Take care to chop the onion fine. To keep from crying when you chop it (which is so annoying!), I suggest you place a little bit on your head. The trouble with crying over an onion is once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop. I don’t know whether that’s ever happened to you, but I have to confess it’s happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.
Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, the cook, who was half-deaf, could hear her wailing. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labour. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic, and of course, onion.
According to family tradition, as the youngest daughter, Tita’s only role in life is to look after her mother into her old age. So when Tita falls in love and starts dreaming of marriage, her hopes are swiftly quashed by her mother. Mama Elena is a force of nature, whose wishes and plans cannot be questioned by her daughters; as the story begins, at least, Tita is nowhere near strong enough to stand up for herself. And the somewhat hapless Pedro, wanting only to be close to Tita, is persuaded to marry her sister instead.
Like Water for Chocolate is formatted as a serial over twelve months, each chapter beginning with the ingredients for a recipe, notes on the preparation of which are woven into the text of the narrative. The story, however, spans decades, following Tita’s misfortunes along with her kitchen accomplishments. When Tita cooks, the world changes: food becomes infused with her emotions, as well as the more traditional ingredients, though this power doesn’t seem to be within her conscious control. Many of the key turning points in her life are the times when she feeds others, her magical dishes unleashing supernatural effects on her family and community. Through her work in the kitchen, and given the passage of time, Tita gradually grows strong enough to defy her mother and speak her mind.
Although this is Tita’s story, her sisters provide the backdrop and contrast. Gertrudis has from the start the boldness that Tita lacks, and runs off with her lover, choosing to become a prostitute and later a revolutionary leader. Meanwhile poor, obedient Rosaura is trapped in a loveless marriage to Pedro, without hope, having known all along that his heart belongs to Tita. It is in the way these three women are shaped by their mother, their circumstances, and by one another, that makes this story so heart-wrenching.