true values.
Various strategies are employed by transformational kitchen narratives to free
the present from the socio-political limitations of the past and to embody greater
gender symmetry. Sophisticated melodramatic conventions are expanded to
emphasize melodramas potential for social criticism and commentary. Philosophic
postmodernism is revisited and reworked with some savory twists. Intrinsic
differences between people are respected and encouraged without the abandonment of
an understanding that common human(e) threads connect people within gender, age,
ethnic, or racial categories. A vision of plenitude and abundance associated with
feminine creativity fills up the postmodern void believed to be at the center of human
experience in much the same way as the well-stocked kitchen supplies the healthy
home. Past cultural requirements for women and their work are exposed as unjust
and replaced by a more egalitarian understanding of womens full potential and
inalienable rights. Artificially segregated arenas of reason and feeling are
reconnected within the feminine personality and find expression in numerous ways:
cooking, storytelling, authorship, political activism, and motherhood outside
patriarchal norms. Personal autonomy is stressed as transformational kitchen
narratives offer imaginative recipes for truth and justice. Flexibility and variety prove
the proverbial spice of life, counteracting the unpalatable ingredients of womens
93