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The fruit histories ease into essays on figuring out femininity with the help of Bath & Body Works (vanilla), grandfathers holding onto family secrets (elderberry), Kara Walker’s “Sugar Baby” sculpture (sugar cane) and beautiful pointlessness (sorry, Osage oranges). Along the way, we get morsels of memoir like carefully plucked trail berries. These glimpses reveal Lebo’s health-nut mother, who shaped her reverence for the plant world; a romance that brought out Lebo’s own difficult fruit tendencies and the one that brought out her best — the kind of truths you can’t find in a library.
Every fruit is ripe for metaphor for Lebo, who is both a poet and a baker. She resists giving symbolism too much power, but it’s hard when you realize that the needy ex-boyfriend is like an Italian plum tree, a novelty to care for who soon becomes an intolerable burden.
Sometimes ideas are poison, too. At the turn of the 20th century, the Darwinian botanist Luther Burbank bred blackberries to be thornless and nonthreatening. Turns out Burbank had similar ideas about breeding the human race. In Burbank’s “The Training of the Human Plant,” Lebo notes, “we see how it can be dangerous to compare people to plants. How, taken to their extreme logical conclusions, such metaphors become — as they always half were — inhuman.”
This was the moment you, er, I, person who took one Derrida class in college, realized maybe this book isn’t about fruit at all, but about language. That maybe encyclopedias, so neatly alphabetized, are presented as complete knowledge of the world, yet end up being as useful as a metaphor. You get halfway to truth, but the more you read about thimbleberries, the more you just want to taste their “rich, raspberry-like flavor that’s more intense than one would expect, as if it’s been concentrated by gentle heat.” I’d love to smell durian, which Lebo describes as “strawberries and old garlic,” and “sweet and trashy, like a cantaloupe that’s been left in the car.”
“The Book of Difficult Fruit” is brimming with obscure knowledge that’s going to loom over every gin martini I drink for the next decade, and there are fantastic recipes too. Blackberry shrub, red wine vinegar, yuzu marmalade, huckleberry pie and maraschino cherries are now on my to-cook list. These recipes include some of the book’s funniest moments, like the ones for “hiker’s toilet paper” (thimbleberry leaves are giant and fuzzy) and durian lip balm (“Some people will say this lip balm stinks. No kisses for them”).