Beginning with a recipe for Christmas sausage rolls, the unnamed narrator describes how she cries whenever she chops the onion, just like her great-aunt Tita used to. She then tells the story of Tita’s life, beginning with her birth. Even in her mother’s womb, Tita cried so fiercely when her mother chopped onion that she magically sent her mother into early labor. Born on the kitchen table, Tita’s tears continued, flooding the kitchen floor. Unable to nurse and busy managing her ranch after her husband died, Mama Elena (Tita’s mother) let Nacha, the childless cook, feed and care for Tita. The narrator explains that Tita loved cooking from early on because of her relationship with Nacha, and because of all the smells, tastes, and possibilities that food offers. For Nacha and Tita, Tita’s frequent tears while cooking are a “source of entertainment, so that Tita didn’t distinguish between tears of laughter and tears of sorrow.”
The novel begins by establishing the kitchen as both Tita’s birthplace and the place where she grows up, foreshadowing the importance that cooking and food will have in her life. From the beginning, Nacha replaces Mama Elena as the true mother figure in Tita’s life, showing the importance of nourishing (rather than child-bearing) as the essential act of maternal love. From even before birth, Tita’s emotions are supernaturally powerful, capable of impacting others and altering events in magical ways. Tita embraces her wide range of colorful emotions, just as she embraces the richness and variety of the food that Nacha teaches her to cook.
Though Tita sees the kitchen as “her world,” her sisters, Gertrudis and Rosaura, see cooking as dangerous. Once when they are kids, Tita convinces them to play a game of flinging water onto a sizzling griddle. Gertrudis makes a dance out of it, but Rosaura accidentally burns her hands on the griddle. Mama Elena spanks Tita badly, and thereafter her sisters aren’t allowed to play with her in the kitchen. While Tita loves cooking with Nacha, she cherishes special occasions when her mother and sisters join them in preparing the meals. Each Christmas, all of the women in the household work together over days to make Christmas rolls, talking and laughing as they prepare the filling, spices and dough. Tita cherishes this tradition, as the aroma and taste of the Christmas rolls brings back memories of all the years before.
For Tita, the smells and tastes of cooking are deeply connected to memory and emotion. Cooking is also a means for entertainment and creating community. Tita tries to share the secrets of the kitchen with her sisters, but her mother uses Rosaura’s griddle accident as an excuse to further isolate Tita. While Mama Tita approves of Tita working in the kitchen, she is threatened by Tita’s liveliness and looks for opportunities to punish her for it. The ritual of preparing the Christmas rolls provides Tita and her sisters a chance to play in “Tita’s world” without risking punishment from Mama Elena.
Before Christmas, when Tita is sixteen, she tells her mother that a young man, Pedro, wants to come speak with her. Mama Elena assumes he wants to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage, and she refuses to see him, reminding Tita of their family tradition requiring the youngest daughter to stay unmarried and dedicate her life to caring for her mother. When Tita starts to argue, her mother tells her she isn’t allowed to have opinions. Tita silently continues to question the tradition in her thoughts. Mama Elena, angry that Tita tried to argue, refuses to speak to Tita for days. Her only words are to chastise Tita for her “rebellious” creativity in sewing, softening only when Tita apologizes, calling her Mami in the deferential tone Mama Elena has taught her. The narrator remarks that unlike her sisters, Tita has often been slapped for saying Mami in the wrong tone.
Here, the narrator reveals the central conflict of the novel: the family tradition requiring the youngest daughter to dedicate her life to her mother instead of marrying or even going to school. For Mama Elena, tradition trumps individual happiness and romantic love. This tradition also helps to explain why Mama Elena frequently isolates and punishes Tita. Tita isn’t supposed to have her own life, so any sign of autonomy becomes a sign of defiance. Mama Elena is both physically and emotionally abusive, as she punishes Tita for any act of self-expression. Tita continues to find freedom in her private thoughts.
Pedro surprises Tita and Mama Elena by showing up at their ranch with his father, Don Pascual. He asks Mama Elena for her permission to marry Tita, but Mama Elena says Tita isn’t available. She offers to let him marry her oldest daughter, Rosaura instead. Chencha, the maid, goes into the kitchen and angrily tells Tita and Nacha about Pedro’s proposal and Mama Elena’s offer. A little while later, Mama Elena comes to announce that Pedro has agreed to marry Rosaura. Tita feels a cold chill fill her body. Nacha tells Tita that she overheard Don Pascual questioning Pedro’s choice, and that Pedro replied that he agreed to marry Rosaura to be closer to Tita.
Rather than just denying Pedro his request, Mama Elena cements Tita’s torment by offering to let him marry her sister. She sees marriage as a business deal, and she may also see this as a chance to further punish Tita for her desires. Pedro desires Tita so strongly that he settles for a loveless marriage just so he can be near her. However, he doesn’t stop to consider how his choice will affect Tita, or Rosaura, who is treated as a mere pawn in the exchange.
That night Tita lies awake, devastated. She remembers when she first met Pedro during a party at her home the Christmas before. When he looked at her from across the room, her pulse rose and she felt hot, her body burning like “dough when it is plunged into boiling oil.” Pedro later followed Tita to the kitchen and declared his love for her, promising that his “word is his pledge.” The narrator says, “from that night on, she would love him forever.” This memory fills Tita with despair, as she realizes she must give Pedro up forever, because to love him now would be indecent. She tries to eat a Christmas roll – which always brings her comfort – and curl up with cloaks and robes, but her hunger and cold are insatiable. She stays awake weeping and crocheting the wedding bedspread she had begun when Pedro first declared his love, unwilling to “let it go to waste.”
Tita experiences physical reactions to finding and losing love, highlighting the connection the novel makes between mind and body through magical realism. When Tita first felt Pedro’s love, her body responded with heat. When she loses Pedro, her body responds with cold and hunger. The gravity of losing Pedro is emphasized by Tita’s inability to be nourished by the food that otherwise always remedies her suffering. Her choice to continue making her wedding bedspread even though Pedro is marrying Rosaura shows that on some level, she hasn’t fully lost hope. Like the bedspread, she isn’t truly resigned to letting herself “go to waste” either.