When it comes to pie, Kate Lebo knows what she’s talking about.
As one of the driving forces behind Spokane’s beloved literary event, Pie & Whiskey, Lebo each year manages to make, from scratch, enough pie to feed 300 people.
She’s also the author of the 2014 cookbook “Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter,” and the charming 2015 poetry and cookbook mashup “A Commonplace Book of Pie.” Her next book of nonfiction, “The Book of Difficult Fruit” is due out from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in fall 2019.
Lebo, who has called Spokane home since January 2015, will bring some of her thoughts on the perfection that is pie to the Northwest Passages Book Club stage of the Dorothy Dean Cooking School on Saturday. In this Q&A, she talks about her influences, advice for home cooks and the power of storytelling through food.
What most excites you about your latest food project or book?
Well, at the moment, I’m four weeks past my new book’s due date with four more weeks to go until my extension due date and EIGHT MORE CHAPTERS TO WRITE, so I’m really really, really excited about the second wind that’s coming any minute now to blow me through the last quarter of this first draft.
It’s called “The Book of Difficult Fruit” and it’s a collection of essays that use fruit (aronia, blackberry, cherry, durian, elderberry and on up through the alphabet) to talk about food as medicine and what happens when what nourishes us also starts to poison us. It’s a turn for me, in my published book-work, toward what I do in my uncollected essays and poems – that is, I’m using food and cooking as ways to get closer to less palatable but equally important truths. Each chapter is a personal essay braided with history, ethnobotany, cooking and herbal lore, and concludes with a recipe for food and a recipe for medicine. Quince, for example, will end with a recipe for quince jam and a recipe for bandoline, a 19th century hair-gel preparation made from the mucilage of quince seeds that does double-time as a sore-throat soother when dissolved in hot water.
What is your approach to storytelling through your food?
Always, always it’s about what I learn from actually working with the food. I start with research, but I don’t really know anything until I take the fruit into the kitchen and feel how it cuts or jams or juices. My failures in the kitchen are as informative as my successes. I want to learn the fruit’s limits and my limits with it – and the only way to do that is by cooking with it a lot.
My freezer and pantry are full of experiments and the raw materials for experiments, and Sam, my partner, is always wondering when he’ll either get to eat the thing I’m working on or when we can finally throw it away and make room in our groaning, overstuffed fridge. The story comes through the texture and technique and time. And I think it’s incredibly important not to be cowed by the assumptions of palatability that food writing puts on us – that the food and by extension the story must be, in some way, consumable and delicious. In my book, that’s an instant recipe for boring.
What I want is for fruit and food to help me approach something inappropriate or taboo or impossible to understand but nagging and deep and weird. Food’s the door in. And I love how, while I’m finding my way toward whatever strange thing it’s leading me toward, I’m able to give actually useful practical tips on cooking and homemaking and growing and preserving. Part of the story of food that’s so important is the challenge of passing our knowledge down to the next generation. Google won’t cut it, as we’re learning, though it helps. I think food writing’s particular gift is the way it can contain information about how to cook and feed ourselves while telling a story or exploring an idea. It’s both beautiful and practical. My Midwestern relatives would approve.
What first inspired you to cook or become a chef?
I make things with my hands, always have. It’s in my family I think. My dad makes furniture, my mom is a physical therapist who heals people with her hands. Almost doesn’t matter what the material is, I just have to make something on a regular basis to feel like a whole and balanced person.
Food became my main outlet for handmade work pretty soon after I left my parents’ house and had to figure out how to be an adult. You have to feed yourself; you don’t have to make that scarf or clay pot or whatever. My tiny budget could go toward ingredients, and I could spend hours messing around in the kitchen and have that same deep satisfaction that I did with all the other crafty things I couldn’t then afford to do anymore (and wasn’t particularly great at … at some point not even your mother will know what to do with a competently made rag-rug, but she’ll always be happy to help eat that chicken you roasted). I kept cooking while pursuing my poetry studies and nonfiction writing because it gave me something to write about and, in writing about it, I got more obsessed with cooking.
What dish or ingredients best represents you?
Oh man, I have no idea.
What’s your favorite dish to prepare at home?
Right now, this pork stew with coconut milk and garam masala. We get our pork from Ramstead Ranch in Ione and, oh my God, it makes the most amazing stews. I adapt this recipe for my Instant Pot, so I can make it on Monday night and feed my family for the rest of the week.
Learning how to roast a chicken completely changed my home-cooking game and made me think about cooking as a cycle, not a thing you restart every night. You roast the bird, eat the bird, save the drippings and fat for other uses, save the bones for stock, make the stock, make something with the stock, roast another bird and start all over. Barbara Kafka’s recipe in her book “Roasting” is my favorite.
What’s your favorite piece of advice to share with home cooks?
The best thing I ever did for my cooking was to get a (community-supported agriculture subscription) and buy half a lamb or pig and have that in the fridge and freezer. It’s expensive, but if you can plan ahead or pay in installments, it’s worth it. The quality of your food is better, obviously. But what made CSAs improve my cooking was the combination of always having something in the house to work with and ingredients I wouldn’t normally reach for – so “What’s for dinner?” became “What do I do with this pork shoulder?” or “How the heck do I cook celeriac?” It’s a daily small way to rise to the occasion of your ingredients while learning new things, eliminating the stress of figuring out what’s for dinner, and eating well.
What has been your great food adventure (so far)?
I think mine is in the future. Me and Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Farms in Rice have applied to the Humanities Washington Heritage Arts Apprenticeship Program to be a master artist and apprentice pair (Lora Lea’s the master artist, I’m the apprentice) in the hopes that she can teach me her incredible art of farmstead cheese-making under the auspices of Humanities Washington, treating this culinary technique as a cultural tradition of our state.
It’s important to me to present culinary practices as cultural practices and arts. I think not doing so is a symptom of sexism, of regarding cooking and homemaking “women’s work” (consciously or not) and valuing it in the marketplace only when it’s been commodified as a value-added “craft” product or hip aesthetic that sells other cultural products (music, clothing, the new cool neighborhood with bars and restaurants that evoke “craft” elements, the lifestyle and persona that goes with living in the neighborhood … can you tell I’m bummed about what’s happened to Portland?).
We will balance all the practical lessons that go into preserving dairy WHILE thinking about and communicating how these practices are arts, how these arts are important to our identities as daughters of Washington state. We want to find a way to teach home cooks how to approach cheesemaking as a processes they can participate in daily sort of way.
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