After Nacha’s death, Tita takes over as official ranch cook. Without Nacha, she feels as if she is alone with her “real mother” gone. In the kitchen, however, Tita finds some refuge, where “flavors, smells, textures and the effects they could have were beyond Mama Elena’s iron command.” A year after the wedding, Pedro brings Tita roses. Rosaura, pregnant with their first child, cries when she realizes the roses are for Tita. At Mama Elena’s orders to get rid of the roses, Tita decides to make quail in rose petal sauce. As she cooks, she begins to hear Nacha’s voice in her head, telling her how to prepare the meal. She learns that it is most merciful to kill the quail without hesitation. Tita reflects that her mother is talented at killing quickly, except in the case of Tita herself, who Mama Elena has been killing slowly throughout her life.
After years of abuse and with the loss of Pedro and Nacha, Tita is aware that she is slowly losing parts of herself at the hands of Mama Elena. Yet, true to her resilient spirit, she continues to cling to whatever autonomy she can, particularly through her role as cook. Mama Elena may take away her freedom, but she can’t control the sensuous nature or possibilities inherent in food. Tita can also open her mind to hear Nacha’s voice when she needs her, keeping Nacha alive through Tita’s love. Pedro’s loyalty to Tita causes great suffering for Rosaura, who doesn’t earn Pedro’s love even when she carries his child.
The novel flashes back to the one occasion when Rosaura tried cooking to compete with Tita, resulting in sick stomachs for the whole family. Now, when the family sits down to eat the quail in rose petals, Pedro compliments the “exquisite” taste of Tita’s food, despite Mama Elena’s disapproval. Rosaura, stricken with morning sickness, barely eats. Gertrudis, however, feels very hot, affected supernaturally by Tita’s food. Feeling a rush of sexual desire, she begins to imagine herself naked with the captain of a rebel troop who caught her eye in the village the week before. Gertrudis looks to Tita, but Tita is staring at Pedro. The narrator explains that it is as if Tita herself had been “dissolved” into the food. With each bite, Pedro feels as if she were “penetrating” him through the flavors and textures of her food.
The novel’s magical realism allows the sensuous nature of food to be dramatized: food becomes a powerful medium for sending and receiving love and passion. Though Tita and Pedro are forbidden from touching or even speaking, they discover food as a means for transmitting their forbidden feelings and desires. Rosaura, who never cooks and doesn’t have a talent for it, is unable to reach Pedro’s stomach just as she is unable to reach his heart. Gertrudis is open to the possibility of love, and her body receives and responds to the sexual energy Tita and Pedro share.
While washing the utensils, Gertrudis continues to sweat profusely, a pink, rose-scented cloud emanating from her body. When she tries to use the outside shower that Mama Elena has rigged up, her body is so hot that the water evaporates in the air before it can reach her. Pedro and Tita stand on the patio, speechlessly watching the scene. The rose-scented cloud then magically travels far away to a battleground where federal and rebel troops are fighting. Juan Alejandrez, the captain Gertrudis saw in the village, abandons his troop to run after the cloud on horseback. Back on the ranch, the heat from Gertrudis’ body causes the wooden shower boards to catch flame. Gertrudis runs out of the shower naked, right into the field, where she meets Juan, who is galloping toward her. He lifts her onto his horse, and they begin to make love as the horse gallops away.
True love and sexual desire appear as powerful, baffling magical forces that can call to people and control their actions even from far away. Gertrudis is transformed into an ethereal, god-like being, so full of romantic and sexual energy that her only remedy is to summon the man she longs for to satiate her desire. Tellingly, the desire in this scene is female-driven, allowing Gertrudis to defy the traditional female role as passive recipient of male desire. Juan, a fighter in the larger political battle for peasant liberation, becomes an aid in Gertrudis’ path toward her own liberation.
Pedro and Tita linger on the porch. Tita wants to tell Pedro to run away with her, but the words don’t come. She feels like the last “chile in walnut sauce” at a dinner, which is always left on the platter, all of its sweet, juicy spiciness wasted because nobody wants to look greedy. “Damn good manners!” she thinks, and “Damn Pedro, so decent, so proper, so manly, so … wonderful!” Pedro is thinking about Gertrudis’ naked body, as he has never even seen Rosaura naked. He imagines Tita might look similar when naked. Pedro thinks of asking Tita to run away with him. He begins to, but then Mama Elena calls them both inside.
Tita and Pedro don’t seek the liberation they have watched Gertrudis find. Tita’s reasons have to do with her sense of propriety, and she imagines Pedro’s reasons to be the same. It is ironic that even as Tita is damning Pedro’s decency, he is thinking about her sister’s naked body. Mama Elena halts Pedro and Tita’s moment of opportunity. This implies that it isn’t just social “decency” but also the tyranny of Mama Elena that keeps them from acting on their impulses.
Tita makes up a story, telling Mama Elena that federal troops (whom Tita hates) came and kidnapped Gertrudis. Mama Elena is overcome with sadness, but when she finds out a week later that Gertrudis has been seen working at a nearby brothel, she burns every reminder of Gertrudis and forbids any mention of her name. Tita celebrates Gertrudis’ “liberation” each year by making the quail in rose sauce. That night, Tita works on her bedspread. Looking up at the night sky, she hopes that some of the heat from Gertrudis’ love will travel back through the stars to warm her, but she is left only with chills.
Tita’s hatred for the federals reflects her resentment of Mama Elena’s tyranny. By making the quail in rose sauce each year, Tita silently shows her rebellion against chastity and her solidarity with Gertrudis. Mama Elena is so offended by her daughter’s impropriety and independence that she pretends she doesn’t even exist. Tita’s persistent chills represent her lack of love, which contrasts with Gertrudis’ heat.