Pick Your Poison: The Sweet, Sometimes Lethal Sides of Your Produce

Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (With Recipes)
By Kate Lebo

I’ve been thinking about how to murder a man with cherry pits. Pie, definitely. I’d pit a few pounds of cherries, then smash the pits and mix with vodka into an almondlike, but poisonous, extract. The chemical compounds in the pits would react with his stomach acid to create bootleg cyanide. It’d take, I estimate, three whole pies for me to pull this off, but still. As Kate Lebo explores in “The Book of Difficult Fruit,” within the plant kingdom, there lurk so many potential killers.

My cherry obsession aside, this darkly funny encyclopedia-memoir-essay collection is not a witch’s guide to killing your man. Each chapter takes on a different prickly, stinky, tricky, troublesome fruit — its history and usage in herbalism, its flavor and appeal, its dangers and difficulties — and ends with recipes. “In this book, fruit is not the smooth-skinned, bright-hued, waxed and edible ovary of the grocery store,” Lebo writes in the introduction (waxed ovary!): “What nurtures and what harms are entangled.” I turned the page so fast I got a paper cut.

“Deeply researched” doesn’t begin to describe how far into ancient texts and their subtexts, obscure cookbooks and corners of the internet Lebo excavated to tell us the stories of these fruits. What she digs up for each is often fascinating, sometimes juicy, rarely dry. She interviews experts, including LaRae Wiley, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, on picking huckleberries, and Dale from Poison Control (for obvious reasons). In the standout juniper chapter, Lebo searches for evidence that women drank juniper tonics to terminate pregnancies and finds it in an herbalist’s guide from 1597 (“Gerard’s Herbal” claimed the plant’s “leaves, when ‘boyled in Wine and drunke,’ can … ‘expel the dead childe, and kill the quicke’”).

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”).

This is where the fruit we used as a stand-in for depression, motherhood or a bad ex is transformed back into its original, edible self. The ingredients, like words, get thoughtfully measured and weighed and mixed into something delicious and meaningful. Or maybe it’s just a pie.

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