Guest Kate Lebo discusses her newest book, The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly with Recipes (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021). While Lebo has authored more traditional cookbooks with stories, this collection of essays with recipes has more in common with creative nonfiction, autobiography, or a quirky reference book for plant identification. Lebo offers a unique blending of the academic – historical and botanical – with the narrative – personal and often painful. The book is organized in 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, represented by one fruit. Though the essays do have the encapsulated feel of being whole on their own, there are some narrative threads and mysteries that have to be worked out as you get further into the book. Unlike a traditional cookbook that emphasizes pleasure and ease, Lebo’s essays touch on quite a bit of personal pain – illness, death of loved ones, family secrets, heartache and break ups, abortion – and provide recipes that are unapologetically complicated with difficult to find ingredients. Still, readers who enjoy foraging, gardening, and good personal essays will find much to love in this collection.
One of the threads that runs through the book is the slipperiness of food as poison and medicine. Starting right at the beginning with aronia and bitter almonds/cherry pits, Lebo meditates on the role that food can play in healing the body and the spirit while also being keenly aware of the way that even the most wholesome of whole fruits can carry poison. In a chapter about juniper, Lebo meditates on the berry as an ingredient in gin and as an abortifacient. The Wheat chapter describes the end of a relationship and the way that baking with flour can be healing for one person and maybe poison to her partner with celiac disease.
The Book of Difficult Fruit explodes an elementary understanding of food as something that always nourishes or always brings people together. While chapters like Kiwi, Yuzu, and Zucchini return to those heartwarming moments where feeding and food seem to be metaphors for relationships of care and nurturing, even these moments do not come without complications.
Kate Lebo is author the chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Entre Rios Books) and editor of the anthology Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze (Sasquatch Books), which she edited with Samuel Ligon. Kate is also the author of Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter (Sasquatch Books) and the poetry/ephemera/recipe collection A Commonplace Book of Pie (Chin Music Press). Through the Arts Heritage Apprenticeship Program from the Washington Center for Cultural Traditions, she is an apprenticed cheesemaker to Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Farm.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.