Set in the 1910s at "the Shore" of New Jersey, the novel explores issues of race and class in early 20th-century America. Bea Chipley is a quiet, mousy Atlantic City teenage girl whose mother dies, leaving her to keep house for her father (Mr. Chipley) and Benjamin Pullman, a boarder who peddles ketchup and relish on the boardwalk and sells maple syrup door-to-door. Within a year, her father and Pullman decide that she should marry Pullman; she soon becomes pregnant and has a daughter named Jessie. Her father suffers an incapacitating stroke, confining him to a wheelchair, and Pullman is killed in a train accident. Bea is left to fend for her father and Jessie by herself.
She takes in boarders to defray expenses, as well as peddling Pullman's maple syrup door-to-door, using his "B. Pullman" business cards to avoid the ubiquitous sexism of the 1910s. To care for her infant daughter and disabled father, Bea Pullman hires Delilah, an African-American mammy figure, who has an infant daughter Peola. The girl has "light skin" (as described then).
As Delilah is a master waffle-maker, Bea capitalizes on Delilah's skills to open a "B. Pullman" waffle restaurant. It attracts many of the tourists at the Shore. She eventually builds a nationwide and then international chain of highly successful restaurants. Frank Flake, a young man intent on entering medical school, becomes Bea's business manager.
Jessie and Peola have grown up side by side. Peola is painfully aware of the tension between her white appearance and black racial identity. She continually attempts to pass as white to gain wider advantages. Disturbed by her daughter's unhappiness, Delilah encourages the girl to take pride in her black "race." Eventually, after living in Seattle for several years as a white woman, Peola severs all ties with her family. She marries a white man and moves to Bolivia to pass permanently. Heartbroken, Delilah dies soon after.
Bea falls in love with Flake, who is eight years her junior. Jessie, by now in her late teens, comes home for a visit just as Bea is planning on selling the "B. Pullman" chain and marrying Flake. The three are mired in a love triangle, resulting in a tragic ending.