• The Good: Mexican magical realism about cooking and love
  • The Bad: Romantic storyline
  • The Literary: Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution; structured with recipes for every chapter

Tita de la Garza is the youngest of three sisters and, according to Mexican tradition, forbidden to marry so she can look after her mother, Mama Elena, until she dies. But Tita has always been a little bit different. Born in the kitchen, Tita is raised by the Nacha the ranch cook, and Tita learns to express herself through her recipes. At fifteen years old, she falls in love at first sight with Pedro Muzquiz, a neighbor boy. But since she must remain a maid and their marriage is forbidden, Pedro marries Tita’s eldest sister Rosaura so he can stay close to Tita.

I love that Like Water for Chocolate reads like folklore, full of magical realism, and is told through food. The book is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. I’m not entirely sure why the chapters are months of the year, as the story takes place over many years, but the recipes are delicately interwoven into the story.

Each chapter is preceded by a recipe that corresponds to a specific event in Tita’s life. For example, the food Tita cooks is literally imbued with her own emotions, so when Pedro marries Rosaura and Tita is overcome with despair, everyone at the wedding who eats the wedding cake becomes violently ill.

Set at a ranch near the Mexican-American border during the Mexican Revolution, a world larger than Tita’s remote ranch seeps into the story. I wish there was more of this juxtaposition of Tita’s small life against a wider world, but I’d argue that there is at least some intent by the author to parallel Tita’s relationship with her mother to that of the oppressive upper classes with all the power.

In the beginning, Tita is oppressed by her mother, forced into a way of life she didn’t choose and emotionally and physically abused. But Tita subtly rebels, learning to cook as an outlet and even as a form of emotional communication. Her passion for Pedro intensifies throughout the book, despite the constant ruthless enforcement of her mother.

In addition, Tita’s middle sister, Gertrudis leaves their ranch in a fit of lust, naked after eating a meal that Tita prepared while thinking of Pedro. A revolutionary captain by the name of Juan Alejandrez picks up Gertrudis, they make love on horseback, and disappear. Years later, Gertrudis returns strong and happy as a general of the army, finally out from under the thumb of their oppressive mother who has disowned her.

This book actually bills itself as a romance first, but I find that aspect of the plot to be quite underwhelming. Tita and Pedro fall in love at first sight, but there’s little that either of them does to earn each other’s love. Pedro is often alternately over-demanding or sulky. In fact another man, a widowed doctor named John who saves Tita and nurses her back to health after a terrible emotional and physical injury, is a much better match. But the romance between Tita and Pedro is magical I suppose, and their love is too strong to be held by the constraints of our mortal world. That’s not to say I like it.

Recommended for fans of magical realism, especially from a feminine perspective. Be ready for a distant storyteller that tells more than shows, but this one is a quick, worthwhile read!