Review: ‘The Book of Difficult Fruit’ by Kate Lebo
September 17, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.
Mixing culinary history, personal reflections and tantalizing trivia, poet and pie aficionado Kate Lebo delves deep into 26 lyrical essays featuring “difficult” fruit — one for each letter of the alphabet — in her first work of nonfiction, “The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with recipes).”
But what makes a fruit difficult? It might be the smell, as is the case with durian, an acquired-tasting spiny fruit native to Southeast Asia, whose odor the Spokane-based author likens to sewers, turpentine and motor oil, and describes as feeling “close and unpleasant, like a belch.” Or the betrayal of biting into an uncooked quince, the astringent sourness so at odds with its honey/citrus/rose smell. Blackberries are difficult for their thorny invasiveness; cherries for their pits, which contain both almond flavoring and poisonous cyanide.
Packed with fascinating trivia, Lebo began research for this book back in 2013, drawing on sources ranging from “Gerard’s Herbal,” published in 1597, which records juniper’s uses for “women’s troubles,” to interviews with contemporary experts such as LaRae Wiley, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, who schools Lebo on picking huckleberries (don’t over-pick; if you are younger, pick in difficult terrain and leave the flat, easily accessible places for the elders; and leave some berries for the bears).
Each chapter concludes with several recipes, some developed after years of experimentation with these difficult fruits. You might opt to pass on the odiferous durian lip balm (“Some people will say this lip balm stinks. No kisses for them.”), while recipes for gooseberry cheese, medlar jelly, pomegranate molasses and pickled rhubarb beckon the culinarily adventurous to the kitchen.
Throughout, Lebo intertwines the metaphor of these difficult fruits with events from her own life. Some are commonplace, like neighborly disagreements on using herbicides to get rid of dandelions rather than organic methods. Low-maintenance Italian plums in the backyard of a Seattle rental house invoke memories of a failed high-maintenance relationship. A sweet rhubarb treat that her mother used to make as a child is contrasted with the sad, sour temperament of her grandmother — food providing comfort in a way that her human family could not.
I would be remiss to write about this book and not mention the recent Washington State Book Awards (WSBA) announcement that “The Book of Difficult Fruit” was one of five finalists for the Creative Nonfiction category. On Sept. 13, it was announced that Lebo's book took home the award. Visit washingtoncenterforthebook.org for a list of current and previous year’s winners and finalists for this Pulitzer Prize of the Pacific Northwest.
Notable WSBA winners include 2021 Fiction winner “The Cold Millions” by Spokane author Jess Walter, which is the Whatcom READS community reading title for 2023, and “Think Black” by Whatcom County’s own Clyde Ford. “Think Black” is the featured title for Whatcom County Library System’s Read and Share program this fall (events from Oct. 8–Nov. 10) and was the last year’s Creative Nonfiction winner.
Some of the other 2022 WSBA finalists that are in my to-be-read pile are “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration,” a graphic novel about three brave and heroic Japanese Americans who rejected the government’s violation of the civil and constitutional rights of an entire community; and “Crossing the River: Seven Stories that Saved My Life,” which describes how Seattle journalist Carol Smith found strength and solace after the sudden death of her 7-year-old son by profiling others who had faced their own intense challenges and survived.
“The Book of Difficult Fruit” is available at your local library in print, eBook and eAudiobook formats, or from local booksellers, as are many of the other WSBA finalists. The Pacific Northwest is blessed with an abundance of local authors; explore the WSBA website or ask your local librarian or bookseller for reading ideas.
Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager at the Whatcom County Library System, where you can find reading suggestions and more at wcls.org/bookdiscovery.