Kate Lebo in conversation with Alayna Becker
I first met Kate Lebo in 2014 when she first moved to Spokane, Washington and I was on my way out. Lebo is a thoughtful weaver of narratives and a deft craftsperson in writing and in the domestic. We met in our own internet void to discuss these topics and her book, The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, And Unruly which came out April 2021.
Kate Lebo’s first collection of nonfiction, The Book of Difficult Fruit, was published by FSG in April 2021. She’s the author of the cookbook Pie School and the poetry chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and is the coeditor, with Samuel Ligon, of Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. She lives in Spokane, Washington, where she is an apprentice cheesemaker to Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Farm.
Hey Kate! I’m so glad you’re here! Let’s start with a definition. What is a difficult fruit?
At first it was a fruit that defied my expectations of sweetness and ease. Raw quince smells great, tastes terrible, and doesn’t yield its pleasures until cooked. Wheat flour is the basis of beloved breads and cakes and pies, but wheatberry dust is explosive and flour makes some people sick. As I wrote more of the book, different types of difficulty arose. The way almond flavor and cyanide coexist in the kernel of stone fruits. How some blackberry vines are invasive. A bounty of plums can become a chore and a mess. And then there’s the way each fruit’s difficulty can become metaphors for human difficulty—the failure of our bodies, the fragility of our relationships, the magical thinking we use to identify what will heal us, and the way nurturing and harm can get all tangled up. Whoever said we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize plants and animals will hate my book. I stopped listening to that criticism—or truism, or whatever it is. I hear it echo faintly in a round with “kill your darlings” and “show don’t tell.”
One of the many things I love about you is your claim on “domestic artist”, which is an idea I identify with, but was afraid to claim until you did.
This line in the Faceclock chapter really stands out to me, “Yet sometimes I can look at my life, which I have lived as a certain kind of feminist and a certain kind of artist, and I see another woman who’s struggling to make her peace with being at home.” I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this struggle, especially in the face of your mother’s refrain in the Kiwifruit chapter, “I didn’t get enough done.”
I’ve been rereading Naben Ruthnum’s book Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race for a nonfiction class I’m teaching, and I just reencountered this great line: “Reading, eating, and remembering are all activities that begin domestically.” It’s such a clear, concise reminder that literary impulses develop in the same place that culinary impulses do, that home is the place we begin—and where some of us sustain—a life of the mind. A reminder like this shocks me every time I see it. Home life and artistic life coexist. It’s that simple. And it’s not. On one hand, the invisible domestic labor that occurs at home is not valued publicly with money or status or whatever. On the other, laboring within the home is private, quiet, so deeply personal. It’s an expression of one’s inner life, and a way to protect it. I’m talking about sweeping the floor. But I’m also talking about writing poems.
There’s something to be said here about the story my family tells itself about productivity and self worth. I don’t think I can say it directly. I’ll try to say it this way:
Every day, like everyone else, I have a limited number of hours within which to do meaningful work. Even on days when the work I do really is meaningful, I might not know it, or I won’t complete it. That creates an unending sense of being stuck under a pile of my own making. The pressure of that pile helps me get anything done in the first place—nothing like three blown deadlines to help me turn one thing in on time. In the meantime, I’m weaving domestic tasks that have nothing to do with paid work or artistic work into whatever breaks I have given myself. I do dishes, I weed the garden, I throw out junkmail, I prep dinner, I flip my cheese. These tasks feel like a way to control my ever-avalanching to-do pile. They are also tasks I turn to when procrastinating, or when too wound around my own axle to think straight on a piece of writing. Usually they do not feel like worthy uses of my time. I tell myself it doesn’t matter if they are worthy. And so, by the end of the day, I talk myself into a truce: I didn’t get enough done, but that’s okay. Time to rest.
I had a baby last October, and part of the reset of that experience has been that sometimes I realize all these deadlines I’ve been trying to hit for the last 15, 20 years—I made them up! I can unmake them! I can just hang out with the baby and forget all these made up deadlines! It’s been lovely and disconcerting. We’ll see how long this mood lasts.
Your question makes me think of something Syliva Plath wrote in her diary about the ideal life with Ted Hughes being one of “books, babies, and beef stews.” The book of literary criticism I read that quote in made a big deal about the parataxis of her phrase. The critic thought this indicated that those three things, to Plath, were equally important. That phrase felt like permission and recognition. Wanting to write books, to be in a deep love relationship with another artist, to have a family, to cook, none of these are anathema to making art. I didn’t have to listen to people who said that artistic output occurs in inverse proportion to domestic labor. Or that, as a woman, I could be an artist or have a family, but not both. (Do people still say that? Has that changed? It seems like it has. When I look around my community in Spokane, I’m surrounded by writers who are parents).
