The grandniece of Tita de la Garza begins telling Tita’s life story. Tita is the daughter of Elena de la Garza, an authoritarian and inflexible woman who, with an iron fist, rules the lives of her three daughters, Tita, Rosaura, and Gertrudis. Mamá Elena forbids Tita from marrying Pedro Muzquiz, arguing an old family tradition that insists on keeping the youngest female of a family from marrying, so that she can take care of her parents instead.
Pedro asks for Tita’s hand, but Mamá Elena offers her middle daughter, Rosaura, to him instead. Pedro accepts this proposal, realizing it is the only way he can be close to Tita, his real love. Likewise, Rosaura accepts her mother’s proposal of marriage to Pedro, knowing the damage it will cause her. Indeed, she is haunted by jealousy and the fear of losing Pedro.
Tita becomes the caregiver of the couple’s first child, Roberto, when Rosaura is unable to feed him. Miraculously, Tita starts to produce breast milk, and she begins to feed the baby. Mamá Elena worries that Tita and Pedro are getting too close, so she sends Rosaura and Pedro to live in another town with their baby. Tita remains in the house, devastated and worried for the baby’s well-being. Soon, Roberto has died of hunger. Tita, who is unable to cope with the grief, goes crazy. Full of sorrow, she hides in the dovecote, set up in the roof of the home, and remains there until Dr. John Brown, an American, convinces her to come down from the roof. Mamá Elena decides that Tita should be committed to an asylum, but John takes Tita to his home instead. With loving care, John nurses her back to health.
Tita returns to her home after learning that her mother has fallen ill, but not before promising John that she will marry him. Rosaura and Pedro also return to the house. Upon seeing each other, Tita and Pedro realize that their love is as strong as ever. Unable to contain themselves, they consummate their love, before John returns from a short trip. Tita also believes that she is pregnant with Pedro’s baby. Tita does not want to be unfair to John, so she breaks up her engagement, realizing that she loves Pedro more than she loves John. Rosaura finds out about her sister and John’s relationship and agrees to keep the secret as long as Pedro does not divorce her.
Rosaura gives birth to a daughter, named Esperanza (meaning “hope”). Years later, Rosaura tries to maintain family tradition by prohibiting Esperanza’s marriage to Alex, John’s son. Rosaura dies, and with the blessings of Tita and John, Esperanza and Alex get married. Tita and Pedro, on the night of the wedding, consummate their love, and die doing so. The ranch burns to the ground, and the only object that survives is Tita’s cookbook-diary.
Esperanza and Alex’s daughter, who has Tita’s ability and passion for cooking, reads Tita’s cookbook, noting that Tita will live on if somebody prepares her recipes. As the story goes, Tita comes to the world crying so much that her tears become ten pounds of cooking salt. She develops a strong connection to the kitchen, a connection that starts when her mother is unable to feed her as a baby and gives her to Nacha, the family’s indigenous cook, to be cared for. Nacha not only takes care of Tita but also teaches her all the culinary secrets that she learned from her Mexican ancestors. From Nacha, Tita learns that cooking is a reflection of her feelings and, as a result, she has the power to affect the people who consume her meals.
At Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding, Tita’s cake makes everyone feel sad; later, they all vomit. Nacha dies during the wedding, probably sharing the sadness of all the other guests and realizing that she may never find love. (Nacha reappears as a ghostly figure to aid and guide Tita.) Chencha replaces Nacha as the family’s cook. Like all the other women, she suffers the tyranny of Mamá Elena. Her life is difficult, not only for having to serve Mamá Elena; she also is raped by a group of revolutionary men. Still, she finds the love of her life, Jesus Martinez. Chencha becomes Tita’s companion in the kitchen after Nacha dies.
Tita, physically desiring Pedro, prepares a meal for the whole family. After the meal, Tita’s sister Gertrudis, unable to contain herself, rips off her clothes. A soldier, sensing her smell from a distance, rides his horse to her and takes her away. The meal that Tita had prepared was so powerful that Juan Alejandrez, the soldier, is unable to satisfy Gertrudis sexually, so he has to take her to a brothel at the U.S.-Mexico border near Texas. After some time, Gertrudis and Juan get back together and eventually return to the ranch.
