I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction like this. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Kate Lebo has a finger in many pies – a figure of speech I use deliberately, as she is primarily a baker (but also a poet) and her three previous books are about pie.
You won’t find any ordinary apples or oranges here. Difficult fruit – “the Tart, Tender, and Unruly,” as the subtitle elaborates – is different: rarer to find, more challenging to process, perhaps harder to love. Instead of bananas and pears, then, you’ll read about the niche (aronia and thimbleberries), the rotten and malodorous (medlars and durian fruit), and the downright inedible (just one: the Osage orange, only suitable for repelling spiders or turning into decorations). These fruits might be foraged on hikes, sent by friends and relatives in other parts of the USA, or sold at Lebo’s local Spokane, Washington farmer’s market. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items, such as a pomegranate face mask or yuzu body oil.
The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories. J is for juniper berry, a traditional abortifacient, and brings to mind for Lebo the time she went to Denver to accompany a friend to an abortion appointment. N is for the Norton grape, an American variety whose wine is looked down upon compared to European cultivars. Q is for quince, what Eve likely ate in the Garden of Eden; like the first humans in the biblical account, Lebo’s pair of adopted aunts were cast out for their badness. W is for wheat, a reminder of her doomed relationship with a man who strictly avoided gluten; X is for xylitol, whose structure links to her stepdaughter’s belief in the power of crystals.
Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits: Lebo has ulcerative colitis, depression and allergies; her grandfather was a pharmacist and her mother is a physical therapist who suffers from migraines and is always trying out different diets. The extent to which a fruit can genuinely promote wellness is a question that is pondered more than once. Whether the main focus is on the foodstuff or the family experience, each piece is carefully researched so as to be authoritative yet conversational. The author is particularly good at describing smells and tastes, which can be so difficult to translate into words:
My first taste of durian was as candy, a beige lozenge with a slight pink blush that my boss at the time dared me to try. … It tasted of strawberries and old garlic. I had to will myself to finish. … My second taste of durian was at dim sum in New York City, visiting a man who would never love me. The durian was stewed, sweetened, and crenellated with flaky dough. … [It] was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight. Each bite was a dare. Could I keep going?
A single medlar that has been bletted outdoors through early December can be eaten in three bites. The first taste will be of spiced applesauce. … The second taste, because the medlar has spent long cold weeks on the branch, is sparkling wine. Not a good sparkling wine, but pleasant enough. Slightly explosive-tasting, like certain manufactured candies. Ugly, but what a personality. The third taste is a cold mildew one usually only smells, and generally interprets as a warning not to eat any more. You have now finished the medlar.
Two essays in a row best exemplified the book’s approach for me. The chapter on gooseberries, the cover stars, captures everything I love about them (we have two bushes; this year we turned our haul into a couple of Nigel Slater’s crumble cakes and a batch of gingery jam) and gives tips on preparation plus recipes I could see myself making. “Gooseberries are sour like you’ve arrived before they were ready for company, like they wanted you to see them in a better dress,” Lebo writes. The piece on huckleberries then shares Indigenous (Salish) wisdom about the fruit and notes that in a Spokane McDonald’s you can buy a huckleberry shake.
Over the eight months I spent with this collection – picking it up once in a while to read an essay, or a portion of one – I absorbed a lot of information, as well as some ideas for dishes I might actually try. Most of all, I admired how this book manages to be about everything, which makes sense because food is not just central to our continued survival but also bound up with collective and personal identity, memory, and traditions. Though it started off slightly scattershot for me, it’s ended up being one of my favorite reading experiences of the year.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Today I have a biography-cum-cultural history of America’s wild foods and a novel about beekeeping and mental illness.
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs (2010)
(20 Books of Summer, #15) In 1879, Mark Twain, partway through the Grand Tour immortalized in A Tramp Abroad, was sick of bland, poor-quality European food and hankering for down-home American cooking. He drew up a list of 80 foodstuffs he couldn’t wait to get back to: everything from soft-shell crabs to proper ice water. “The menu shouts of a joyous abundance,” Beahrs writes. “It testifies to a deep bond in Twain’s mind between eating and tasting and celebrating … rooted food that would live forever in his memory.”
Beahrs goes in search of some of those trademark dishes and explores their changes in production over the last 150 years. In some cases, the creatures and their habitats are so endangered that we don’t eat them anymore, like Illinois’ prairie chickens and Maryland’s terrapins, but he has experts show him where remnant populations live. In San Francisco Bay, he helps construct an artificial oyster reef. He meets cranberry farmers in Massachusetts and maple tree tappers in Vermont. At the Louisiana Foodservice EXPO he gorges on “fried oysters and fried shrimp and fries. I haven’t had much green, but I’ve had pecan waffles with bacon, and I’ve inserted beignets and café au lait between meals with the regularity of an Old Testament prophet chanting ‘begat.’”
But my favorite chapter was about attending a Coon Supper in Arkansas, a local tradition that has been in existence since the 1930s. Raccoons are hunted, butchered, steamed in enormous kettles, and smoked before the annual fundraising meal attended by 1000 people. Raccoon meat is greasy and its flavor sounds like an acquired taste: “a smell like nothing I’ve smelled before but which I’ll now recognize until I die (not, I hope, as a result of eating raccoon).” Beahrs has an entertaining style and inserts interesting snippets from Twain’s life story, as well as recipes from 19th-century cookbooks. There are lots of books out there about the country’s increasingly rare wild foods, but the Twain connection is novel, if niche.
Source: A remainder book from Wonder Book (Frederick, Maryland)
The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver (1999)
(20 Books of Summer, #16) Ever since I read The End of the Point (which featured in one of my Six Degrees posts), I’ve meant to try more by Graver. This was her second novel, a mother-and-daughter story that unearths the effects of mental illness on a family. Eleven-year-old Eva has developed a bad habit of shoplifting, so her mother Miriam moves them out from New York City to an upstate farmhouse for the summer. But in no time Eva, slipping away from her elderly babysitter’s supervision and riding her bike into the countryside, is stealing jars of honey from a roadside stand. She keeps going back and strikes up a friendship with the middle-aged beekeeper, Burl, whom she seems to see as a replacement for her father, Francis, who died of a heart attack when she was six.
Alternating chapters look back at how Miriam met Francis and how she gradually became aware of his bipolar disorder. This strand seems to be used to prop up Miriam’s worries about Eva (since bipolar has a genetic element); while it feels true to the experience of mental illness, it’s fairly depressing. Meanwhile, Burl doesn’t become much of a presence in his own right, so he and the beekeeping feel incidental, maybe only included because Graver kept/keeps bees herself. Although Eva is an appealingly plucky character, I’d recommend any number of bee-themed novels, such as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, and even Generation A by Douglas Coupland, over this one.
Source: Secondhand copy from Beltie Books, Wigtown