On authentic writing, bread, and Like Water for Chocolate

For those of us in Western cultures and the Middle East, there are few foods more staple than bread. We might not even notice the bread as we swim through grocery store aisles (shoutout to Hannah Whiteoak’s “Earth Report”), throw a sandwich in our lunchboxes, proclaim some sensational new dip at a party…

Onion focaccia. A group of students, my husband, and I baked this in our school’s wood fire oven.

Often invisible by its very ubiquity, bread can have a hard time standing out. Yet, on those rare occasions when we happen upon a loaf of fresh-baked, wholesome, crusty-eared bread. Golly. That’s all I’m going to say about that experience, and if you aren’t sure what I mean, please, go bake a loaf right now. Right now.

I’m in the process of querying my first novel , and for the past couple weeks, amidst traveling and holidays and family and rainy days, my writing has been ever-present in my mind. So it was yesterday, as my husband and I baked a loaf of bread from flour we ground ourselves in the grain mill we received for Christmas.

I’m thinking, and maybe I’m not so far out there, that bread and fiction, both are the stuff of life. Let’s explore that for a little while here. Along the way, I’ll use Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) as an exemplar. This book is all about food and life, and I have to believe its protagonist, Tita, would approve.

Aeration & inference

Tita was trying to keep that warning in mind as she got set to castrate the first chicken. The castration is done by making an incision over the chicken's testicles, sticking your finger in to get a hold of them, and pulling them out. After that is done, the wound is sewn up and rubbed with fresh lard or chicken fat. Tita almost swooned when she stuck her finger in and grasped the testicles of the first chicken. 

Her hands were shaking and she was dripping sweat and her stomach was swooping like a kite on the wind. Mama Elena looked at her piercingly, and said: "What's the matter? Why the shaking? Are we going to start having problems?" Tita raised her eyes and looked at her. She felt like screaming, Yes, she was having problems, when they had chosen something to be neutered, they'd made a mistake, they should have chosen her. At least then there would be some justification for not allowing her to marry and giving Rosaura her place beside the man she loved. Mama Elena read the look on her face and flew into a rage, giving Tita a tremendous slap that left her rolling in the dirt by the rooster, which had died from the bungled operation.

Let us begin not with the bread itself, but with the holes in bread. For truly, it is the fluffy, aerated texture that gives life to bread. Most bread is over seventy-five percent air by volume, and those tiny pockets contain vaporized flavor that is primarily available to us because of its gaseous form.

The first loaf we made with flour from our new hand-mill. 100% whole wheat, 93% hydration. I feel really good about the aeration, even if the dome is pretty flat. Here’s the recipe we used.

So too, the magic of reading happens in gaps between the words. As writers, we are forever weaving more a net than a solid cloth in our stories, identifying a telling detail here and omitting there, and it is for good reason: readers’ imaginations must be activated for them to engage in what we write (see this idea dramatized in a lovely poem here). We can guide that imagination with images and metaphors, but if we try to do all the work for them, the story becomes so dense that readers push it away.

In the example heading this section, Esquivel choses key details on which to focus, and which to omit:

The castration is done by making an incision over the chicken's testicles, sticking your finger in to get a hold of them, and pulling them out. 

Her first description of the castration process is clinical, using surgical terms like “incision” and “testicles,” but it rapidly becomes personal with the informal words “sticking,” “get a hold,” and the second-person address. Notice that this is the closest we get to the detail of actually extracting the testicles. Esquivel doesn’t describe the viscera, the sliminess, etc. She doesn’t have to, because our minds have gone there already.

What Esquivel does give us, and what allows readers to make the next necessary (and in this case, symbolic) leap, is a vivid description of Tita’s reaction:

Her hands were shaking and she was dripping sweat and her stomach was swooping like a kite on the wind. 

We get the disgust, and the experience becomes grosser perhaps because have not been given a full description. Tita’s physical reactions then propel us into remembering that, at this moment, Pedro, Tita’s love, is about to be married to her sister. Suddenly the castrated rooster is… Pedro. Or is it Tita herself? Again, Esquivel doesn’t say, and this allows us as readers to explore and construct meaning.

