Vianne Rocher causes a bit of a spectacle when she arrives in the small French village of Lansquenet, coming during the Shrove Tuesday carnival to open a chocolate shop. Vianne is unmarried, with a six year old daughter. That would be scandalous enough by itself, but she also has a preternatural sense of the problems plaguing Lansquenet's villagers, and she knows precisely which confections will solve those problems. As more and more inhabitants of the village become enamored of her treats, Vianne's chocolate shop divides the citizenry into partisans of the church and of the chocolate. Chocolat is perhaps the best known of Harris' books, but it is only the first in a series, the second and third books of which are The Girl with No Shadow and Peaches for Father Francis.
Everyone says that the secret ingredient in their baking is love, but you probably think that is just a figure of speech. Not so for Rose Edelstein. Beginning on her ninth birthday, Rose discovers that she is able to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she is eating. As the youngest member of a quietly dysfunctional family, this gift — or perhaps curse — gives Rose the ability to unearth some of the deepest and darkest secrets of those around her. Although much of this book is very sad — negative emotions are the ones we tend to hide, after all — the idea of being able to tell so much from a person's cooking is just too delicious.
Food has a magical quality in Holly's family, perhaps because of her beloved grandmother. Holly's grandmother runs a cucinotta on Blue Crab Island off the coast of Maine, teaching Italian cooking classes and telling fortunes. When Holly returns to Blue Crab Island after yet another bad breakup, her grandmother assures her that the love of her life is waiting. Apparently, Holly will know him when she finds the man who loves sa cordula, a dish composed of peas and lamb intestines. Unfortunately, Holly's grandmother passes away soon after her return, leaving Holly everything but her second sight — and the cooking skills she will need if she is going to continue her grandmother's legacy by keeping her store and classes going.
In the De la Garza family, the youngest daughter never marries, but instead stays and takes care of her mother for the entirety of her mother's life. Tita, Mama Elena's youngest daughter, is deeply in love with Pedro, but instead of marrying, she is destined to be the caretaker and cook of the family. Told through monthly snapshots and recipes, Like Water for Chocolate is Tita's story as well as that of her family. Tita is the cook of the family, and therefore its heart. Her emotions infuse the food she creates and thus shape the future of her family, ruining one sister's wedding day and forcing another sister to undergo a drastic — but positive — change.
For Lillian, food is the reason that she has family. After her father left when she was young, Lillian's mother fell apart, and it was not until Lillian discovered her talent for cooking that she was able to break through her mother's depression. Now, as an adult, Lillian is a restaurateur who also teaches a once-per-month cooking class. The School of Essential Ingredients is essentially a collection of linked stories or vignettes following the lives of the various people taking Lillian's class and showing the ways in which cooking transforms their lives. The book's sequel, The Lost Art of Mixing, is being released in January of 2013.
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