Like Water for Chocolate opens with a bit of wisdom from one of its central settings, the kitchen: to avoid tears when chopping onions, one must simply place a slice of onion on one's head.
Onion-induced weeping quite literally sweeps the protagonist, Tita, into the world, as she is born in the kitchen, crying, amidst of flood of her mother's tears. Her mother, Mama Elena, is unable to produce milk (due to shock at the recent death of her husband) and consequently hands off Tita almost immediately to the house cook, Nacha, who rears the child in the kitchen. Surrounded by the colors, smells, and routines of Nacha's kitchen, Tita grows up understanding the world in terms of food. She enjoys her isolation in the domain of the kitchen.
Outside the kitchen, Tita follows the demanding regimen that Mama Elena sets for her daughters. Life is full of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and prayer. This routine is interrupted one day by Tita's timid announcement that a suitor, Pedro Muzquiz, would like to pay her a visit. Mama Elena greets this announcement with indignation, invoking the De La Garza family tradition that the youngest daughter is to remain unmarried so that she can care for the matriarch in the matriarch's old age. Tita is dismayed by this rigid tradition. Outwardly, she submits to Mama Elena's wishes, but privately she questions the family tradition and maintains her feelings for Pedro. The next day, Pedro and his father arrive at the house unannounced to ask for Tita's hand. Mama Elena refuses this marriage proposal, offering instead the hand of her second daughter, Rosaura.
Mama Elena's bold disregard for Tita's feelings shocks the household, but Pedro and his father agree to the arrangement. Nacha, the maid, claims to have overheard Pedro confess to his father that he has accepted the marriage to Rosaura because it is the only way to be near Tita. However, Tita is not consoled by the report of this admission. Not even the Christmas Roll, her favorite food, can cure Tita of her sadness. She is struck by a feeling of cold; to warm herself, she resumes work on a bedspread, which she had begun crocheting when she and Pedro first began to talk of marriage.
The story of Tita's entry into the world marks the first fantastical image of Like Water for Chocolate, initiating the reader into the novel's magical realism and illustrating the intensity and improbability that characterize the events of the story. The image of Tita flowing into the world in a flood of tears prefigures the sadness and longing that will pervade her life. After Tita's birth, the flood of tears dries to leave ten pounds of salt to be collected and used for cooking. The practical attitude with which the characters greet this surreal happening helps to establish the supernatural as an accepted part of the characters' lives.
Her isolated childhood in the kitchen gives Tita an outlook on life different from that of her sisters, Gertrudis and Rosaura, and she comes to develop different ideals for herself as she matures. As a young woman, Tita rebels against the family tradition that confines her to a life without love. Her insistent questioning (even though she does not petition Mama Elena directly) of her lot in life can be identified as one of the feminist impulses in the novel. This refusal to accept an assigned and undesirable social role marks the beginning of Tita's path to self-assertion and freedom.
The overwhelming sense of cold that descends upon Tita after Pedro and Rosaura become engaged is an early instance of a theme that will figure prominently in the novel: an emotional state manifesting itself physically. Tita's nights of insomnia spent feverishly crocheting a bedspread represent her desperate desire for the heat of love and help establish the pattern of Tita's channeling her passion into domestic activities (she later transmits her passion for Pedro through cooking). As with many of the behaviors in the novel, Tita's reaction to the feeling of cold is exaggerated so as to highlight the intensity of the emotion behind the action.
Another important aspect of Tita's sadness about the engagement is that not even the Christmas Roll can lift her spirits. The warmth that Tita would normally receive from her favorite food cannot overcome the coldness induced by her starved love. Tita's understanding of life through food fails to comfort her, and the inadequacy of food as a substitute for love is demonstrated.