Good fiction is aerated, always with the small pockets of unspecified detail, often with the great caverns of mystery or an offstage scene. In our perpetual endeavors to show show show, to pack in sensory detail, we inadvertently press all the air from our writing, and the result falls flat.

Structure

Yet to hold that air in fiction, we must, like bakers, build into our creations a structure. In the case of bread, this is the gluten network: a these days often maligned protein that functions in wheat breads like a balloon. Through kneading and folding bread dough, we stretch and promote gluten development, and this in turn allows the bread to hold air.

In our stories, structure is essential, both at micro and macro scales. At the level of sentences, we must consider what words to emphasize and how to make our meaning clear (while still allowing for that pearly inference), and as we move up the chain to scenes, chapters, and a work as a whole, decisions about structure take on even greater significance.

Like Water for Chocolate uses a unique structure that at first might disorient readers but in my experience proved one of the book’s most memorable elements. Esquivel opens each chapter with a recipe, usually employing traditional techniques and requiring a fair amount of foundational cooking knowledge.

Throughout the text, recipe instructions (and really, the rooster-castration episode above is one of these recipes too) are incorporated seamlessly into the text, so that the story flows easily between instruction and narration:

Remove the petals carefully from the roses, trying not to prick your fingers, for not only are the little wounds painful but the petals could soak up blood that might alter the flavor of the dish and even produce dangerous chemical reactions.

How could Tita remember such a thing, shaken as she was to get a bouquet of roses, and from Pedro besides.

Not only does gluten structure allow the bread to hold air; it also affects the shape and presentation of the final loaf. Particularly when baking with a wet dough, shaping the loaf carefully before baking will produce a good rise in the oven, while an unfolded dough will puddle in the heat, resulting in an unimpressive, albeit still delicious bread.

In our writing, we must do the same, and this shaping often occurs at the revision stage (see M.L. Davis’s great post on novel editing). We have written our scenes and developed our characters, yet so much of the final effect of our fiction rests on that next stage: the paring, the smoothing, the aligning of disparate elements. This stage is also where we are able to hone themes in the work, making statements as writers about the world.

Esquivel’s overarching cookbook structure allows her to draw connections between life and food in ways beyond simple statement, and her theme is stronger for that structure. Like Water for Chocolate is a recipe for love, for which Tita and Pedro must simmer nearly twenty years.

Ingredients

The most incredible bread I have ever eaten or baked is truly the most simple: flour, water, salt, and time. I began a sourdough starter six years ago, which I feed nightly, and the wild yeasts and bacteria that live in that soupy mixture of flour and water raise my bread. It is so simple, so old, and yet it is pure magic.

I believe fiction is magic too. Our ingredients (even in sci-fi and fantasy) are the details of life that we feel, see, hear, and read. This was a big realization for me years ago, that fiction can, indeed ought to, grow from real life, because then it will be true. I write fiction in an effort primarily to reach my heart through the voice of imagination. Writing fiction, the metaphors in my mind can become flesh for a time. Then I can see what they’re really made of.

There is nothing magic about flour and water. There is nothing magical about real life. And yet, there is. Both are transformative, in a way, if we let them be.

The story of Like Water for Chocolate is simple. It’s a story of long-unrequited love that ends finally in–no. I won’t spoil it. But Esquivel’s story includes fantasy elements, like when Tita cries tears of longing into the batter for her sister’s wedding cake, causing everyone who eats it to erupt in sadness. The magical realism here makes for a hilarious, moving, and memorable story.

Here’s a video of my husband cranking the flour mill. Like fiction, bread can be a lot of hard work!:

Leavening, enlightening

A pink cloud floated toward him, wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena's ranch. Juan-for that was the soldier's name-abandoned the field of battle, leaving an enemy soldier not quite dead, without knowing why he did so.

