Kate Lebo’s first quince smelled almost but not quite “like roses and citrus and rich women’s perfume.” She leaned in and, “as the fruit’s generous shoulders seemed to suggest,” tried a bite.
“I hurt my teeth biting into it, and it was so sour, so astringent. I was shocked,” Lebo said recently. “I’d had these expectations of what a fruit was supposed to be, and this fruit tricked me into consuming it. Then I came to realize some scholars think the quince is the (Biblical) fruit of knowledge, not the apple.” It became a perfect metaphor — that sweet, beckoning lure hiding painful truths and betrayal.
The encounter helped catalyze “The Book of Difficult Fruit,” a new book of essays from the Spokane author, poet and pie maker and an abecedarian account of “the tart, tender and unruly (with recipes).” Dining from “a” (aronia berries) to “z” (zucchini) meant unlocking stubborn family mysteries, unsnarling adult relationships and childhood dreams, addressing everything from an abortion that “is none of my business and not my story, except I was there” to the thorny reasons why the wild huckleberry should never be domesticated.
Early praise came from luminaries as diverse as Samin Nosrat (“Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”) and Pam Houston (“Deep Creek”), reflecting Lebo’s mix of insight and hard-won delight.
The book has a thoroughly Northwestern backdrop. Lebo was raised in Vancouver, Washington, and attended Western Washington University in Bellingham before moving to Seattle in 2005. She worked for Hugo House, published two books on pie (while also teaching pie classes and selling actual pies), and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Washington. The term “difficult fruit” had been on her mind for a while, a lovely phrase tying into worries her writing would be dismissed as too feminine, too easy, too sweet.
The idea ripened when art critic and horticulturalist Jim Demetre alerted Lebo that she would find gigantic, mature medlars, a member of the rose family, on a road near the Washington Park Arboretum.
“The fruit had gone through a couple frosts already and was perfectly bletted,” Lebo said, describing the softening process that involves rot. “I tried like 15 ways to make the pulp delicious but could not figure it out.”
Her palate and her knowledge base, she realized, had been formed by fruits that are “sweet enough, study enough, bred enough” to have broad appeal and survive the rigors of transport. “It’s nothing against apples and bananas, right? I still love them. But I had a very circumscribed sense of what a fruit was because of that.”
They represented something beyond the excellent jelly she eventually managed with the medlars, or the throat-soothing tea produced from quince.
“To just go in a park I’d been to a million times and walk past a bush I’d walked past a million times and suddenly realize there’s fruit there. … It seems so simple now but it really did, at the time, blow my mind and open up this whole question of, ‘What else am I missing?’”
Lebo’s training as a poet contributed to the book’s form, the structure of 26 chapters and recipes that were almost a genre in themselves.
“It made me think about how with recipes I always use the present tense, the imperative tone. It’s very bossy, which I love … and I think about the person who comes to a recipe ready to be bossed.”
Thinking about food as medicine sent her down other paths, considering how “nurturing and harm can get all tangled up.” Learning to read a landscape, how to identify wild plants and how they could be used, felt “like a kind of literacy I was gaining.”
Much of that came outside Seattle. In 2013, her rent rose by 50% and she left town. It was that or give up the balance of work, life and art she’d managed to eke out here.
“I was so sad to leave Seattle. I felt the city was breaking up with me, which is a maudlin way to say it, but I did feel that way at the time,” she said. “But I also felt this kind of freedom from my tendencies to root.”
She spent a year and a half living with her parents in her childhood home, and traveled around Washington state.
“Not having the requirements of a steady domestic life really opened up other possibilities for me to consider, other ways of cooking, other relationships, and I guess it also made me think a lot about how closely I tied my identity to what I did in the kitchen. I still do — there’s no problem with that — but it was an opportunity, because I’d lost it, to reflect on what I was missing so deeply.”
Ultimately she fell in love with now-husband Sam Ligon, a fiction instructor at Eastern Washington University, and moved to Spokane, where he lived. There, she found a “fantastic creative community” that’s still growing, and affordable housing that’s rapidly vanishing. She’s a new mother, runs “Pie and Whiskey” events with Ligon as COVID-19 allows, and became a cheese-making apprentice with Lora Lea Misterly of the legendary Quillisascut farm.
While the book obscures the identities of some people she’s no longer in touch with, it’s frank about illness and ending relationships, tonics and wildfires and the strange omission of two daughters from her grandfather’s obituary.
Her parents were surprised when she showed them the manuscript.
“They didn’t know that I was writing something so personal. I didn’t know I was going to write something so personal. I think they thought I was writing a cookbook all these years,” Lebo said. “It’s weird for anyone to confront the fact their family member has been watching and listening and paying attention in this way and has written their version of it down.”
Their input helped her complete the final draft, she said, as did studying memoir at Western with teachers who emphasized “how everyone’s family members know a different family, and how to try to leave room within the writing so that it’s clear,” Lebo said.
“My foremost concern with the book is making art, and that I got to kind of try to understand relationships within my family through the act of art making feels lucky.”
Ultimately, it lays bare some facts about being a human — and an animal, and hungry.