A Chapters 1-4: Under Mama Elena’s Rule
In Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate the narrator chronicles the life of her great-aunt, Tita De la Garza, who lives in northern Mexico during the early part of the century. The novel’s twelve chapters, written one per month in diary/installment form, relate details from over two decades of Tita’s life, beginning in 1910, when she is fifteen years old, and ending with her death at thirty-nine. Each chapter also includes a recipe that Tita prepares for her family during this period. After her mother refuses to allow her to marry the man she loves, Tita channels her frustrated desires into the creation of delicious meals that often have strange effects on her family. Through the expression of her culinary art, Tita learns to cope with and ultimately break free from her mother’s domination.
Tita is born on her family’s kitchen table, amid the fragrant and pungent odors of cooking. Since Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, is unable to nurse her, Nacha, the family’s cook, takes over the task of feeding her. “From that day on, Tita’s domain was the kitchen” and “the joy of living [for her] was wrapped up in the delights of food.”
When she is a teenager, Pedro Muzquiz comes to the family’s ranch and asks for Tita’s hand in marriage, but Mama Elena refuses his request. Ignoring Tita’s protestations, Mama Elena forbids her to marry, insisting that she abide by the family tradition that forces the youngest daughter to stay home and care for her widowed mother until her mother dies. Mama Elena suggests that Pedro marry Rosaura instead and Pedro agrees, deciding that a marriage to her sister is the only way he can stay close to Tita.
Mama Elena orders Tita to cook the wedding feast. As she prepares the cake, her sorrow over the impending marriage causes her tears to fall into the batter and icing. Nacha later tastes the icing and immediately is “overcome with an intense longing” as she thinks about her fiance, driven away by Mama Elena’s mother. The next morning Tita finds the elderly Nacha lying dead, “a picture of her fiance clutched in her hands.”
Tita now becomes the official cook for the ranch. Soon after the wedding, Pedro gives Tita a bouquet of roses to ease her depression over Nacha’s death. She clasps them to her so tightly that the thorns cut her and she bleeds on them. When her mother forbids her to keep them, Tita mixes the petals in a dish that acts as an aphrodisiac for all who eat it, except Rosaura. Her eldest sister, Gertrudis, becomes so aroused by the meal that she runs to the outside shower, but the heat emanating from her body causes the wooden shower walls to burst into flames. Her body also exudes the scent of roses, which attracts a passing revolutionary. He sweeps her up on his horse, still naked, and rides away with her. When Mama Elena discovers that Gertrudis started to work at a brothel soon after her disappearance from the ranch, she disowns her.
The following year, Tita prepares the celebration feast for the baptism of her nephew Roberto, son of Pedro and Rosaura. Tita had been the only one present at Roberto’s birth, which left Rosaura precariously ill. Since Rosaura had no milk after the birth, Tita tried to feed him tea, but he refused it. One day, frustrated by his crying, Tita offers him her breast and is surprised to discover that she can nurse him. When Pedro observes Tita nursing his son, their secret moment together further bonds them. Tita’s celebration feast generates a sense of euphoria in everyone who shares it-except Mama Elena, who suspects a secret relationship between Tita and Pedro. Her suspicions lead her to send Rosaura, Pedro, and Roberto to her cousin’s home in San Antonio, Texas.
B Chapters 5-8: Tita’s Rebellion
After they leave, Tita loses “all interest in life,” missing the nephew that was almost like her own child. One day rebels ride up to the ranch and ask for food. Mama Elena tells them they can have what they find outdoors, but they are not permitted in the house. Finding little, a sergeant decides to search inside. Mama Elena threatens him with her shotgun, and the captain, respecting her show of strength, stops him. Tita becomes even more depressed when she realizes the men took the doves that she had enjoyed caring for. Later that day as Tita prepares the family’s meal, a servant appears and announces that Roberto has died because “whatever he ate, it didn’t agree with him and he died.” When Tita collapses in tears, her mother tells her to go back to work. Tita rebels, saying she is sick of obeying her mother’s orders. Mama Elena smacks her across the face with a wooden spoon and breaks her nose. Tita then blames her for Roberto’s death and escapes to the dovecote. The next morning, Tita refuses to leave the dovecote and acts strangely. Mama Elena brings Dr. John Brown to remove her to an insane asylum, but, feeling sorry for her, he takes her to his home instead.