Calling myself a domestic artist is a joke and not a joke. It feels like a fast, winky way to express the line I walk by being an artist who enjoys domestic arts. Domestic arts aren’t Art—cooking a stew is not writing a poem—but they are a deep, traditional, everyday creative practice. For a long time I felt silly that I loved doing the stereotypical woman thing—baking pies, all that. When we were taking my portrait for Pie School, I refused to wear a full apron because I thought it was a subservient garment. In my everyday life, full aprons are practical and necessary as hell.
I get and give so much joy with my work in food, but that labor can turn on a dime depending on how the gift of that labor is received and regarded. I used to worry a lot that by making pies and writing cookbooks, no one would take me seriously as a writer of anything else. That, to someone who doesn’t know any better, I might look like a housewife. I don’t worry about that anymore.
You’re a writer who works just as deftly in research as in poetic description. I feel so much of your own becoming as a person and an artist in these pages. From plums and leaving a relationship you’d outgrown, to finding maternal separation like Persephone and pomegranates. The fruit of this book is also a personal transformation over time. What kind of awareness did you have of that aspect while writing, and which portions did you find on the page?
I knew when I started writing this book that I’d discover what it was about as I wrote. I figured (I hoped!) that writing this book would transform me into a better writer. I didn’t know that it would chart personal transformations too. I believe the best essays are written with a sense of not-knowing and discovery. That if an essay ends up being about what I thought it was about, I’ve failed. I had to trust that a structure, thematic arcs, character development, an argument—all the things that hold a book together and make it bigger than its parts—would develop as I wrote. The not-knowing was scary. I was stuck so many times. Many of my chapters are the result of coming unstuck somehow, through research or cooking or a joke my husband Sam made, or a read he gave me on a draft. Sometimes I would read my drafts aloud and send recordings of them to Maya Jewell Zeller, who, like Sam, is an incredible writer and editor. She’d listen to them on her commute from Spokane to Ellensburg, where she teaches at Central Washington University, then call and leave a message to tell me what I was writing about. May we all have partners and friends who can read us so well!
This book took seven years to write, so I wonder if the transformation you describe is also a consequence of time passing. If I couldn’t help but encode transformation within the pages because I came back to them so many times over so many years. The self that started this book isn’t who I am now.
One thing I know for sure about you is your dedication to process. I remember you once telling me you needed to spend six years on a jam recipe before you could be sure you were done. When I heard that I was like, who has six years? But Kate Lebo does. It’s clear to me by the construction of this book that you make that same commitment to process in your writing.
Domestic labor and writing craft are both invisible. The whole purpose of craft is to give shape to the piece from behind just as domestic labor is best when the labor behind it is tucked away. How did you approach the construction of this book?
Ha! Did I say that? I meant it. And I was exaggerating. Recipe development doesn’t have to take that long. But I do prefer to have years of practice and mistakes under my belt before writing a recipe. I’m doing that with cheese now. Making so many mistakes. Keep in mind those six years happen while everything else is happening—I’m making the jam anyway because it’s fun, not because I intend to write a recipe about it. Then, one day, I can write a recipe, and if I have a book project like this to fit it in, I do.
As far as constructing this book goes, it began with the title. I spent some time wondering what a difficult fruit might be. I tried to imagine if there was a way to turn a wheat dust explosion in 1878 into a metaphor for a breakup, or a taste of astringent quince into a metaphor for craving knowledge about missing family members. Early on I decided the book would be an abecedarian. I chose this form in part because the arbitrary limit of the alphabet helped me stop flailing around in my writing, and in part because I love the expansive lie of the encyclopedia—that within its alphabet, it contains everything. I love the way an alphabetized book on fruit like Nigel Slater’s Ripe makes me feel like I’m entering someone’s secret garden.
At the time I began writing The Book of Difficult Fruit, I admired books written in a collage style very much. I still do. I wanted to write one myself, and I tried that style for the first five essays. I liked how the associative leaps of collage made it easier to contain contradiction and relieved me, for the most part, from constructing a straightforward argument. I even numbered my sections à la Bluets. Jenna Johnson, my editor at FSG, did away with the numbers immediately, which was the right choice. It felt like she’d removed the scaffolding. Beneath the ways I was imitating books I admired, I started to find a form that suited me and the book better.
