in the The Book of Difficult FruitsAuthor Kate Lebo regularly references the doctrine of signatures, an ancient theory found in several cultures that one can determine the medicinal properties of plants by the part of the body they resemble. God made it easy for us, so the theory goes, and made flowers that look like eyes to treat eye infections, plants with red extracts for the blood, and fruit from the womb for childbirth. It’s pseudoscience at the highest level, but it’s not about whether it works, it’s about what it means for this logic to last for so long. It’s not that fruit cures liver disease. The fact is that fruit is so important to our lives that we obviously give it meaning.
Lebo’s earlier writings are about cakes, told through the genres of poetry, memoir, fiction, and instruction. But in The Book of Difficult FruitsIn 26 essays, sorted alphabetically, she examines “difficult” fruits, touching on the notoriously hot durian and the impossible-to-eat Osage orange. The essays are accompanied by simple recipes, and if the reader combines reading with cooking, he can consider the magic of fruits, how quinces only become tasty when they are boiled down and jelly, or how plum pits can be an excellent aroma and also a poison.
But most of the time the essays are not about fruit at all, at least not directly. Instead, fruit becomes a lens through which we view family, disease, decay, growth, sweetness, and of course, trouble. Who is difficult to define, asks Lebo, and why do we expect fruit – or anything – to be easy for us?
Lebo spoke to Eater about her love for fruit and developed recipes that present fruit as it is and what happens when we see fruit as something that only exists for our consumption. This interview has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
Was there a moment when you first realized that the broad, broad category of fruit had a certain fascination for you?
Kate Lebo: Well my books before that were cake books. I wrote a cake cookbook called Cake school. It grew out of an obsession with cake that made me realize that it’s really about fruit. It was about How do I take the season’s bounty, don’t mess with it too much and deliver it in an ideal package? What for me was to wrap it in pastries and call it a cake. I think one of the things that was fun and really difficult was asking about why fruit? What about fruit? Because I think there is something nameless that rises upon me when I see a tree laden with plums or see a blackberry bush or a pile of durian in the supermarket. That kind of joy and curiosity and greed to want it that made me want to know what to do with it.
And then, through the prism of the essay, they wanted to know what it meant, why it mattered, who mattered it, and how I could have many conflicting meanings in an essay about a fruit. That has always been my hope with my goal for every chter.
You mentioned durian and write about things like loquat. But you also have some things that seem pretty easy to eat, like plums and kiwi. This is something that you can find in any grocery store year round, good or bad. Which metrics and framework conditions did you choose when a fruit is difficult?
One thing was the question What is difficulty? And how can I use different fruits to explore many different types of trouble? What you just mentioned, which most people go to right away, has to do with whether or not the fruit is edible, which really emphasizes the human palate’s interaction with the fruit. Animals and fruits developed together. We distribute seeds over fruits on behalf of plants. Of course we, the animals, will think about whether it tastes good or not. But the fruit itself exists beyond our palate and beyond our dainty and has its own purpose and drive. There it was also fun to imagine blackberries, for example, as a difficult fruit. Blackberries are so easy to come by. But you plant this in your garden and you won’t have a garden in 10 years. That’s kind of a difficulty.
Or there is an opportunity to think about how the market is going to get rid of difficulties. The modern warehouse and grocery store systems for transporting food that we have are mainly designed to eliminate difficulties as much as possible. But that often happens by destroying the taste or separating the eater from any idea of how difficult it is, how this fruit grew, what it had to do to get to us, all of that.
MM Mahood is that literary critic who went back and got a degree in life sciences and wrote in this book: The poet as a botanist – Most of it is impenetrable literary criticism that I haven’t read – but there is a clear kind of memoiristic essay about how life knows itself. This idea that life arises to meet life and know itself. This is the best explanation of why I chose fruit and why I chose these particular fruits. There aren’t really words to explain this. It’s just me, my body, my interests, my story, all excited about this particular thing.
You mentioned that with your cake book you tried to keep the fruit as pristine as possible. I think a lot of your recipes here are very similar – they’re for syrups or jellies or things that are really all about the fruit, with maybe two or three added ingredients. Is there any way you would like readers to think about fruit?
Absolutely. One of the things I really wanted to draw the reader’s attention to is the joy of a fruit that eludes ease of use. Not all of us will find this delightful, but I am definitely someone who does. I think anyone who is really interested in knitting, anyone who is really interested in repetitive meditative acts is going to run into a number of trouble – actually no, not difficult. Careful. You just need time. The way many of us interact with recipes is by getting to the recipe that is needed for dinner. I always think that these particular types of recipes start and end with themselves. They don’t necessarily signal that cooking is a cycle that goes on in the kitchen, that someone’s best cooking, especially home cooking, is Scrs of the previous meal, or Scrs of a previous knowledge, another dinner, works and you have stuck to this one new dinner held.
Since this was a difficult fruit book, it felt like I was creating an expectation that the recipes would not necessarily be easy. It was such a fun opportunity to ask people to do things that they normally wouldn’t do like dig a plum, smash the pit and extract the pit, take all the kernels and blanch them, then them to fry and put in the food processor with some sugar, and then see what you have. This takes a day and is best done with another person.
You talked about how to use too much or in certain ways with the pits in the plum essay, and they are poisonous. And you write about a lot of fruits with toxic or dangerous aspects. What do we lose if we are not afraid of our fruits? Or if we don’t know what a plant can not just buy and eat?
Most of us, including myself, have no idea that there are other fruits besides what is stacked in a grocery store. I didn’t know what a quince was until 10 years ago. This is a fruit that until recently was never found in the supermarket because although it looks beautiful and smells delicious, it is incredibly astringent when you try to eat it. I felt so betrayed and then so silly the first time I tried. It was like What did i expect That was a big moment that led me to write this book. I had been betrayed by my expectations that this fruit would be sweet which then got me thinking Why do I expect a fruit to be sweet? That said, I don’t think about all of the rewards that can come from the fruits that aren’t in this supply chain, and I don’t sit expecting to just pick them up and cram them into your face.
You use the lens of the fruit to talk about really personal and difficult topics, things that may not have anything directly to do with the fruit at all. What made fruit a good lentil for it?
Perhaps the way I think about it today is fruit accessibility. That got me to the cake too; It is a form of food that we are really familiar with. And in the case of fruit, it comes with all of these fantastic associations. It has a botanical association, herbalist, medicine, myth, all of that. It felt like I could start on a topic that any reader could appeal to, and I could use it as a starting point to bring it up with some stories in mine To relate life, which I regard as a prism target, is correlative for these stories.
For me, the fruits themselves became methoren, prompting me to examine the relationship between diet and poisoning, the relationship between food and medicine, the history of care and my family, and how we relate to each other when we are in pain to have. How do we help each other to give each other space? How do we fail each other? Fruit, the literal things I wondered about fruit – literal real life, the physical interactions I had with fruit – all seemed fruitful, haha, places to jump into these narratives to do that .
Has there been any fruit lately calling you? What’s seasonal where you are right now?
The week this book comes out, there will be nothing for at least another month that I live in Spokane, Washington. We’re just waiting for rhubarb. This is the very first. About a mile from my house is a farm just above the railroad tracks that has these rhubarb plants that are super, super old. Once these show up I usually buy 20 or 30 or 40 pounds which I did last year and go crazy. I’m just looking forward to rhubarb.
The Book of Difficult Fruits is out now.