Each section of Like Water for Chocolate begins with a recipe. The first recipe given is for Christmas rolls. The narrator warns that the onions needed to make the rolls are known to induce unstoppable crying. She curses this annoying consequence and recollects her great-aunt Tita’s similar sensitivity to onions. Apparently Tita was so sensitive to onions that she cried from within the womb whenever anybody chopped onions. Indeed, one day Tita’s crying became so violent that she induced her own premature birth and caused her mother to go into labor atop the kitchen table. When Tita emerged a flood of her own tears came out along with her and covered the entire kitchen floor. After the tears dried Nacha, the family cook, swept up the salt that remained and used it for years to prepare the family’s dishes. The circumstances of Tita’s birth gave her an everlasting love for the kitchen.
During Tita’s second year of life, her father suffers a heart attack and dies. Consequently, Tita’s shocked and grief-stricken mother Elena can no longer produce breast milk to nourish her child. Overwhelmed by her sadness and her responsibilities caring for the ranch, Tita’s mother passes her caretaking duties on to Nacha. Under Nacha’s care Tita becomes almost inseparable from the setting and routine of the kitchen. As the narrator claims, Tita develops a sixth sense during her upbringing that gives her endless knowledge of food.
Although the kitchen encompasses Tita’s early experiences, her sisters, Rosaura and Gertrudis, are unable to relate to her kitchen-centric world. They are confused by Tita’s fascination with the kitchen and afraid to join her there. However, one day Tita convinces her sisters to come into the kitchen to watch droplets of water sizzle as she throws them into a hot skillet. At first Gertrudis is fascinated by the musicality and rhythm of the water drops hitting the skillet but Rosaura refuses to participate because she is scared. Eventually Rosaura tries to participate but she is too cautious and doesn’t wet her hands enough or put them close enough to the skillet to cause any sizzling. When Tita grabs Rosaura’s hands to help, Rosaura resists Tita’s attempts, and an annoyed Tita lets go of Rosaura’s hand, causing it to fall onto the hot skillet. Mama Elena punishes Tita severely for this and forbids her from playing with her sisters in the kitchen. Instead, she plays with Nacha who also enjoys playing games in the kitchen.
On the De la Garza ranch, the entire family participates in sausage making. All other domestic tasks cease when it is time to make the sausage and each woman has a role to fulfill to help complete the job. One afternoon while the women complete their various duties to prepare the sausage, Tita, fifteen years old, announces that Pedro Muzquiz would like to come to the house and speak with her about marriage. Mama Elena tells Tita that it is useless for Pedro to ask for her hand in marriage because Tita, being the youngest, is obligated by family tradition to care for her mother until death. Tita begins to protest but is quickly silenced by her mother’s sharp look. When Tita realizes that she is not permitted to have an opinion or a voice she begins to cry. She is frustrated by the silly tradition and questions the logic of the person who started it. Mama Elena, angered by her daughter’s disobedience, does not speak to her for a full week. Just when things are beginning to improve between mother and daughter, Pedro Muzquiz and his father appear at the ranch to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses to grant her blessing for Pedro’s union with Tita and offers Rosaura to him instead.
After the Muzquiz’s depart Mama Elena comes into the kitchen to announce that Pedro will marry Rosaura. Upon hearing the news Tita is incredibly hurt and angered by Pedro’s disloyalty and a cold sweeps over her body. Nacha claims to have overheard Pedro say that he would marry Rosaura only to be close to Tita, his true love, but not even this improves Tita’s mood. Tita remembers when she and Pedro first professed their love for each other at a Christmas dinner just one year earlier but decides she must rid herself of all thoughts and feelings for the man who would soon become her sister’s husband. Tita realizes that the cold, hollow feeling within her is grief and discovers that she is unable to remove it, not even by eating one of her favorite Christmas Rolls. Tita removes a bedspread from her sewing box which she had begun crocheting the day Pedro first announced his intentions to marry her. She continues working on the bedspread while crying but neither the tears nor the bedspread bring her any solace.
Esquivel frames her work with the present but most of the narration details events of the past. The first chapter introduces this structure of the work in which time and narration are not linear. Though she titles the first chapter “January,” it covers almost 16 years of time, from before Tita’s birth until her first wedding proposal. The story is thus a reflection, the result of someone looking back on the De la Garza family history and recording it. Using the De la Garza family history as the premise for the stories and recipes that follow, Esquivel sets up a sense of closeness and intimacy for readers. She permits the readers, none of whom are members of the De la Garza family, to become acquainted with the drama, the secrets, and the inner thoughts of the De la Garza women. By framing these stories with the present day, Esquivel also shows that this story continues just as the De la Garza bloodline lives on.
Esquivel strengthens the sense of closeness and intimacy in her novel by narrowing her setting. As the first chapter shows, the De la Garza ranch is the primary location of the novel. Here, Tita and her sisters grow up and all of the ingredients for the various recipes are cultivated. Characters are only introduced once they have visited the ranch or encountered someone who lives on it. Initially, no narration exists of happenings outside of the ranch. Having only one setting not only creates a sense of intimacy but it also creates a feeling of entrapment. In confining the setting to the ranch, Esquivel mimics the effect of being bound that Tita feels under her mother’s suffocating rule.
On the De la Garza ranch, most of the characters are women. Men are noticeably absent or subordinate characters. Despite their absence they produce some unfortunate consequences for the women of the novel. Mr. De la Garza’s death results in Elena’s inability to produce breast milk while Pedro’s decision to marry Rosaura causes intense sadness for Tita.
Because there are so many female characters, there are also many maternal figures established in the initial chapter. Esquivel characterizes both Chencha and Nacha as more maternal than Mama Elena. Chencha often works alongside Gertrudis while Nacha adopts Tita into her domestic domain. Only Rosaura, it seems, has a positive relationship with Mama Elena.
The narrator describes cooking and the kitchen as the center of Tita’s world. She is born and raised there and learns to relate to the sounds, smells, and activities of the kitchen more than any other place on the ranch. Likewise, this chapter continually uses food as the center of the family history. Many events emerge out of descriptions of food or cooking. For instance, sausage introduces Pedro Muzquis’ house visit in the same way that the Christmas rolls introduce Tita’s birth. From here forward fool will play an integral role in the telling of stories and the lives of the characters.