What remains of the collage form is a weave of many ways of knowing. In this book, scientific, ethnobotanical, and historical research coexists with memoir, which coexists with an amateur’s gathering of empirical evidence and all my successes or failures to procure, cook, and eat difficult fruits. I interview culture bearers and farmers and gardeners. Literary and biblical references coexist with quotes from the famous witchbook of the Pennsylvania Dutch and herbals like Culpeper’s and Grieve’s. When it came to research, I tried to be omnivorous.
Each fruit stands on its own, but the memoir continues throughout. How did you approach closing and opening narrative arcs across essays?
Through failure. Opening arcs is easy. Developing them was easy. Figuring out how to bring them to a satisfying close without tying them up too neatly or forcing some sort of thesis or purpose or lesson learned—that was hard. Frankly, most of the arcs here, I didn’t intentionally close. They just sort of found a good resting place as I wrote the final chapters. I was afraid the whole time that I wouldn’t nail the dismount, especially since I didn’t have an outline or a plan for the book, I just tried to see one step ahead of myself. Despite that anxiety, I had faith that something would arise within each chapter that helped tie it up, or lay it to rest, or whatever metaphor I’m mixing here. I can’t really tell you how I did it. I can tell you that it didn’t work for a long time, and then it did. And that the book went through three major drafts.
One of the outlier essays, to me anyway, is Juniper Berry. This essay is about you supporting your friend during her abortion and begins, “This is none my business and not my story,” Juniper berry, as you note, is an abortificant. Can you talk about why abortion and fruit as medicine was important to you to dicuss in this book?
Early in my research for this book, I visited the Miller Library at UW, where I did a fairly unfocused search and grab of everything I could find on ume, medlar, gooseberries, and juniper. I’d start with each book’s index and read everything that mentioned whatever fruit I was focusing on. Juniper caught my attention early because the index in Gabrielle Hamilton’s Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine cross-references it with abortion, but elsewhere, my juniper sources didn’t mention that association. This sort of thing continued—I could find references to juniper being used as an abortifacient, but no details, no recipes, nothing really substantive or trustworthy. My friend Kathryn Neurnberger was working on her great book The Witch of Eye at the time, and had just published Rue, a book of poems about herbs historically used as birth control. She clarified my confusion by letting me in on an open secret: historical methods of birth control are usually obfuscated and lied about. If I couldn’t find details, that was to be expected.
Which reminded me of the complete mystery that surrounds the death of my grandfather’s mother, who maybe died from measles or maybe died from a botched abortion, we’ll never know, but once again the taboo on talking about this and on giving women control over their fertility means I’m never going to know. Like most of the rest of us, I have to live with rumor.
Which led me to think about the modern experience of abortion. If I was going to tell the story of helping my friend through terminating herpregnancy, I needed to strike a very delicate balance. In this story of a very ordinary but very complicated decision, how would I preserve my friend’s privacy while plumbing the historical complexities of her choice?
Which brought me to the question of whether or not it is “okay” for me to tell a personal story about a loved one when their lives intersect with mine. That’s something I struggled with through the whole book. I mean, my poor mother! The story I tell in “Juniper Berry,” about holding my friend’s hand—we worked together on that to decide what to show and what to keep private. My friend was incredibly generous and vulnerable with her story. I’m so grateful. That chapter and that discussion wouldn’t be what it is without her at the heart of it. The process of figuring out what she could bear me telling, and what she could not bear—that feels related to the secrets of herbal birth control, too. My friend needed privacy because her decision was very personal, but she needed privacy also because she did not want to bear the judgement of others. The secret part of that story protects her, as the secrecy around historical methods of birth control protected women who administered or used them. But it also breaks the chain of story about this very normal choice, these very normal medicines. It contributes to the taboo. I couldn’t figure out a way around this paradox. Within the essay, that felt fitting.
The question of abortion is so central to the domestic. Abortion is central to home health. It’s incredible, as you note in this essay, the way this aspect of the archive became so eroded over time that it hardly exists at all. I was so shocked to read that your great grandmother lost her life to unsafe abortion, because my great great grandmother also died that way, orphaning my great grandfather, which has affected every proceeding generation of my family.
Abortion is treated as a difficult fruit, but as we know, it doesn’t have to be. Abortion is normal, and no matter what the Supreme Court has to say, home abortion, as this important chapter proves, has been happening forever, and will continue to happen. As more abortion bans go into effect across our country, I so appreciate you bringing the vestiges of our history of managing health at home to light.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it isn’t an argument for or against difficult fruits, it’s a book that takes the reader by the hand and says, look, taste, smell, consume. This book says fruit isn’t simple, or made just for you, it is complex and vexed with difficult realities.