Mamá Elena dies, and Tita is forced to keep a secret from Gertrudis, who is actually her half sister. Gertrudis’s father was mulatto, or mixed-race, and was her mother’s only true and impossible love. When Gertrudis has a mulatto child, Tita has to reveal the secret to save her sister’s marriage.
Discuss the role of magical realism in the novel.
Magical realism allows Esquivel to join the ordinary and the supernatural. It imbues her work with fantasy but also enhances the use of metaphor and symbolism. Instead of suggesting that everyone has a fire within, magical realism permits the idea that every character literally has a matchbook within him or her that can be lit aflame. Magical realism elevates the figurative language of the work into literal occurrence.
Discuss the relationship between smells and memory in the novel.
Smells from food and nature remind many characters of their joyful or painful pasts. The smell of roses reminds Juan Alejandrez of the day he first met Gertrudis, and the smell of Ox-tail soup reminds Tita of Nacha. Through smells, as through food, the characters are able to access hidden memories.
Explain the significance of food in the novel. How does it affect characters' behaviors?
Food frequently has the power of changing characters’ emotions and affecting their behaviors. Tita often conveys her powerful emotions to others through her cooking as in the instance when she shares her feeling of longing through Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding cake. Likewise, food also has the ability to heal. Inevitably, cooking always reminds Tita of Nacha, the surrogate mother from whom she inherited all the recipes.
How are the characters affected by the war? Does the war play a primary or secondary role in the novel?
The war is frequently a harbinger of bad news in the work. It claims more than one life and causes random inconveniences throughout the novel. However, the war never assumes a truly primary role in the characters’ lives even though Gertrudis becomes a General in the Revolutionary Army. Rather, the war exists almost exclusively as background. No dates, little context, and few names are provided to sufficiently describe it.
How do Tita's feelings towards Mama Elena evolve?
Until Mama Elena dies, Tita considers her to be a “castrating mother,” one who is too rigid and who inhibits the happiness of others. After discovering Mama Elena’s forbidden lover José Treviño Tita begins to understand the woman better. However, when Mama Elena’s ghost returns and continues to haunt Tita she finally expresses her hate for her mother and casts her spirit away.
Discuss Elena's role as a mother.
Mama Elena is a powerful matriarch. She lives by tradition and strictly enforces the rules of the ranch. Mama Elena’s lack of compassion drives many away from her including some of her daughters. Nevertheless, Mama Elena reveals the well-meaning intentions behind her brashness when she defends Chencha from the ravaging bandits. In a way, she is only trying to protect her daughters.
Discuss the structure of the novel. Why does Esquivel decide to begin each chapter with a recipe?
The structure of the work models both a diary and the cookbook Tita leaves behind for Esperanza. The structure fuses life and food in the same way that they are joined in Tita’s life. Beginning each chapter with a recipe reinforces that the food is just as central as, if not more central than, the actions that follow.
Compare the love feels for Dr. Brown and the love she feels for Pedro
Tita frequently remarks that Dr. Brown makes her feel at peace and stable. However, she feels intense heat whenever Pedro touches her or looks her way. Dr. Brown represents a practical and safe love while Pedro excites an unchecked passion in Tita.
Explain the significance of tradition in the work.
Tradition both blesses and curses the characters in Esquivel’s work. Tradition tragically keeps Tita from marrying the love of her life, yet tradition also gives Tita one of her greatest pleasures in life, cooking. Tita shares the cooking tradition that she inherits from Nacha through her cookbook. It passes through generations of De la Garza women and at last finds its way to us, the readers, through Esquivel’s work.
What does Tita's bedspread represent?
Tita’s bedspread is a metaphor for her bridal gown. She spends countless nights working on it beginning with the night that she first decides to marry Pedro. When she leaves the ranch with Dr. Brown, it trails behind the carriage like the train of a wedding gown. By the end of the novel, just before Tita goes to spend eternity with Pedro, she wraps the bedspread around her like a garment to keep her warm. Tita is never married but the bedspread is the closest thing to a wedding dress that she ever has.