Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
I want to be a part of a witches coven, but only if we get to eat chocolate cake for breakfast and dance around the kitchen drinking margaritas at midnight like the Owens women do in Practical Magic. (Dying husband curse, I could take or leave.) While memories of the exact twists and turns of this excellent movie fade with time, what seems to stand out for most fans of this 1998 film is the singular midnight margaritas scene.
Set to Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut,” this iconic ‘90s movie moment feels like a spontaneous eruption of multi-generational joy that’s less magical for the supernatural qualities of its participants, but because it’s so unrestrictedly matriarchal. Now, 21 years after the film released (the movie’s old enough to legally order margaritas of its own), this scene remains the most talked-about. Midnight margaritas is a favorite clip shared by networks and streaming services before fresh airings of the movie, but those cuts generally divorce the sequence from Practical Magic’s sinister undertones, contributing to fans’ selective memories.
In the movie, sisters Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman) go to stay with their witchy aunts Bridget ‘Jet’ Owens (Dianne Wiest) and Frances Owens (Stockard Channing) in a big, beautiful Victorian mansion on a Massachusetts island (scenes were actually shot on San Juan Island in Washington state) after their mother dies from “a broken heart.” Despite the grim circumstances, it’s not too bad of a trade-off: Jet and Frances encourage eating chocolate cake for breakfast and never brushing ones’ teeth. (Witches apparently don’t fear tooth decay.)
The film opens with Channing’s matter-of-fact voice recounting the family’s curse over the aforementioned cake and a mid-day glasses of red wine on the patio. For 300 years, the Owens women have lived under the curse as outcasts in their communities, bullied by locals. Thanks to their witch ancestor Maria who was banished barefoot and pregnant to the island waiting for a lover who never came, whenever an Owens woman loves a man, he’s doomed to die.
Sally and Gillian later witness a scene in which the aunts help a townswoman conjure a questionable love spell by killing a bird. The girls take away different lessons from the transaction. Gillian can’t wait to fall literally madly in love. Sally tries to banish romance by conjuring a perfect man who couldn’t possibly exist.
As they get older, free-spirited Gillian runs off with a boyfriend, while Sally stays home. One day, deciding Sally deserves happiness, the aunts cast a spell causing her to fall for a produce guy in town — thinking because it won’t be real love she’ll avoid the curse. Sally and her husband have two daughters, and then (shockingly) he dies in a truck accident. Sally is devastated and moves back in with the aunts, but vows never to do magic.
Meanwhile, Gillian hasn’t been home in years, but is traveling the country with a “intense” boyfriend Jimmy Angelov played by Goran Visnjic (AKA that guy from ER). Angelov is sort of a Dracula cowboy from Bulgaria, who’s constantly sipping off a bottle of Diablo de Flores tequila (a brand invented for the movie). Gillian tells Sally that she occasionally drugs Jimmy with belladonna, so she can get some sleep. However, in time Angelov becomes abusive and frightening and Gillian calls for her sister Sally to come and help her.
The pair try to escape, but Jimmy abducts them at gunpoint and makes Sally drive into the desert. Elvis singing “Always on My Mind,” plays eerily on the car radio, mirroring Angelov’s dangerous obsession with Gillian. In a panic, Sally overdoses Angelov’s bottle of tequila with belladonna and he dies. The sisters then decide to drive him back to the aunt’s house and attempt to raise him from the dead on the kitchen counter. Jimmy comes to life unexpectedly mid-spell (seems like this magic isn’t so practical, after all) and immediately starts strangling Gillian, so Sally smacks him over the head with a cast iron pan. They opt, instead, to bury him in the yard.
When the aunts return, everything seems normal for a time and the episode with Angelov stays a secret — at least until the midnight margaritas. It’s easy to ignore the foreshadowing as the women party. The camera pans over the dark corner of the Owens family’s yard near the rose bushes where Jimmy is buried and toads slither around the site, but the aunt’s voices are overheard conjuring with a rhyme that riffs off Macbeth’s “Double, double, toil and trouble.” The cauldron here is a blender with lime, tequila, and salt. Gillian giddily wakes Sally up to the sound of the blender and the pair scream, “Midnight margaritas!” while kicking off the sheets to seamlessly fall into boozy uninhibited celebration, elatedly dancing and conga lining around the kitchen island.
In that moment, you want to be those women, freely communing without male interference. Then the party devolves into a more deranged drunken scene where the witches do shots around the dinner table and call each other increasingly mean and nasty names. As the aunts start to lean together and casually sing, “You were always on my mind,” Sally and Gillian turn the bottle of tequila around to reveal the gold Diablo de Flores label — Jimmy’s favorite. When Sally demands to know where the bottle came from, the aunts giggle and sing, “Someone left it on the porch!” to the tune. Sally smashes the bottle into the sink and all the women sober suddenly, as if their bacchanal was the result of possession.
In a way, this casts the midnight margaritas as one of the darkest moments of Practical Magic, with an evil, abusive male spirit invading an otherwise matriarchal sanctuary. But all is thankfully restored when the Owens’s find power in the women in the community who previously treated them as outsiders, but came together to help exercise Jimmy’s invasive spirit from Gillian’s body.
Though it is a harbinger of bad times to come for the Owens family, viewers can’t help but admire this midnight margaritas scene, which feels so real — perhaps in part because the actors were a little drunk for portions of the shoot. Replace margaritas with wine and these women could be my own family, the women staying up late after all the kids and partners have gone to bed, communing raucously over a bottle until someone inevitably ruins the vibe by raising an evil spirit or, more likely, spilling wine on the couch. Women can be guarded, especially when it comes to familial relationships. But if you’re lucky, there are moments when these barriers fall away and we get to comfortably co-exist. If that happens to be over late night/early morning margaritas and some minor spell-casting, so be it.