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At Northwest Passages Book Club, chef and essayist Kate Lebo says ‘difficulty as a metaphor’ shaped ‘The Book of Difficult Fruit’

UPDATED: Wed., June 9, 2021

Beginning with the Aronia berry and ending with zucchini, local author and poet Kate Lebo’s “The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly” is an alphabetical collection of memoirs and recipes taken from Lebo’s life.

In person for the first time in months, Lebo joined fellow author Sharma Shields to discuss the book during a Tuesday gathering of the Northwest Passages Book Club at The Spokesman-Review.

“This is the privilege of the vaccinated,” Lebo said. “To sit across from each other and talk about books.”

Shields opened by asking what prompted Lebo to write an entire book of essays about fruit.

“The idea started to take root … in graduate school,” Lebo explained, noting the many puns made possible by the book’s subject.

Lebo said she was inspired to start working on “The Book of Difficult Fruit” one day during her MFA studies at the University of Washington when an officemate brought a bag of quince to school.

The odd, overwhelmingly tannic taste made her start questioning her concept of fruit, and later, the parallels between lesser-known fruits and human nature.

“Raw quince is incredibly astringent, it’s incredibly sour and incredibly hard – I felt like my teeth were gonna break,” Lebo said, explaining that until that moment, her concept of fruit had always involved beauty and sweetness.

“The contrast between how it smelled and how it looks with the difficulty of that bite, made me realize how circumscribed and limited my idea of fruit was, that it really had just been shaped by what I could find at the grocery store.”

But later in her research, Lebo began finding evidence that quince might well have been the biblical fruit of knowledge.

“That made me start thinking about this difficulty as a metaphor … a fruit that smells delicious and looks amazing … but with a taste that’s so hard to stomach.”

Calling to mind the different elements of the book – the recipes and essays and all of the research that must have contributed to each – Shields commented that at certain points she felt like she was meeting with “an army of Kates.”

At varying times, she could read in Lebo’s writing the influences of a scholar, historian, seasoned chef, poet and inventor.

Lebo added also the role of “the amateur,” an aspect she feels is integral in her approach to writing the book.

Shields brought up Lebo’s references to Susan Sontag and her essay “Illness as Metaphor.”

“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” Shields quoted from the piece. “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well, and in the kingdom of the sick.”

In a similar vein, Shields asked Lebo to share the ways in which health and mortality shaped her narrative approach.

Lebo shared how she drew inspiration from her mother’s relationship with food.

“She would use food as a way to try to heal herself,” Lebo said, explaining how she could see the approach working for periods and then failing. “That taught me that food is a pleasure, a necessity, a medicine, but not necessarily a medicine to be depended on.

“So I both very much believe that food will heal me, and have complete doubts in that very same thing.”

Shields asked what Lebo’s experience has been like in the past year having a book published by one of the big New York houses.

“It’s fun. It’s bizarre,” Lebo said. “It’s so strange to go from seven years of trying to pretend no one will ever read this book so that I can actually write something, so I can have that privacy and quietude, to then having it out in the world and in these international channels … so I feel both isolated and overexposed and excited, grateful, horrified.”

Lebo also explained her approach to dealing with reviews.

“The relationship of the reader with the book is none of my business,” she said. “I’ve already had my time with the book.”

Lebo’s previous works include the cookbook “Pie School,” the poetry chapbook, “Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers” and “Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze,” a work co-edited with her husband, local writer Samuel Ligon.

Lebo’s “The Book of Difficult Fruit” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore.

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