Award-winning baker and writer Kate Lebo talks with Zibby about her new book of essays, The Book of Difficult Fruit. Part memoir, part history lesson, and featuring fantastic recipes, this alphabetic collection shows readers the relationships that can exist between fruits, medicines, and ourselves. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here: https://bit.ly/3jdKctA


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Can’t even say the name of the podcast today.

Kate Lebo: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners about The Book of Difficult Fruit and your whole story and how it became a book and all the good stuff.

Kate: The quick version of what this book is is that it’s a collection of essays that go from A to Z, so Aronia, Blackberry, Cherry, and then Yuza and Zucchini to finish us out. What I tried to do in this book is use stories about fruit to try to understand these personal stories where nurturing and harm get all tangled up. I got interested in the relationship between food and medicine, the ways that we use metaphors and magical thinking to figure out what will heal us and what to eat. That got woven into this book. In addition to the essays, each essay concludes with two recipes. Generally, it’s one you can eat and one that’s for a cosmetic or garden or medicinal application, though I don’t stick to that rule because I couldn’t find something for every single fruit that fit that rule. I benched my own rule.

Zibby: Nobody noticed. It was fine.

Kate: Excellent. Shh, don’t tell them then.

Zibby: I won’t tell them. I really loved the section on vanilla, but I feel like, how is that really even a fruit?

Kate: It is a fruit. Part of the journey of writing this book for me was first discovering how many things are fruits that I don’t think about as fruits. A wheatberry is a fruit. A vanilla pod, a vanilla bean, we call it a bean, but it is a fruit. It is one of the only edible fruits in the orchid family. It’s also the most expensive fruit to produce in the entire world.

Zibby: That must be why I like it.

Kate: Which makes sense for something that’s so delicious and precious and all that.

Zibby: I was, by the way, totally with you on the Bath & Body Works.

Kate: Oh, good.

Zibby: In fact, I was in LA recently. We went into this mall. I was like, “Someone gave me a gift of this amazing vanilla lotion from Bath & Body Works, but I’m not exactly sure what the bottle is. Let’s go in.” I went in the store. I was overwhelmed by this flood of scents. I turned right out and walked away.

Kate: It makes you dumb. You walk in there and you’re completely overwhelmed by sound, the sights, and then the scents, of course, that go right into you and kind of knock you out. It was such a funny experience researching that piece. I’m writing about vanilla. I’m writing about this particular type of vanilla bean fragrance that was probably fake — it was introduced to me by Bath & Body Works when I was a teenager, as it was to you probably — and trying to recapture that scent, which doesn’t really exist. It was a couple months before we went into lockdown for the pandemic. It was my very, very last time in a mall for the last year and a half. It was so weird going in there. Once you get past the overwhelming scents explosion, you’re just watching complete strangers pick things up, uncap them, put them in their faces and smell them, and then hand them to their friends who are doing the same thing. Everybody’s smelling everything in the store. It’s all up in their faces. I was like, what other store would this be allowed and appropriate in, much less not questioned in any way?

Zibby: Let alone digging your fingers in and scooping it, the trials, oh, my gosh, and the tester in the makeup store with the lipsticks, all that. They must not be doing that anymore.

Kate: I wonder. I haven’t been out yet to find out.

Zibby: Tell me about writing each chapter. How did you decide from each letter which one you were going to do?

Kate: Often, it depended on if I had a personal connection to it already, which sometimes actually made it even harder to write about. If I knew something about the fruit that I found really compelling — for example, with wheat, I learned that wheat dust, the dust that’s made by milling flour which I use to make pie, that dust, which I don’t use to make pie, we don’t eat the dust, is more explosive than gunpowder. That fact was phenomenal but also suggested all sorts of ways I could use it metaphorically. That’s why wheat made it into the chapter. Then I had to figure out how it was a fruit.

Zibby: Didn’t your partner have a gluten intolerance or something? Am I making this up?

Kate: No, that’s in that chapter. The fact about wheat dust being explosive led me to think about the incompatibly, ultimately, between me and an ex-partner where I was learning how to express myself through flour, it was a really important practice for me, as we were figuring out that a bunch of his health problems were probably related to wheat, among other things. It just became this intractable conflict that neither of us wanted to have, of course. In the book, that becomes another way to talk about over-nurturing, the kind of codependent or just reactive nurturing that I was engaging in at the time, maybe because of my girl training, maybe because of thinking that this was the way to love someone, was to nurture them until the relationship ends. The relationship overbalances and can’t withstand the nurturing. That’s an example. Other examples, cherry, people probably wouldn’t think that that’s a difficult fruit. They’re present everywhere. They’re sweet. They’re easy to eat. As I did more research, I came to understand that within the cherry kernel, which is within the pit, is amygdalin, which has been used as a quack cure for cancer. It doesn’t work. It also is cyanide. It creates an almond flavoring that’s delicious, but it also creates cyanide. It’s an amount that if you have one and you’re an adult, your body can process that. The gut’s made to break down small amounts of toxins like that. Over time and if you have a lot of this, it will hurt you. That just seemed like a really stunning combination of qualities to have in what I thought was a really sweet and approachable fruit. Again, the opportunities to get to talk about other situations —

Zibby: — And the maraschino cherries, which you wrote about, and how they’re so prevalent and so fake. Now you give your own version of making your own maraschino cherries. I was like, oh, that sounds like fun.

