In The Book of Difficult Fruit, author Kate Lebo regularly references the Doctrine of Signatures, ancient theory found in multiple cultures that one can glean the medicinal properties of plants by the part of the body they resemble. God made it easy for us, the theory goes, and made flowers that look like eyes to treat eye infections, plants with red extracts for the blood, and womb-shaped fruit for birth. It’s pseudoscience of the highest order, but the point is not whether it works, but what it means that this logic held sway for so long. It’s not that fruit cures liver disease. It’s that fruit is so integral to our lives that we obviously give it meaning.
Lebo’s previous writings are about pie, told through the genres of poetry, memoir, fiction and instruction. But in The Book of Difficult Fruit, which is out April 6, she explores “difficult” fruits in 26 essays sorted alphabetically, touching on the notoriously pungent durian to the impossible-to-actually-eat osage orange. The essays are accompanied by simple recipes and, in combining the reading with the cooking, the reader can consider the magic of fruit, like how quince only becomes palatable once it’s boiled down and jellied, or how plum pits can be an excellent flavoring and also a poison.
But mostly, the essays are not about fruit at all, at least not directly. Instead, fruit becomes a lens through which we view family, sickness, decay, growth, sweetness and, of course, difficulty. Who gets to define difficult, Lebo asks, and why do we expect fruit—or anything—to be easy for us?
Lebo spoke to Eater about her love of fruit, developing recipes that showcase fruit for what it is, and what happens when we think of fruit as something that exists only for our consumption. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Was there a moment when you first realized that the broad, broad category of fruit held a certain fascination for you?
Kate Lebo: Well, my books before this were pie books. I wrote a pie cookbook called Pie School. That arose from an obsession with pie, which as I have drilled down into it, I realized is really about fruit. It was about how do I take the bounty of the season, not mess with it too much and deliver it in an ideal package? Which to me was enveloping it in pastry and calling it a pie. I think one of the things that was fun and really difficult was the question of why fruit? What is it about fruit? Because I think there’s something nameless that rises up at me in response to seeing a tree laden with plums, or seeing a blackberry bramble, or seeing a pile of durian at the grocery store. This kind of delight and curiosity and greed, wanting it, which lead me to wanting to know what to do with it.
And then, through the prism of the essay, this became wanting to know what it meant, why it was important, who it was important to, and how I could contain a lot of contradictory meanings within one essay about one fruit. That was always my hope with my goal for each chapter.
You mentioned durian, and you write about things like medlar. But you also have some things seem pretty easy to eat, like plums and kiwi. This is stuff you can find year-round at any grocery store, for better or worse. What were the metrics and the framework you decided for when a fruit is difficult?
One was the question what is difficulty? And what are ways that I can use different fruits to explore many different kinds of difficulties? The one that you just named, which most people go to immediately, 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 co-evolved. We disperse seeds via fruit on behalf of plants. So of course we, the animals, are going to be thinking about whether or not it tastes good. But the fruit itself exists beyond our palate and beyond our appetite, and has its own purpose and its own drive. That’s also where it became kind of fun to imagine, say, blackberry as a difficult fruit. Blackberries are so easy to get. But you plant that in your yard and you will not have a yard in 10 years. That’s a kind of difficulty.
Or there’s an opportunity to think about the way that the market erases difficulty. The modern food transportation storage and food market systems that we have, much of its purpose is to erase difficulty as much as possible. But it does that often through destroying taste, or through separating the eater from any idea of the difficulty of how that fruit has grown, what it had to do to come to us, all of that.
M.M. Mahood is this literary critic who went back and got a degree in biological sciences, and wrote in this book, The Poet as Botanist — most of which is impenetrable literary criticism that I didn’t read — but there’s a clear kind of memoiristic essay in it about life’s recognition of itself. This idea that life rises to meet life and recognizes itself. That is the best explanation I can come up with as to why I chose fruit, and why I chose these particular fruits. There’s not really words that explain it. It’s just me, my body, my interests, my history, all excited about this particular thing.