Tita is badly shaken and refuses to speak. As she sits in her room at John’s home, she sees an old Native American woman making tea on the patio. They establish a silent communication with each other. Later she discovers the old woman is the spirit of John’s dead grandmother, a Kikapu Indian who had healing powers. John tells Tita stories about how his family had ostracized his grandmother and about her theory that all people need love to nourish their souls. When John asks her why she does not speak, she writes, “because I don’t want to,” which becomes her first step toward freedom.
One day Chencha, the De la Garza family’s servant, brings some soup for Tita, and the food and her visit return her to her senses. Chencha then tells her that Mama Elena has disowned her. She also gives Tita a letter from Gertrudis, who writes that she is leaving the brothel because “I know that I have to find the right place for myself somewhere.” Later, Tita accepts John’s marriage proposal. When Chencha returns to the ranch, bandits break in, rape her, and attack Mama Elena, who is left paralyzed. Tita returns to care for her mother, who feels humiliated because of her need for Tita’s help. Tita carefully prepares meals for her, but they taste bitter to Mama Elena, who refuses to eat them. She accuses Tita of trying to poison her so that she will be free to marry John.
Within a month Mama Elena dies, probably due to the medicine she was secretly taking to try to counter the effect of the poison she thought she was being given. Sorting through her mother’s things, Tita finds letters hidden in her closet that tell of a secret love affair with a man of black ancestry, and of the birth of their child, Gertrudis. At her funeral Tita weeps for her mother’s lost love. Pedro and Rosaura return for the funeral and Pedro is angry that Tita and John are engaged. While at the ranch, Rosaura gives birth to Esperanza, who like Roberto must be cared for by Tita, since her mother has no milk. Rosaura determines that her daughter, like Tita, will care for her and never marry, which angers Tita. When John leaves to bring his aunt to meet Tita, she and Pedro consummate their love.
C Chapters 9-12: Tita’s Fulfillment
Later, when Tita suspects that she is pregnant, Mama Elena’s spirit appears, warning her to stay away from Pedro. Gertrudis, now married and a general in the revolutionary army, returns for a visit. After Tita relates her fears for her future, Gertrudis insists she must follow her heart and thus find a way to be with Pedro. One night Pedro gets drunk and sings love songs outside Tita’s window. A furious Mama Elena soon appears to Tita and threatens her. When Tita tells her mother she hates her, her mother’s spirit shrinks to a tiny light. The apparent reduction of Mama Elena’s control relieves Tita, which brings on menstruation and her realization that she is not pregnant. However, the tiny light begins to spin feverishly, causing an oil lamp to explode and engulf Pedro in flames. As Tita tends to his burns, Rosaura and John note the strong bond that still exists between them. Upset, Rosaura locks herself in her bedroom for a week.
John has returned with his aunt, wanting to introduce her to his fiancee. Tita prepares a meal for them, knowing she will have to disappoint them by calling off the wedding. When Pedro argues with her because she is taking such care with John’s feelings, Tita is angered that he doubts her love. “Pedro had turned into a monster of selfishness and suspicion,” she muses. That same morning Rosaura finally emerges from her room, having lost sixty-five pounds, and warns Tita not to make Rosaura look like a fool by carrying on with her husband in public. That afternoon Tita receives John and his Aunt Mary, and confesses that she has lost her virginity and cannot marry him. She also tells him that she does not know which man she loves best, as it changes depending on which man is nearer. John tells Tita that he still wants to marry her, and that she would live a happy life if she agreed to be his wife.
The narrative jumps to twenty years in the future as Tita is preparing a wedding feast. However, it is to celebrate the union of Esperanza and Alex, John’s son. The death of Rosaura a year ago had freed Esperanza and Tita, making it possible for both to openly express their love. Tita’s wedding meal again stirs the passions of all who enjoy it. Pedro’s feelings for her, however, have been repressed too long; when he is finally able to acknowledge his passion freely, it overwhelms him and he dies. Devastated by his death, Tita eats candles so she can light the same kind of fire within her, and soon joins him in death. The sparks the lovers give off burn down the ranch. When Esperanza returns from her wedding trip she finds Tita’s cookbook and passes it down to her daughter, the narrator of the story, who insists that Tita “will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes.”