Jorge Amado's book Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is set in a rural town in the cacao-producing area of Bahia, Brazil, in 1925. Major change occurs in the few months covered in the story. The book's many and varied characters experience political change, social change, and upheavals in personal attitudes. The pace of the book is very leisurely, and it provides a great deal of detail about the social milieu and customs in which the changes take place.
Gabriela, a young girl from the "back country," is the center of the story. Her skin is the color of cinnamon, and her aroma is of cloves. Her beauty and naive charm captivate first the town's men, but eventually even many of the women. She's such a free spirit that she almost seems to serve as a beacon for the changing times.
Nacib, who was brought to the town from Syria at age 4, is the owner of a bar and cafe. Looking for a cook, he hires Gabriela from the "slave market." Soon, he grows to love her and marries her despite her very low status. He then finds that he can't turn her into the refined woman he envisioned. The solution to his dilemma is imaginative and full of irony (but I won't spoil it). Besides Gabriela's attractiveness, she has a nearly superhuman skill: cooking the native dishes of Bahia. I think vivid descriptions of these dishes play a major role in most if not all of Jorge Amado's wonderful books.
Gabriela's first cooking is done for Nacib alone. She brings lunch to his cafe: "'Ah!' he exclaimed, as he inhaled the aroma from the chicken stew, the jerked beef, the rice, the beans, and the banana compote." (p. 153)
Next, she fixes bar snacks for his customers. "Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits." (p. 171)
Nacib becomes more and more dependent on her both for love and for food. "How could he keep the bar going without Gabriela's pastries and appetizers...? And how could he exist without Gabriela's lunches and dinners with their peppery black gravies, or without her steamed manioc with coconut milk for breakfast?" (p. 189)
Finally, after a break with her, Nacib opened a restaurant, trying to forget Gabriela and her perfections. He and his business partner hired a woman from the city as a cook, but she "cooked only unimaginative dishes, hich were nevertheless full of grease and too highly seasoned. Her desserts were too sweet. The appetizers ... were a mess." (p. 400)
Then they hired a French chef. "Fernand ordered outlandishly expensive ingredients. He insisted on canned olives, canned fish, canned hams. The appetizers cost nearly as much as they sold for. ... What a difference, my God, between Fernand's meat patties and the ones Gabriela used to make! His were doughy and stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth. Hers were agreeably piquant and fragile; they melted on the tongue and called for another drink." (p. 404-405)
Besides Nacib and Gabriela, the book describes the planting, harvesting, and selling of cacao; the planters' rivalries; and the hardships of the workers. But most of all, we learn the relationships between many classes and types, through development of a number of vivid individuals. Old men who had ruled by murder and hired violence find themselves unable to win the loyalty of a new type of person. A more democratic way to govern is replacing their rule by bullets. Women who had been put down and treated as slaves experience less progress. Besides Gabriela, there is Gloria, the mistress of a rich man. And also a schoolgirl, a minor character, who escapes to the big city and takes control of her life. At the beginning, a betrayed husband kills his wife and her lover. By the end of the book, many people are seeking a new way to handle such affairs.
And of course, at the end of the book, Gabriela returns to cook in Nacib's restaurant and to remain the free-spirited and beautiful creature she was comfortable being.