Tita and Chencha are tirelessly preparing chiles in walnut sauce for a wedding banquet. The narrator states that the wedding has a “special significance” for Tita, who is very happy, and “for John too.” The narrator then switches over to following John. He has been happily assisting Tita with preparations, and now lays his clothes out for the following day, “filled with strong emotion.” Pedro, in contrast, has been in a terribly jealous mood. When John came over to help Tita cook, John handed her a box of matches, taking “her hand in his.” Pedro is baffled by John’s “attitude,” given what he knows about “what was between Tita and him.” The night before the wedding, Pedro leaves to find John and “teach him what a man does when he really loves a woman,” but he turns back, deciding it would look bad for “Tita’s brother-in-law to get in a fight with John on the day before the wedding.”
Esquivel carefully describes the wedding preparation, without actually stating whose wedding it is. The cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 11 was the moment of decision for Tita – would she marry John? Esquivel begins this chapter with Tita and John’s actions and thoughts before the wedding, and describes them both as happy. The first mention of Pedro is to describe his jealousy. The author thereby plays with the reader’s suspense, implying that Tita is marrying John. John’s lack of jealousy or possessiveness contrasts with Pedro, who believes that if a man loves a woman, he will use violence to defend his “right” to her.
As Tita finishes shelling the last nuts, she thinks of how much Rosaura would have liked this wedding. The narrator reveals that Rosaura has been dead for a year, and then tells the story of her death. One night, when Pedro went to go say goodnight to Rosaura, he heard a loud episode of flatulence from outside her door. It was so loud that it rattled the house. Pedro asked through the door if Rosaura was all right, but heard no response. When he entered, he saw her purple face and “wild” eyes just before she finished passing the gas and died. John diagnosed her cause of death as “acute congestion of the stomach.” Few people attended her funeral, disturbed by the smell still emanating from her body.
Rosaura’s death through indigestion reinforces the importance of her character’s relationship to food and its symbolic role in the novel. Tita’s example shows that those who show love and generosity are likely to find more love. Love, as John taught Tita, nourishes the soul. Those who display loving qualities, like Nacha, Gertrudis, and Tita, enjoy food deeply. In contrast, Rosaura’s inability to enjoy or digest food reflects her bitterness and jealousy. Rosaura’s death by indigestion serves as a metaphor for her failure to nourish her own spirit.
On the day of the wedding, everyone is impressed when Gertrudis and Juan pull up in a Model T ford coupe. They are sporting the latest trends, with Gertrudis in shoulder pads and a wide-brimmed hat and Juan wearing a suit and top hat. Their oldest son has become handsome, with dark skin and Mama Elena’s blue eyes. Rosalio and Nicolas wear traditional clothing as they collect the wedding invitations handmade by Alex and Esperanza, using an old family recipe and the wedding ink left over from Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding.
Gertrudis, who led troops on the side of the rebels and defied traditional women’s roles, represents modernity. Pictured as rich and worldly, Juan and Gertrudis continue to represent the most daring and prosperous side of modernity and the future of Mexico. Through this depiction, the novel hints at the inevitability of a future that is more liberated, materialistic, and international.
At the wedding, Pedro and Tita request that the band play the old waltz, “The Eyes of Youth.” The narrator comments that Tita is still beautiful, even though she is now thirty-nine. As they dance, cheek-to-cheek, John watches with a “look full of affection and just a hint of resignation.” Pedro asks Tita if she remembers the first time they danced to the song, and then says, “he didn’t know [then] that it would take twenty-two years before I asked you to be my wife.” At this point, the novel confirms that the wedding that is happening isn’t for Tita. Tita asks Pedro if he is serious, and he tells her that they have no reason to fear anyone’s judgment anymore. He suggests that they could have their own children, “now that Esperanza is leaving us.”
While the previous passages hint that the wedding may not be Tita and John’s, this passage finally reveals the answer for certain. It also reveals just how much time has gone by since the last chapter. While the novel doesn’t yet reveal what happened to lead up to this point, the author narrows in on what is most important in the novel – that Tita and Pedro’s love was unbreakable, despite several struggles and setbacks. The image of them dancing to the same song they danced to when they were first in love creates the sense that their love exists outside of time.
The narrator explains that for twenty years, Pedro and Tita had kept their love hidden. Out of fear of public scrutiny and the belief that Esperanza should grow up in a traditional household, Rosaura insisted they “maintain the appearance” of a happy marriage. Tita and Pedro agreed to keep their relationship discreet, which meant Tita had to abandon the possibility of having a child with Pedro. Rosaura agreed to try to live together harmoniously, and to share the role of raising Esperanza with Tita. Rosaura would be in charge of Esperanza’s “education,” and let Tita be in charge of her “feeding.” Tita disagreed with Rosaura on many subjects, and took advantage of Esperanza’s trust in her and fondness for the kitchen to discreetly teach Esperanza her own views.
Rosaura had a choice when she learned about Pedro and Tita’s plan to stay together—and she chose a false, loveless marriage over the shame of being a divorcee, or the world of unknowns she would have had to face had she started life over without Pedro. Her desire to maintain a flawless public image, coupled with her attachment to the value of a “traditional household,” compelled her to spend the rest of her life living an elaborate lie. Her arrangement with them came not only at the expense of their happiness, but also at the expense of her own.
It was during one of their secret kitchen talks that Esperanza first told Tita about John’s son Alex. Alex had just returned from medical school, and Esperanza was reacquainted with him at a party. When he looked at her, she says, she felt hot like “dough being plunged in boiling oil.” Upon hearing this, Tita knew they would be “bound together forever.” Tita and Pedro pleaded with Rosaura to change her mind about continuing the family tradition regarding the youngest daughter, but Rosaura refused.
