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Like Water for Chocolate | Study Guide

Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for Chocolate | Chapter 1 : January | Summary



Chapter 1 is the January "installment" of the novel and is introduced with the recipe for Christmas rolls. The reader is told to "take care to chop the onion fine" and is given a folk remedy that to keep from crying it is wise to place a little bit of the onion on your head.

Tita, the great-aunt of the narrator, was particularly sensitive to onions. Family lore says she even cried in the womb. Tita was "washed into this world on a great tide of tears" and was born right on the kitchen table. The narrator wonders if Tita was also crying because she already knew she would be denied marriage in her life. The salty residue of the baby's tears, gathered up by the cook Nacha, was enough to fill a 10-pound bag.

Tita's father died two days after her birth, and Mama Elena was unable to nurse her. Nacha offered to feed the baby, and Elena quickly accepted the offer since she now had a ranch to run and children to provide for. Nacha loved Tita and took care of her as though she were her own daughter, and the child quickly grew vigorous and healthy. The narrator also notes, "Thanks to her unusual birth, Tita felt a deep love for the kitchen." She thought of it as her realm, her domain, and grew up with a sixth sense about food. In fact for Tita "the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food," so much so she understood the world of the kitchen far more than she did the real world beyond it.

Her sisters Rosaura and Gertrudis, however, were afraid of the kitchen. Once Tita tried to entice them by making water droplets dance on a hot griddle. Gertrudis, who loved movement and rhythm, was enchanted, but Rosaura, already a cautious girl, was accidentally burned. From that point on the girls were forbidden to play together in the kitchen. But all of the women in the family, including Nacha and the maid Chencha, always came together to make Christmas rolls, a beloved family ritual that took several days.

At this point the story moves into the present; Tita is a spirited, bright 15-year-old young woman. One night she announces Pedro Muzquiz would like to speak to Mama Elena. The couple is in love and hope to marry. (Tita remembers understanding "how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil" when Pedro first looked at her.) Mama Elena immediately infers the reason for the visit. She tells Tita the young man should not bother: as the youngest daughter, she will care for Elena until the day she dies. To Tita this family tradition makes absolutely no sense. Why, for example, is the youngest daughter better able to care for a mother than the eldest? But even as she begins to question her mother's decision, Elena stops her by saying, "You don't have an opinion."

Pedro still comes to the house unexpectedly, on a night when the Christmas rolls, which Tita is said to have loved even in her mother's womb, are being made as a special treat for her birthday. Tita's flash of hope at his appearance is quickly quashed. Elena is firm that Tita cannot marry, and she offers Rosaura to Pedro instead. Pedro accepts, even though, as the servant Chencha observes, "You can't just switch tacos and enchiladas like that!" Tita is heartbroken, wondering why Pedro would agree to the marriage. Later, thanks to Chencha's skills as an eavesdropper, she learns Pedro is marrying Rosaura in order to stay near the true love of his life, Tita. That night Tita feels the chill of grief and pulls out the bedspread she began knitting the night Pedro first declared his love. She works on it all night and throws it over herself, but even the heavy bedspread can't take away the chill, which she will continue to feel for as long as she lives.


Chapter 1 introduces the format/chapter structure that will be used throughout the book. Each chapter represents one monthly "installment" of the novel, which is presented as though it might have been collected from a series in a monthly magazine for women. It begins with a recipe, the word Preparation appears above the first paragraph of the chapter, and directions for preparing the main dish, as well as other items, are woven throughout the narrative that follows. As the narrative jumps back and forth between the human drama and the preparation of food, it creates the impression that the two are so closely related that the odd juxtaposition of details actually makes perfect sense. This establishes the mystical connection between people and food that will be central to the entire story and begins the series of food metaphors that appear in almost every paragraph.

The first event of the chapter establishes the story as magic realism, a genre in which realistic elements are combined with the surreal elements of fantasies and dreams. Tita is literally washed into the world on a tide of her own tears, and the salty residue from those tears is enough to fill a 10-pound bag. None of this seems to surprise any of the characters, making it clear the magical elements of the story are meant to be accepted as easily as the everyday ones.

The chapter also begins introducing and developing the characters of the women who make up Tita's family. Mama Elena is an odd mix of gender roles. She is the "traditional" woman who insists on perfect stitches in embroidery, wants her daughters to learn to cook and sew, and expects to be cared for by her youngest daughter in her old age. But she is also a strong woman who immediately takes over the running of the ranch after her husband's death and expects absolute obedience from those around her. When she questions Pedro's visit, her look contains "all the years of repression that had flowed over the family."

Tita is a blend of opposites as well. A romantic who dreams of marriage to Pedro, she also is a bright, insightful young woman who has opinions, questions traditions, and tries to stand up for her beliefs, even when facing someone as fierce as her mother. But at this point, still only 15, she does not yet have the courage to oppose the force that is Mama Elena. Her mother consistently beats down any signs of rebelliousness until Tita stops resisting and Elena is content that "she had finally managed to subdue her youngest daughter." The chapter also establishes Tita's mystical connection with food. She supposedly was able to smell onions and her beloved Christmas rolls while still inside the womb, and from the time she was born her whole world was the kitchen. As for her sisters, the reader doesn't learn much about them in this chapter other than receiving an initial impression that Rosaura does exactly what is expected of her while Gertrudis is an enthusiastic and passionate woman, enchanted by music, rhythm, and movement.

The other key figure is Nacha, who becomes a second mother to Tita. At this point she is Tita's salvation, the person who teaches her the mysteries of the kitchen and provides her with the love her own mother does not. The narrator also suggests Nacha knows about "much more" than just cooking, and the importance of this will be revealed later on.

Finally, the use of heat and cold as symbols of emotion and sexual energy are introduced. Pedro's hot gaze is enough to make Tita feel as though her skin was like hot dough "plunged into boiling oil," but his engagement to Rosaura leaves her with a chill she will feel for most of the days of her life. Similar references and metaphors will appear throughout the novel.

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