Question answered by Matthew Hughes, Program Coordinator at PTPI.
In a world with incredible diversity, food stands out—along with music, art, and other cultural artifacts—as part of a universal language. Everyone needs to eat, and the ceremony surrounding food preparation and enjoyment is a notably human trait. Homemade food is a joy to discover, no matter its cultural roots.
One of my favorite parts of Like Water for Chocolate is the way a different recipe frames each chapter. The author begins each chapter with the name of the dish and a list of ingredients and adds a few instructions at a time throughout the narrative until the entire recipe is shared by the end of the chapter. The recipes Laura Esquivel includes are presumably ones that have meant something to her in her own life. They provide a sensory context for the intimacy and abandonment, the wounds and healing of the rest of the book.
The author’s exercise in using recipes to evoke memories (“…it was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present”) reminded me of an experience in my recent life that I’d like to share with you:
I grew up in Maryland, on the Mid-Atlantic East Coast of the United States, and life on the water was important to my family. The Chesapeake Bay—confluence for a substantial watershed and home to countless species of the land, air, and sea—bisects the state and is a source of food, employment, and recreation for many of the state’s residents. My family regularly spent time on Kent Island, the largest island in the Bay, where my parents still live today.
As I grew up and learned more about the Chesapeake, I discovered that there was an island, Smith Island, that had been inhabited for centuries without being connected by bridge to the mainland. Residents of Smith Island exemplify life on the water, making a living from the Bay’s bounty and creating a cozy community apart from the more populous mainland. Visiting Smith Island quickly became a dream of mine.
During the 2013 holiday season, on a visit to Maryland, my mother and I decided to offer the many relatives who would visit in the coming days a treat. We set out to bake the Maryland state dessert, an eight- to ten-layer cake named after its home, Smith Island. We found the recipe for Smith Island cake, struggled as we baked, frosted, and stacked the thin individual layers, and proudly displayed and served our finished product, pictured with this post, for our family to enjoy. It was delicious and a way to celebrate both the holidays and life on the Chesapeake Bay.
In August of this year, my family and I had the opportunity to travel several hours by boat to Smith Island. It was a picturesque day that lives only in postcards, with the Bay calmer than normal. We were welcomed warmly by the residents of Smith Island, who showed us their workspaces and flowering gardens and served us some wonderful Smith Island cake. We were even able to take a whole one home with us to share with friends.
For years to come I know that Smith Island and its namesake cake will offer happy memories, best served with a glass of milk.
You can learn more about Smith Island here and make your own Smith Island cake using this age-old recipe. I’d invite you, as well, to investigate PTPI’s Cultural Cooking blog series, surface your own recipe-memories, and submit a dish or two from your family or culture to share with the world.
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The opinions expressed by PTPI staff and other book club members are entirely their own and are not necessarily the views of PTPI or its Officers, Board of Directors and Board of Trustees.