The theme of food is central to the novel’s structure and meaning. Each chapter begins with a recipe for a dish that Tita cooks during that chapter. Often interspersing her narration with detailed cooking instructions, Esquivel uses food as a constant in the changing lives of her characters and as a medium to express many different truths.
Within the confines of her abusive relationship with her mother and within traditional female domestic roles, Tita finds freedom and expression through her relationship with food. The kitchen is the only thing that belongs to Tita; there she feels the most powerful and free to exist without the threat of Mama Elena’s cruelty. Tita is born in the kitchen, and she spends much of her childhood there with Nacha, the cook. Tita loves exploring the mysteries of cooking and she creates her own imaginative world with Nacha. When Nacha dies after Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, Tita becomes the head cook—but she doesn’t resent that she is given a servant’s post. Rather, she is happy to have a domain that belongs to her, where “flavors, smells, textures, and the effects they could have were beyond Mama Elena’s iron command.”
In the novel, food helps people to forge and maintain all forms of relationships. Most notably, Tita sees Nacha as her “real mother.” Tita feels and accepts Nacha’s love through the sustenance she provides in her meals, and they build their relationship around their shared love of the kitchen. In contrast, Nacha never develops a relationship with Rosaura, who rejects Nacha’s food from an early age. Before weddings, baptisms and funerals, the women in the novel gather together around food preparation. The ritual of cooking brings mothers, daughters, and sisters together even when their relationships are troubled, and is central to marking the importance of life events. Cooking is an act of love, as is eating food that has been lovingly prepared.
In the novel the ability to create, enjoy, and digest food is a sign of a full heart and spirit, whereas a lack of interest in food, cooking, or an inability to digest, are often associated with being less fully alive or capable of love. The two characters whose relationship to food is most thoroughly explored are Rosaura and Tita, but some connection is also made with Mama Elena, Nacha, Gertrudis and Pedro. At a young age, Tita is willing to try all of the strangest and most exotic recipes Nacha can cook up – a symbol for her desire and willingness to let herself feel and experience life fully. In contrast, Rosaura is described as a “picky” eater, who shows little interest in the kitchen and fails on the one occasion that she tries to cook for Pedro. Rosaura is often described as nauseous; later in life she develops persistent gas and ultimately dies of chronic indigestion. When Tita cooks food infused with her emotions of lust and desire, both Rosaura and Mama Elena describe the food as “too salty,” while Pedro and Gertrudis both feel Tita’s love and passion affecting their own state of being. In contrast with Gertrudis and Pedro, whose hearts are open to receiving love, Mama Elena and Rosaura are both unwilling to allow others to be close to them.
Furthermore, the ability to feed others is an important part of what makes a mother in the world of the novel. Tita, who is portrayed as deeply loving and generous, devotes much of her life to cooking for and feeding her family. Even when food supplies run short during the war, and even in hard emotional times, Tita consistently makes sure that everyone is fed. Tita so embodies the nurturing side of femininity that she magically begins lactating simply out of love for her nephew, Roberto. In contrast, Rosaura, who is passionless and motivated by outward appearances, finds her breasts are dry when both of her children are born. Mama Elena, whose violence and cruelty frame her as the anti-feminine maternal figure, was also unable to nurse Tita.
While cooking is a traditionally appropriate way for women to occupy themselves, it can also be used as an opportunity for subversion. Tita’s magical cooking allows her to share all of the emotions she is expected to repress, impacting others with extreme consequences. By letting her tears for Pedro fall into the wedding cake batter, Tita spreads her sadness to all the guests. The wedding ends with everyone crying over lost love and vomiting all over the floor. Though Tita doesn’t ruin Rosaura’s wedding intentionally, her sadness effectively “poisons” the bride, groom, and everyone else complicit in Tita’s suffering – giving Tita an unintended vengeance. Later, after Mama Elena forbids Pedro and Tita from talking to each other or being alone in their house, Tita starts to see her cooking as a way of conveying her love to Pedro. Tita makes delicious meals with Pedro’s enjoyment in mind, and Pedro compliments Tita’s cooking as a way of returning her love. Through her ownership of the kitchen, Tita can explore the boundaries of creativity and impact others in an intimate way. Even while she appears to be obeying Mama Elena and conforming to her gender role, Tita is rebelling and finding agency.
Food and Cooking ThemeTracker
Food and Cooking Quotes in Like Water for Chocolate
Sometimes she would cry for no reason at all, like when Nacha chopped onions, but since they both knew the cause of those tears, they didn’t pay them much mind. They made them a source of entertainment, so that during her childhood Tita didn’t distinguish between tears of laughter and tears of sorrow. For her laughter was a form of crying. Likewise for Tita the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food.
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’s eyes were as sharp as ever and she knew what would happen if Pedro and Tita ever got the chance to be alone […] She had let one little thing slip past her: With Nacha dead, Tita was the best qualified of all the women in the house to fill the vacant post in the kitchen, and in there flavors, smells, textures and the effects they could have were beyond Mama Elena’s iron command.
It occurred to her that she could use her mother’s strength right now. Mama Elena was merciless, killing with single blow. But then again not always. For Tita she had made an exception; she had been killing her a little at a time since she was a child, and she still hadn’t quite finished her off. Pedro and Rosaura’s marriage had left Tita broken in both heart and in mind, like the quail.
It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas. That was the way she entered Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, perfumed, totally sensuous.
She stopped grinding, straightened up, and proudly lifted her chest so Pedro could see it better. His scrutiny changed their relationship forever. After that penetrating look that saw through clothes, nothing would ever be the same. Tita saw through her own flesh how fire transformed the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour. In a few moment’s time, Pedro had transformed Tita’s breasts from chaste to experienced flesh, without even touching them.
Esperanza went to the best school, with the object of improving her mind. Tita, for her part, taught her something just as valuable: the secrets of love and life as revealed by the kitchen.