Tita and Pedro’s relationship is mirrored in Esperanza and Alex’s relationship. This parallel connects back to Tita’s wish for Esperanza not to be named after her, lest she have the same destiny. The fact that they use the same words to highlight their experience of love at first sight further highlights the magical connection between the destinies of Tita and her niece.
The narrator describes a previous argument that Pedro and Tita had with Rosaura year before, when Rosaura refused to let her daughter go to school. She argued that she only needed to learn skills like piano, singing, and dancing, which would make her a good companion to Rosaura and a charming socialite. Tita contended that Esperanza should go to school to learn enough to be an engaging conversationalist and so she could meet upper-class friends, and Rosaura reluctantly agreed. The narrator comments that Tita continued to teach Esperanza “the secrets of love and life as revealed by the kitchen.”
Rosaura’s wish that her daughter only learn things that will make her a good companion and socialite further highlight Rosaura’s priorities and growing resemblance to Mama Elena. To her, nothing matters more than family structure and social status. The fact that she doesn’t even consider what Esperanza might enjoy learning highlights the extent of her selfishness. Rosaura, still unaware of the magic of food, has no idea the power she gives Tita by letting her teach Esperanza about cooking.
When Alex proposed to Esperanza, the narrator explains that Rosaura “fought like a lioness to defend what according to tradition was her right – a daughter who would stay with her until she died.” In her fits of rage, she broke the arrangement she had with Pedro and Tita by “hurling curses” at them for all the pain their relationship had caused her. It was after several days of bitter fighting that Rosaura died of her digestive illness.
Rosaura’s intense show of suffering reveals her repressed pain over watching Pedro abandon her for Tita. Believing she had a right to his love as his legal wife, she chooses to see herself as a victim. Continuing the same tradition that tore apart their love in the first place is the more dramatic way she can get back at them.
At the wedding, everyone compliments Tita and Pedro for their fine job of raising Esperanza and for her excellent choice in Alex, who has won a grant to complete his doctorate at Harvard and will be taking Esperanza with him. They also praise Tita’s chiles in walnut sauce. Remembering the day long ago when Tita felt as discarded as the last chile on the platter, Tita wonders if the fact that every last chile has been eaten means “good manners have been forgotten.” After eating the dish, a magical sexual passion takes hold of all of the guests. Gertrudis, just as she was years before, is the first to shown signs of this. All of the guests begin to leave early, eager to find the first available place to stop and make love, including in their cars, under bridges, and by the river.
As there was no mention of Tita being aroused when she made the chiles the night before the wedding, it may be that she poured the repressed passion of her whole life into the chiles. Esperanza’s wedding is significant to Tita – through watching and helping her niece break the family tradition, Tita sees the end of her own subjugation to propriety and tradition. Noticing that all of the chiles are gone, Tita feels the release of the loneliness of her own past and feels hopeful that society and her family are changing their values from the “good manners” that have oppressed her all her life.
Chencha is among the last to leave, asking permission to go and find her husband at once. Seeing the passion between Tita and Pedro, John leaves too. Tita wishes John had found someone to love after her, but he never did. Pedro and Tita are now alone on the ranch for the first time ever. Without words, they walk to the dark room.
The novel poses but never answers the question – can true love be one-sided? Tita and Pedro are portrayed as each other’s true loves, but John’s resilient, unselfish affection for Tita implies that he may still be in love with her, too.
Hundreds of burning candles surrounds the brass bed, which Tita and Pedro each think the other has prepared. Neither sees the ghost of Nacha as she lights the last candle and fades away. Tita and Pedro make love more passionately than ever before, letting go of all the feelings they’ve ever held back. As Tita orgasms, she sees a bright tunnel. She remembers John telling her years before about the bright tunnel that appears when all of one’s inner candles are lit at once. She doesn’t want to die, so she steadies her breath, and the tunnel disappears. She then realizes that Pedro is dead, and assumes that he entered the tunnel. Cold, she finds a box of candles and begins to eat them, concentrating on recalling moments with Pedro. Slowly, the tunnel reappears. At the end of the tunnel, Pedro awaits her, and she joins him. After they die, their bodies catch fire. The dark room becomes a volcano, shooting sparks so high and bright that people mistake them for fireworks.
The connection between magic, love, life, and death is never clearer than in this scene. The appearance of the tunnel proves that Pedro and Tita’s love is “true” because they were the only ones able to light each other’s “inner candles.” The spectacular appearance of the volcano and the fireworks creates the idea that true love is as powerful and as unstoppable as a natural disaster. Where there is true love, sex becomes a magical ritual. Just as it is the bridge to the creation of life through conception, so it can be the bridge to death and the afterlife. The cold Tita begins to feel symbolizes her spirit preparing to shut down without Pedro’s love to light her.
When Esperanza and Alex return from their honeymoon, they find the ranch covered in ash from the fire, with nothing remaining but Tita’s cookbook. Afterwards the land surrounding the ranch became famous for its fertility, and all kinds of life flourished there. The narrator explains that the cookbook was left to her when her mother, Esperanza, passed away. Later, her parents put up apartments where the ranch used to be, and her father Alex remains there. Today, the narrator is going to see her father and prepare for him the Christmas rolls that her mother lovingly taught her to make from great-aunt Tita’s cookbook.
The supernatural fertility of the land reinforces the metaphor of Pedro and Tita’s love as a volcano. Volcanoes bring great destruction as well as fertilize the soil, just as the two characters’ love gave them inner life as well as suffering. For Tita, cooking was the medium for love, communication, magic and survival. Through her cookbook (and the voice of the narrator, her great-niece), Tita lives on, teaching the secrets she held most dear to future generations of women in her family.