Just as suffering is central to the human condition, but it is not inextricable from joy or goodness or whatever. Difficult fruits contain the suffering and the joy. How did the process of rendering all of these difficult fruits, literally and metaphorically, shift your view on them?
The quick answer, the one I’ve found from talking about this book for a couple months now, is that engaging with the difficulty of a supposedly sweet thing has helped me have a more authentic relationship with it, one that contains the dark and the light. For me, when I write about food, it’s always about my relationship with people and art. By trying to engage with the difficulty of fruit, I found a way into thorny questions that I wouldn't have been able to ask myself or others if I’d come at them head-on.
I remember, during the years of writing this book, being able to concentrate on the peculiarities and difficulties of each fruit, the pleasure that gave me (I’m one of those freaks who loves small, repetitive tasks), the attention I could give and the attention each fruit demanded of me. I couldn’t just unwrap it like a banana and shove it in my face. I appreciate how difficulty required attention, and how attention gave me pleasure and quiet, and how the challenge of trying to figure out ways to procure a difficult fruit or prepare a difficult fruit or make a difficult fruit delicious, all the failure and dead ends and frustrations, exposed me to all sorts of happy accidents. Medar, for example, just doesn’t taste very good to me unless it’s jelly, and then it tastes divine, but the process I took to figure that out highlighted all the food-forms we use to preserve fruit. I started thinking of these forms like they were a family tree: jelly, jam, pickles, conserves, extracts, brandies, fruit leathers, ferments, shrubs, cordials, ice creams, condiments, I could go on (I go on).
There’s another answer about my relationship outside of books to fruit. I would have been able to tell you this answer before my son was born, but now I can’t remember it. Talk about transformation! Now what I’d say is, I miss my difficult fruits! Preserving fruit doesn’t fit in life with an infant. Jam is molten and can scorch in a second. The chances of injury or failure are just too high. Cheesemaking, however, works well, so for the time being I’ve channeled all my preserving energies into milk.
This book, of course, required so much labor. Cooking is so much labor. Cleaning. I think about Italian Plum and W. I definitely related to this sense of implied labor in relationships with men before and I felt this sick sense of accomplishment from it. How did you, as an artist and as a person, claim your labor for your internal and artistic work?
Ok, speaking of cleaning, having been in your sweet little kitchen once, it seems like you’ve got to be constantly doing dishes to keep up with your research. Who is doing all these dishes?
Sam, of course! Haha. Both of us. I do my recipe-testing dishes but then I often poop out and he’s left with our actual dishes, which he does without complaining because he’s a saint. Now that we have Cy, if we don’t both do dishes constantly we are buried under food and filth, so there’s no more abandoning that chore to Sam. We’re in this sink together.
Love that so hard! I was certain you were just like, throwing away pans and starting over. What a guy.
So I wanna get down and dirty with what really matters: grocery stores. What’s your fantasy grocery store line up across the PNW? Farmers markets count.
My favorite grocery store is probably Lora Lea Misterly’s pantry at Quillisascut Farm (she’s my cheesemaking mentor through the Washington Center for Cultural Traditions). She makes incredible preserves of all kinds, and all kinds of cheeses, and sometimes there’s polenta to buy, or hot sauce, or extra eggplants, or apricot pits, or green walnuts to turn into Nocino. I’ve visited her during every season now, and every month there’s something new to discover and enjoy, and it’s all so fresh.
If we could have some kind of combo Perry Street Market/Vinegar Flats Farm CSA/Uwajimaya/fancy but affordable wine store/cheese shop/Culture Bread-mart—oh, I’d cook myself to heaven. I guess in Spokane we sort of do have that! The LINC Co-op sells a lot of this stuff, plus spices andPalouse-grown pulses and and and…
Wow, what a hot lineup.
To me, Spokane is the definition of a difficult fruit. Sweet with a dark past, approachable, but thick skinned, and certainly rotten in parts. If Spokane was a difficult fruit, which would she be?
Hmm... Spokane might be most like durian, a fruit that would never, ever grow here. Not universally loved, but heartily defended by those who do know and love it. Incomprehensible to someone who has no firsthand experience of it, but has heard enough to be of the opinion they don’t like it. Worth the effort to acquire the taste. Covered in a tough, prickly rind that, when hacked through, reveals a soft heart. Like nothing else.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.