Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2021
The twenty-six lyrical essays in this exceptional compendium of lesser-known or forgotten fruits, one for each letter, explore culinary, cosmetic, cultural, natural, medicinal, and the author’s own often deeply personal history.
Kate Lebo deftly weaves them all together, making for a brilliant, richly layered, and absolutely delicious book. Her writing—breathtakingly beautiful, brave, and complex—sparkles and lingers. Her ideas and descriptions of fruits and their flavors, family secrets, lost loves, and home tempt and tantalize long after the last chapter. There’s plenty to digest.
She notes: “Each fruit in this book is difficult in its own way. Some are impossible to domesticate or tough to prepare. Some can be medicine or poison, depending on the size of the dose. Some are an acquired taste; some can’t even be acquired. … Imagine a blackberry briar, forbidding and sweet, and follow me in.”
A is for aronia, a most sour berry. B is for blackberry, both the native, trailing and the invasive brambles. C, cherries. D, durian. There’s death, too. And dandelions. Humor, heartbreak, and huckleberries—all “struggle and sweetness.” Italian plums, pain, and intrigue.
“Delight,” she writes, in her chapter about the inedible Osage orange, “isn’t a story. Appetite isn’t a story. Anxiety isn’t a story, either. If I were writing an encyclopedia, the facts would be the story. But that’s not what I’m writing.”
The book pairs narratives with recipes that are often accompanied by stories of their own, almost a book within a book, activities to try, challenges to take on like she did. “In essence,” she writes, “these recipes are invitations. Try this at home.”
She laces recipes for dishes and desserts with instructions for things you shouldn’t consume; durian lip balm, yuzu bath and body oil, and whipped vanilla body cream are offered up alongside vanilla bean cake with vanilla buttercream, gooseberry elderflower frozen fool, and huckleberry pie.
Lebo is the author of A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press, 2013) and Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter (Sasquatch Books, 2014), and coeditor with her husband Sam Ligon of the anthology Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze (Sasquatch Books, 2017). She also teaches pie-making workshops through the Arts Heritage Apprenticeship Program from the Washington Center for Cultural Traditions, and is an apprenticed cheesemaker to Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Farm, who studied cheesemaking at Washington State University and has advised WSU’s Small Farms program.
Lebo finished writing this collection, which the New York Times called “dazzling,” while working part-time as the HEALWA outreach coordinator for Eastern Washington, based out of WSU Health Sciences Spokane. In the book, she references Native and pop culture, literature, and Pacific Northwest places as well as the works of other food writers. Sharp, poetic, enchanting, and chockfull of precise language, insight, and wit, Difficult Fruit is as well-researched and recipe-tested as it is intimate—contemporary food writing at its finest.