Kate: Delicious and sweet and also drowned in a kind of toxin, AKA, liquor. I engage in a lot of relativity and how I’m thinking about what nurtures and what harms and what heals and what is nutritious in this book.

Zibby: Did writing the book — how would you put that for yourself on the healing to harmful meter?

Kate: It’s funny. I wouldn’t think of it as harmful, but it is definitely an amount of exposure that I had to live in denial about as I was writing the book. That does feel very weird, to have the book out in the world now and have to really face the fact that other people are reading it and then have opinions about it and know all sorts of things about me. I had to pretend as I was writing that this was a private conversation I was having with myself or with an unknown person or with the reader.

Zibby: I really love this form of memoir with recipes as a format. I love getting the little bonus gift at the end of a chapter. I read multiple books of this type, not that this is — anyway.

Kate: No, this is a type. I’m playing with that type. That is totally fine.

Zibby: Sorry, not to diminish the form. I happen to love the form. I do feel like your own experience was almost hard to — you had to paw through the recipes. It wasn’t like you started every chapter with, this was what was going on in my life, and then you had a recipe at the end. Some fruits, you barely talked about yourself at all. Then others, you had a whole thing. It felt like a jewel. Ooh, look at this. Now I get a whole paragraph about this relationship or something. Maybe at times, you were withholding or there wasn’t as much personal anecdote to share about certain topics.

Kate: Sometimes. Really, what I’m thinking about within a whole book is a balance and a weave between the personal and the research that I was able to do. What I hoped was that information about fruit, the research that I was doing about fruit would make my own story bigger than just my own story. It would help me set it within this larger context about food and medicine and the way that we identify food out in our neighborhood or in the wild. So much about food is so personal. It would’ve felt false to me to present this information without also presenting myself and my idiosyncrasies and biases and blind spots and obsessions and all that. That was my hope, anyway, for the weave of those two characteristics.

Zibby: Nice. Accomplished. How much do you cook now? Tell me about your cooking. How much of these fruits now do you include when maybe you wouldn’t have before? Have you scrapped the whole difficult fruit and now you’re onto really challenging vegetables?

Kate: You know, I had a baby seven months ago everything.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Kate: You’re right, I don’t have time to read, oh, my god. Do about a half hour a day, precious, precious time with my book. What I found, actually, is it’s not so much the difficult fruits that I can’t interact with as much anymore because of the attention that they take — my attention is on my kid. What I have attention for are these fifteen-minute little segments of food preparation. It turns out that doesn’t work very well for jam making, for example. It boils. It’s molten. It’s going to spit and scald everything. Then if you turn away for a second, it’s ruined. I’ve stopped making jam. Ferments are easy. Ferments, you chop them up and put some salt on them and then just forget about them for a while. It’s more that since publishing the book and having the baby. My ability to pay attention has changed so much that what I can cook is different. I try to incorporate these difficult fruits, but some of them, they’re not going to happen. Trying to make persipan, for example — that’s that paste made out of the kernels of stone fruits. There’s no way that’s going to happen for next couple of years.

Zibby: I would say for most people that was never going to happen, so you’re one up on pretty much everyone in the world. The goals are pretty lofty.

Kate: You have to enjoy repetitive tasks to deal with some of these fruits. That’s why we don’t see a lot of these fruits or some of these recipes in our usual marketplaces or our usual cookbooks. Often, when we go to the grocery store, we are just encountering fruit that is able to get there over long distances and that we are able to consume easily. There’s a market for it. There’s not so much a market for a fruit whose nickname is chokeberry because that’s the thing it does to you when you eat it.

Zibby: It needs some rebranding there on the chokeberry.

Kate: Or more consumers with a taste for challenging things. There will always be those people. They just probably won’t be most of us.

Zibby: Maybe there needs to be some sort of more extreme eating — on all these cooking shows, maybe it has to be shifted into the X Games of food. Make it edgy.

Kate: The things that you have to do to prepare some of these difficult fruits are not particularly photogenic. They take a long time. There’s not a climax. There’s not even a plot. You’re just sitting there smashing things or separating one part of the fruit from the other part of the fruit quietly. Maybe you’re doing it with a friend. Maybe you’re staring off into space. I love those moments, personally. That’s the appeal of these recipes. The other appeal to me is to — I’m used to encountering recipes that try to take care of my need to make dinner on a Tuesday, which I’m very grateful for and I need to do every Tuesday, and Wednesday and Thursday and all that. There’s so many other ways to cook and so many other food forms that we don’t often encounter because they don’t offer themselves easily to us or because we can’t source what’s in them easily or because they just happen over a period of five years. I think about making umeboshi, for example, the pickled plum, that is so delicious and part of Japanese cuisine. To really make great umeboshi, it takes five years. Imagine that. That’s so different than a recipe for corn chowder.