A higher power was controlling his actions. He was moved by a powerful urge to arrive as quickly as possible at a meeting with someone unknown in some undetermined place. But it wasn't hard to find. The aroma from Gertrudis' body guided him. He got there just in time to find her racing through the field. Then he knew why he'd been drawn there.

This woman desperately needed a man to quench the red-hot fire that was raging inside her.

We may not all have revelations as titillating as Juan’s, but good fiction should be moving to the reader. It might show us something we know in a new way (check out Yari Garcia’s post about how writing interacts with contemporary issues of sexual violence – it made me think deeper about these ideas), or transport us to a world we know nothing about. It might open emotions for us or leave us caring about a character as if she is a friend.

As I have begun approaching the commercial world of fiction, I am aware of the lure of marketing constraints that seek to smooth down fiction’s sharp edges, seeking manuscripts that will sell over those that reveal. I think of Brooke Warner’s TEDx talk here. Where the advice from industrial publishing makes our writing stronger, as much of it does, I am eager to apprentice myself, but at the point it pushes back on stories that need telling, I want to resist.

In the world of bread, salability too has become the rallying cry. Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation discusses how public demand for sweet, white flour still overwhelms concerns about health and local food economies. Although whole grain foods are growing significantly in popularity (see statistics here), they still make up a fraction of most Westerners’ grain intake.

I want my fiction and my food to lift me up. I want to be filled with good ideas from which I continue to grow. It’s not that I don’t want to be entertained, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate a good, white focaccia, like the picture at the beginning of this post, but, at its heart, let’s let ourselves be truly sustained.

The recipe is a suggestion

For twenty years she had respected the pact the two of them had made with Rosaura; now she had had enough of it. Their pact consisted of taking into consideration the fact that it was vital to Rosaura to maintain the appearance that her marriage was going splendidly, and the most important thing for her was that her daughter grow up within that sacred institution, the family-the only way, she felt, to provide a firm moral foundation. Pedro and Tita had sworn to be absolutely discreet about their meetings and keep their love a secret. In the eyes of others, theirs must always be a perfectly normal family. 

The dictates of industry form only a part of the rules in which we writers shroud ourselves. Avoid filter words. Cut the backstory. Never, never, ever have your character look in a mirror.

Yet the most central rule of all seems to be that, in the context of this moment in this story, you must write in the way that works best. For a lot of the time for a lot of our stories, those rules lead us right. Sometimes we choose to break them. That’s good. They are suggestions born of years’ work by our author predecessors, but they are not do-or-die edicts.

One of the most challenging elements I have been learning as a bread baker is how to trust my feeling over the recipe. Yet so many factors, from room temperature to water hardness to how active my sourdough starter is today impact the baking, that my recipe must always be taken with… fifteen grams of salt. Feeling a dough to see if it is ready to bake is not so different from rereading a paragraph to see if that expression really works, if it carries the loft I intended or cuts the gluten, letting the magic escape. It is back and forth. It is yes one day, and no the next. This is where we must learn to trust ourselves, when the rules don’t quite work. We are writers. We have it in us.

Seed bread proofing before it goes into the oven.

Where it all breaks down

Writing this piece, there’s one element I have been at a loss to compare, and that is longevity. The truth is, good bread doesn’t last long. In a day, it is stale. In a week, it has molded. Commercial bread does have this advantage over even sourdough: it’s good at staying fresh.

The best fiction, though, is largely timeless. Where a story connects with our humanity and speaks in language eloquent enough to make us stop and say, “Oh!” I believe these are things that endure, if not indefinitely, at least for a long while, until our culture has changed so much that humanity means something new.

Regardless, I think fiction has this one on the bread. Without giving away too much of the ending, here is a fitting statement from the last pages of Like Water for Chocolate: 

[T]his cookbook, which she bequeathed to me when she died... tells in each of its recipes this story of a love interred.

They say that under those ashes every kind of life flourished, making this land the most fertile in the region.

Just some food for thought. Best wishes this January,

Jimmy

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