• Like Water

    by Judith Newton

    Chiles“How do you peel a walnut?” my daughter asked as she looked, not too happily, at the mound of nuts on the kitchen table.  We’d spent three days in the kitchen preparing twelve dishes for a large buffet, and chilies en nogada, or chilies in walnut sauce, were the final stage of our cooking marathon. That very evening some forty faculty and students from all over campus would be arriving for a celebration of the graduate program that had just been formed. If any dish could instill a sense of community, it would be chilies en nogada.

    Making simple recipes like tacos de crema, macaroni with serrano chilies, and refried beans, had been easy and even pleasurable, but the chilies in walnut sauce were posing a challenge. I’d combined Frida Kahlo’s recipe with one I’d taken from the Internet, and the latter called on us to peel the walnuts before pulverizing them for the sauce.  

    “Mom,” said Anna, rubbing at one of the walnuts, “this brown stuff isn’t coming off.”

    “This is a window into the lives of generations of women,” I said, ineffectually rubbing another walnut with my fingers. “Can you imagine how much time they spent in kitchens?”

    “I love cooking with you like this,” Anna had said when we first began.

    “I love it too,” I’d said. Our years of cooking together and of struggling through difficult recipes had created a strong sense of solidarity.

    We decided not to peel the walnuts, since Frida’s recipe didn’t call for it, but we did roast the two dozen poblano chilies and then pulled off their skins. Then we chopped a picadillo out of shredded meat, fruits, nuts and cinnamon, and, cradling the chilies in our hands, we began to stuff them with the sweet and savory mix. We were treating those chilies as if they’d just been born, but despite our nurturing they were developing some ugly splits. We decided not to flour them, coat them in egg mix, and then fry them in hot oil as Frida’s recipe required.

    “It’s too risky,” I said, entertaining grim visions of the chilies bursting their sides and spilling their innards into a pool of smoky oil. Did Frida fry her own chilies, I wondered. Then came the sauce – easy, sweet and cool. Four cups of (unpeeled) walnuts pureed with cream cheese, Mexican crema, cinnamon, and a fragrant, oaky half cup of sherry. Finally, seeds from six pomegranates and sprigs of parsley to go on top.  Red, white, and green – the colors of the Mexican flag.

    I had been thinking about a Mexican novel for the entire three days, Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate. I’d been imagining Anna and me as Tita and Chenca, two characters who spend much of their lives in the kitchen. A takeoff on nineteenth-century Mexican romance, Like Water is a novel about love and also a novel about politics, politics being represented by the Mexican Revolution and the ongoing struggle of Tita and her sister Gertrude against patriarchal culture.

    Each chapter of the novel is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish — the grinding, the toasting, the chopping, the boiling, the frying, the cracking of eggs –is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes as central to the story as romance and revolution. Cooking, indeed, becomes an emblem of the domestic work that makes love and revolution possible. It is the force that keeps women and men alive not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.  

    Like Water for ChocolateCooking is like that, always there, and if it is as it should be, it not only nourishes our bodies but gives us the comfort of feeling loved, cared for, and secure. Eating what is cooked and served with love evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.  

    Like Tita and Chenca, Anna and I were cooking in the service of politics and love. The new graduate program was meant to be revolutionary–cross racial, multi-cultural, and oriented toward political activism not just inside, but outside the classroom as well. And I had done enough organizing by then to know how cooking for others, with generosity and lightness of heart, can develop and sustain those ties of feeling that are, at bottom, what make political community possible.

    In Like Water for Chocolate, food is given magical force.  Quail in Rose Petal Sauce invites Tita and Pedro to enter each other’s bodies both spiritually and sensuously as they sit at the dining table. It prompts Gertrude to run away with a revolutionary, sitting behind him, naked on his horse. The Chilies in Walnut Sauce provoke the guests at Tita and Pedro’s wedding to make passionate love. Magical realism like this suggests the power of emotion, of the unconscious, and of cooking as emotion work in the day-to-day activities of our lives.

    Like life, the novel is full of mothers, mothers who nourish and those who do not. The bad mother, Elena, controls Tita, insists that Tito serve her until she dies, and forbids Tita to marry Pedro, the man she loves. Cruel, repressing, she is the mother who denies. Even after death, she reappears, forbidding Tita to be happy. Like a force of nature, she returns again and again, suggesting the lasting influence of how we are mothered. But Tita finds good mothers to take Elena’s place – Chenca, the cook who tends to Tita in the kitchen, and Dr. John and his Indian mother, Morning Light, who feed Tita healing foods after Elena brutally entombs her daughter in the Dove Cot. Tita herself becomes a nurturing mother to Esperanza, her sister’s daughter.

    Like Tita I, too, had found alternative mothers – in my best friend and ex-husband Dick, in my women friends, in colleagues I had come to love. But most of all I had found mothering in being motherly – to Anna, to my program, to my political community. Cooking and eating with others had all but eclipsed those days in my mother’s house – the shame, the lost identity, the spilled water on the floor. Like Chenca, I wanted to pass on, to Anna and to others, the recipes, the utopian practices, and the ways of being that make history more than a tale of struggle; that make it also a love story, a story of caring for others.

Chilies en Nogada
    (Chilies in Walnut Sauce adapted from StarChefs.com)


2 lb beef brisket or 1 lb beef and 1 lb pork butt
    small white onion cut into quarters

    2 cloves garlic

    1 T sea salt


4 T. safflower or canola oil

    1/3 c. chopped white onion
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper 

    1/8 tsp ground cloves

    3 heaping T. raisins

    2 T chopped walnuts

    2 T. candied pineapple

    1 fresh pear, peeled and chopped
1 apple, peeled and chopped

    3 large, ripe tomatoes, roasted, peeled and chopped

    Kosher salt to taste



    6 fresh poblano chilies, roasted, peeled, and seeded with stem intact

    Walnut Sauce:

1 c. fresh walnuts
6 oz cream cheese (not fat free) at room temperature
1 ½ c Mexican Crema
½ tsp sea salt

    1 T. sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon

    ¼ c. dry sherry


    1 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley

    ½ c. pomegranate seeds

    1. Cut meat into large chunks; remove excess fat. Place meat in large Dutch oven with onion, garlic and salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil.  Skim off foam if it collects on the surface. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes until the meat is just tender.

    2. Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in the broth. Then remove meat and finely shred it.

    3. Warm the oil in a heavy skillet and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until pale gold.  Stir in shredded meat and cook for 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, pepper, cloves.  Stir in raisins, 2 T walnuts, and candied pineapple.  Add chopped pear and apple and mix well. Add tomatoes and salt to taste.  Continue cooking over medium high heat until most of the moisture has evaporated.  Stir now and then. Let cool, cover, and set aside.  The picadillo may be made one day ahead.

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

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

    6. Place nuts, cream cheese, crema, and salt in a blender and puree thoroughly.  Stir in the sugar, cinnamon and sherry.  Chill for several hours.

    7. Preheat oven to 350 F.  When ready to serve reheat the meat filling and stuff the chilies. Place chilies, covered in warm oven.  After they are heated, place chilies on serving platter, cover with chilled walnut sauce and sprinkle with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

    • I loved Like Water for Chocolate-both the book and the movie. That is what I thought about as I read your story. Great events happening in your life. Sounds wonderful coming from a non cook.

      • Brad

      • March 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm
      • Reply

      A beautiful blending of autobiographical, cultural, political and artistic truths. And, I imagine, the culinary outcome was as delightful and delicious, as well.

    • I see a great book on food and the creation of a political community coming out of this essay. So right–food connects us, nurtures us. The glue that keeps family and community together.

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