You mentioned that with your book on pies, you were trying to leave the fruit as unadulterated as possible. I feel like a lot of your recipes here are very similar — they’re for syrups or jellies or things that really are just about the fruit with maybe two or three extra ingredients. Is there a way that you wanted readers to start thinking about fruit?
Absolutely. One of the things I was really hoping to bring to the reader’s attention is the delight to be had in a fruit that’s defying easy operation. Not all of us are going to find that delightful, but I am definitely someone who does. I think anyone who’s really into knitting, anyone who’s really into any kind of repetitive meditative action is going to be into a bunch of the difficult — actually, no, not difficult. Painstaking. They just take time. The way many of us interact with recipes is we arrive to the recipe needing to make dinner. I always think those particular kinds of recipes start and stop with themselves. They don’t necessarily signal the way that cooking is a cycle that happens within the kitchen, that someone’s best cooking, particularly home cooking, is made of scraps of the previous meal, or scraps of some previous bit of knowledge, some other dinner that works and you applied to this new dinner.
Because this was a book of difficult fruit, I felt like I was setting up the expectation that the recipes weren’t necessarily going to be easy. It was such a fun opportunity to ask people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, like pit a plum, smash open the pit and extract the kernel, take all the kernels and blanch them, and then roast them and put them in the food processor with some sugar, and then see what you got. That’ll take a day, and it’s best done with another person.
You spoke in the plum essay about how with the pits, use them too much or use them in certain ways, and they’re poisonous. And you write about a lot of fruits with poisonous or dangerous aspects. What do we lose, I guess, when we’re not afraid of our fruit? Or when we don’t realize the whole breadth of what a plant can do beyond be bought and eaten?
Most of us, myself included, have lost any idea that other fruits besides what’s stacked in a grocery store even exist. I didn’t know what a quince was until 10 years ago. That’s a fruit that, until recently, you would never find at the grocery store, because though it looks beautiful and smells delicious, it’s incredibly astringent when you try to eat it. I felt so betrayed and then so silly when I first tried it. It was like, Well, what did I expect? That was a huge moment that led me to trying to write this book. I had been betrayed by my expectations that this fruit would be sweet, which then led me to think about, Why do I expect a fruit to be sweet? That means I’m not thinking about all the rewards that are to be had from the fruits that don’t sit in that supply chain, and don’t sit in the expectation of being able to just pick it up and stuff it in your face.
You use the lens of fruit to talk about really personal and difficult subjects, things that maybe it has nothing directly to do with fruit at all. What made fruit a good lens for that?
Maybe today the way that I think about it is fruit’s accessibility. That’s also actually what drew me to pie; it’s a food form we’re really familiar with. And in the case of fruit, it comes with all of these fantastic associations. It has a botanical associations, herbalist, medicinal, mythic, all of that. It felt like if I could start with a subject that can appeal to any reader, I might be able to use that as a jumping off point for how to relate it to some stories in my life that I’m thinking of as the prism objective correlative for those stories.
For me, the fruits themselves became metaphors that led me to examine the relationship between nurturing and poisoning, the relationship between food and medicine, the history of caregiving and my family, how to think about the ways we deal with each other when we’re in pain. How do we help give each other space? How do we fail each other? Fruit, the literal things I was wondering about fruit — the literal real life, physical interactions I was having with fruit — all came to seem fruitful, haha, sites for jumping into these narratives to do that.
Has there been any fruit that’s been calling to you recently? What’s seasonal where you are right now?
The week that this book comes out, there will be nothing for at least another month where I live in Spokane, Washington. We’re just waiting for rhubarb. That’s the very first one. There’s a farm just over the railroad tracks about a mile from my house that has these rhubarb plants that are super, super old. Once those come up, I’ll usually buy 20 or 30 or 40 pounds, which I did last year, and go crazy. I’m just excited for rhubarb.
The Book of Difficult Fruit is out now.