Skip to main content

Laura Esquivel’s Between Two Fires


“I spent the first years of my life beside the hearth in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, seeing how these wide women, upon entering those sacred places, became priestesses, great alchemists who dealt with water, air, fire, and earth—the four basic elements that comprise the entire universe. And the most surprising thing is that they did in in the most humble manner…as if they weren’t transforming the world with the purifying power of fire, as if they didn’t know that the foods they prepared and the rest of us ate remained in our bodies for many hours, chemically altering our organisms, nourishing our souls and our spirits and giving us an identity, a language, a legacy.”

So begins a series of essays and stories by Laura Esquivel. Like Water for Chocolate has been a longtime favorite, and this little book, Between Two Fires, sat on my shelf for a long time. One of the perks of moving is that you get to re-examine all your accumulated stuff—books you forgot to read, music you haven’t played in years—discovering treasures you already own is a pleasure.

After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel was approached by Vogue to do a regular column where a story featured a recipe. It worked for a while, but the magic of that formula began to wear thin. The stories within this anthology are delightful—a view into the author’s philosophy and experiences—the Mexican culture in which she was raised comes to the forefront, alive with folklore and family stories.

The book features several recipes, including a Oaxacan black mole and an intriguing apple soup. In the story, an apple soup is beloved—and made for a favorite uncle every time he visits. After learning about his dark double life after his death, the soup never tastes the same again—as though it’s been haunted by his ghost.

The recipe that inspired me the most was manchamanteles. Also known as “the stew that stains the tablecloth,” it’s a rich mix of pork, chicken, plantains, pineapple, sweet potato, and spices. Ancho chilis are the star of the show. Not being fond of bananas, I wondered if plantains would overwhelm the flavors for me, so I chose the greenest ones I could find. Being married into a Puerto Rican family has taught me a bit more appreciation for plantains, and when done well, I actually really like them.

This was not a small dish. It took the largest cast iron pot in the house to pull this one together, and it smelled amazing as it cooked. A search online brings up many versions of the recipe—some have just chicken, others pork, or both. Though one of my all-time favorite cooking magazines, Saveur, offered a recipe for manchamanteles, the one I went with for the more complex version from the Food Network. (Rather than a re-do with my own spin on the recipe, I’m simply linking to it. Go forth and live adventurously—give this stew a try!)
“Intimate Succulencies: A Philosophic Treatise on Cooking,” takes a historical perspective. Esquivel writes passionately about women’s roles, and an account of a woman forbidden from learning who takes her scientific experimenting into the kitchen is moving.


Of course, Like Water for Chocolate is mentioned several times. Esquivel explores how she developed the relationship between Tita and her mother in the final essay, “Mother Witch.” It’s always interesting to learn how an author creates motivations—what drives them emotionally, be it cultural traditions or personal ambitions—and weaves them into a story that you can fall into. Laura Esquivel paints rich character portraits, so much so that they seem like real accounts rather than fiction.

Her connection to culture of the kitchen is delightfully portrayed in Between Two Fires. The sensuality, the folklore, and the techniques developed by those who cook in those kitchens are wonderfully described.


I rarely look for “30-minute meals” and recipes with fewer than five ingredients for simplicity’s sake. As much as I love to watch cooking shows, the prospect of designing and making a meal in a short amount of time is a source of anxiety. Especially when watching something like Chopped—duck, rutabaga, fermented anchovies, and wintergreen Altoids—what?! I’d probably stand there crying. I like to spend time in the kitchen. It’s a meditative process, and I’m happy to spend hours making something for family and friends to enjoy. So it’s not a surprise that one of the quotes I related to most came from the first essay, “At the Heath”: “The time it took to prepare didn’t matter, because there is no such thing as wasted time in the kitchen—rather that is where we are able to recover lost time.” 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exploring the Cuisine of the Viking Age

Of all the books I’ve read about cooking, An Early Meal: A Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey remains a favorite of mine. A combination of history book, archaeological study, and treasure trove of interesting recipes, An Early Meal covers the cooking techniques of the Viking Age alongside evidence found in the ancient sagas and stories of the time. The first portion of the book is dedicated to exploring seasonal foods and regional styles, as well as customs and recommendations for replicating the recipes. Culinary history has always been a fascinating topic for me, but this book reaches the top of the list because of its meticulous detail. If you’re a writer and your thing is historical fiction, this would be the book to use.
Much of what has been learned has come from grave offerings. The types of cooking pots and types of bread have shown not only the social class of the person who had been buried, but they’ve also indicated the beloved traditions of this culture. We know what…

Recipes for Mina Harker

From Jonathan Harker’s Journal, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Chapter 1

“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem. get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called "paprika hendl," and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

“I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was "mamaliga", and eggplant stuffed with sausage, a very excellent dish, which they call "impletata". (Mem., get recipe for this also.)”

Poor Jonathan Harker likely never got the chance to share the recipes with Mina, since he barely escaped Castle Dracula with his life. But having been in the region myself, I can say that “paprika hendl,” otherwise known as chicken paprikash, is a wonderful…

Lords of Kur: A Savory Brunch Sandwich

My first three novels were centered on actual historical events and figures: Vlad Dracula’s Romania, Ireland at the time of Granía O’Malley, and Tombstone when the gunfight at OK Corral occurred. Menus were easy to research and I enjoyed connecting to the world of my characters through the food they knew. But what do you do in speculative fiction when history diverges into an alternative fantasy?
In Lords of Kur, Sumerian civilization never faded, but thrived and grew into a spacefaring superpower. The Sumer-Akkad empire controls mining on asteroids, moons, and planets in our solar system. Earth’s own resources have been mostly depleted, so the empire holds a monopoly over the rest of the world, which struggles to bring sanctions against it. The state religion has become a ruse in which false oracles feed insights that align with the empire’s goals. True oracles who would share the gods’ true despair over humanity are suppressed with medicated teas. The protagonist of Lords of Kur, Sh…