Zibby: That’s true. My husband’s cousin Robbie owns two restaurants in New Jersey. He let us go downstairs. One of them’s called Viaggio. He took us down where they cure these meats for years. They hang them up. I don’t know exactly what’s going on. All I know is we were downstairs and flanks were — they weren’t going to be ready for years. Dry-aged this, I’m like, what? Then someone’s going to eat them in like three seconds. All of that time.

Kate: Yep. All of that is part of that flavor. We sense the specialness of that flavor, but we don’t necessarily know what it’s coming from. That is part of the magic of it, actually, is having all of that stripped away. We just get the delicious meat. We don’t have to know exactly where it came from. For those of us that want to know and want to , yeah, all those years hanging lonely in the dark.

Zibby: Next time you’re in New Jersey, I’ll hook it up. You can go down and visit the — . I was going to say, what are you doing next? I don’t want to put any pressure on you if you have a baby and you’re struggling to make corn chowder.

Kate: I’m getting childcare next. Holy cow, that’s going to happen next month. It’s going to change everything, or at least change a little thing. I’m working with the Washington Center for Cultural Traditions right now gathering food waste stories in my area of Spokane, Washington. That is happening right now and what’s next.

Zibby: That’s really cool. I love the unique way that you think. It’s very cool, a little bit off the beaten path, but very awesome. It’s really cool. I will think of that when I’m debating what to make that doesn’t take a lot of attention and think, you know, Kate Lebo is fermenting stuff. I’m microwaving oatmeal.

Kate: I’m microwaving yams. I’m microwaving so much stuff right now. The only thing that’s keeping us alive is my dad’s lasagna and the microwave and peanut butter.

Zibby: I felt like you would not be in favor of the microwave. I don’t know why.

Kate: Oh, no, microwave is fine. Whatever it takes to feed yourself well. I don’t care what the tool is or what the shortcut is. Use it.

Zibby: Okay. Thank you, for us laypeople. I feel better.

Kate: Otherwise, we’re just sitting here feeling guilty while we eat our sad salad.

Zibby: It’s true. I wonder with this whole rise of people’s complete lack of attention and the seven-second attention span, what foods we’ll be eating in thirty years. Now the idea of some of these obscure fruits and their preparation seems overwhelming. Maybe by the time my kids are grandparents, the idea of even the slow cooker or whatever would be like, forget it, why would we do that?

Kate: Everything will come in a plastic sleeve. You just push your food up from the bottom.

Zibby: Yeah, sounds great, like an astronaut or something.

Kate: I bet there will be both extremes. They’ll be needing food in seven seconds, and then the people who miss the connection to their food and miss all the social aspects of food that takes a while to prepare and get really deep down into it. I feel like we’ll see that every generation, people rediscovering or thinking that they are discovering these more connected, older ways of cooking. The Book of Difficult Fruit catalogs my own discoveries of more folk-way style methods of cooking, but it’s not like I discovered any of them. I’m just looking for them. Some of them are in plain sight. Some of them are in books. Some of them, I got to find people to teach me. Some of them, I’ll never know.

Zibby: Awesome. Having released this whole project into the world — I loved your advice that you trick yourself that nobody’s going to ever read it. What other tips and tricks and advice would you have for aspiring authors or aspiring writers?

Kate: I think in this age of social media, one of the most important things is to figure out a way to protect your inner life. The constant deluge of information from people we love and people we don’t love and everyone in between, all that is a conversation that I think can make it really hard to write. Whatever it looks like for each individual person for them to be able to go into a room, figure out how to shut that off, shut all that chatter off, or tell the chatter to wait anyway, it’ll be outside the room when you’re done writing, I think is really important and really challenging. That’s the only thing that allows me to write.

Zibby: How do you stop the chatter of a seven-month-old baby?

Kate: We’ll, you can’t.

Zibby: What trick did I miss there?

Kate: It’s been really cool to get to spend so much time with him that isn’t about words. As a writer, so much of my worth and so much of the way I think about what I’m going to be doing with this day has to do with, how do I understand something? How do I write it down? When I’m hanging out with , so much of it’s just physical. Let’s go look at a flower. Let’s go feel the flower. Let’s just sit here and play and cuddle. I don’t really have words for it. Again, there’s no plot. There’s no conflict. It’s just this beautiful, animal, physical time. I’m enjoying that while it lasts. I know at some point he’s going to be like, get out Mom. Right now, he thinks I’m pretty cool.

Zibby: Awesome. Kate, thank you so much. Thanks for chatting with me on the podcast and entertaining me with your book and all of it. Thank you.

Kate: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care.

Kate: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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