Nourishing a Habit of Love: Reflections on The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the fifth installment, Rachel reflects on The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes).
Here is a habit I want to break: standing idly in front of my fridge—hungry or not—debating, yearning, and ultimately succumbing to the usual (read: anything of the snack variety).
I'm a creature of habit when it comes to my diet, though with other consumption habits—like reading—I've consciously avoided getting too comfortable with my palette. That said, and as someone with zero culinary ability, this is the compromise I've made with myself: If you can't cook it, read about it.
Food writing is transportive and—especially during a period of isolation—a gift to the senses. Reading The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes) by Kate Lebo was certainly no exception. Lebo's storytelling is enough to satiate the most well-versed foodie. And while I initially thought the book would nourish my reading practice, it ended up feeding something much deeper.
As its name indicates, The Book of Difficult Fruit does not present its content on a silver platter. Through incisive reporting, historical research, and reflection, Lebo charts a comprehensive study of "difficult" fruit. In twenty-six alphabetical essays, readers learn about the elusive durian ("The durian was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight," Lebo writes. "Each bite was a dare.") to the plentiful zucchini ("I like zucchini. I like knowing that of all the seeds we've planted, this one will definitely overwhelm us with our success."). There are also less apparent—but equally resonant—explorations. For instance, in "Lump," Lebo describes a friend's health battle, and subsequently, her own health scare. ("Whose body won't suddenly—or slowly, over the course of several years, secretly—bear an orchard of deadly fruit?" Lebo writes.) Each piece ends with correlating notes and recipes.
Throughout the collection, Lebo also incorporates anecdotes demonstrating her personal connection to subjects she's examining. She draws parallels between the difficulties of fruit and the undoing (and in some cases rebuilding) of family, romance, friendships, and self. In this way, The Book of Difficult Fruit is also about relationships: the difficulties that define them and how we ultimately learn to transcend their pains.
Here is a habit I want to build: cultivating a fullness that goes deeper than hunger.
Before the pandemic, it was easy to mask loneliness with busyness; pain with hubris. There was always more to do or more to be. Once I achieved it, I felt full—for a while. But that's where my own difficulties began. When would it feel like enough? Would it ever?
What I once thought was sweet has taken on bitter tones—as Lebo writes in her introduction:
"'Fruit of the womb,' we say. Or 'fruits of my labor.' What precedes the bounty contained by these cliches—the thing obscured but not erased by the feast, the mechanism that brings fruit to fruition—is pain."
Over the last year, we've built pain into our vocabulary in such a profound way that it's shifted our habits in how we express what's difficult in our collective and personal histories. Slowly, I'm relearning this language, one that's never felt natural to my tongue. I'm learning that to go beyond the niceties and express these things out loud—what is difficult, what hurts, what I want, what I am, and that I am, in fact, enough already—is an act of love. But if not tended to, it is fleeting.
What ingredients does one need to nourish a habit of self-love? Lebo doesn't provide a recipe for that. And yet, reading The Book of Difficult Fruit has somehow inspired an appetite for acceptance—what I hope comes next is an appreciation and tenderness towards all of the "unruly" parts of myself. Towards the painful, unknowable moments of growth, towards all of the people I've yet to become.
The day I finish the book also happens to be the same day I venture into Manhattan for the first time in over a year. My significant other, John, joins me for what feels like a long-awaited expedition. I've spent most of my life in New York, yet I am always conscientious of how much space I occupy.
Soho feels impacted, but there is an insistence on its return. People buzz around us; shopping bags crash into our legs, shrieks boomerang from all corners. We are there for doctor's appointments, and after a few hours of poking and prodding and pain, we both need to refuel.
John and I round the corner onto Lafayette Street, and to my surprise, we're immediately seated at one of the neighborhood's most frequented restaurants. (It also happens to be one of my favorites.) After settling into the rhythm of gathering around a table amongst others, we order.
Shortly after, our waitress returns with dishes in hand. "Here we go," she practically sings. "Can I get you two anything else?"
Just as John moves to respond, I cut him off. "I think we're good, but this is my first meal back out in the world!" I chirp.
"Oh," she responds brightly. "Well, we're so happy to have you with us!" She continues holding my gaze expectantly. Unsure of what to do or say next, I shift in my seat, accidentally nudging John, who is careful not to bang into the translucent barricade between our tables. Finally, I smile weakly, forgetting she can see the tension in my lips, unmasked for the first time in what feels like decades.
"Well, enjoy," she says kindly.
Neither of our meals contains any fruit (both, however, are seasoned with the restaurant's coveted hot sauce), and ever the creature of habit, my order is not new. Despite the awkwardness leading up to this moment, it still feels sacred. My eyes dance across the table: Kaleidoscopic colors fill our plates and bowls. Tangy scents waft through the air. And then, there's that first bite of something that's been prepared just for me.
"Good?" John asks.
"The best," I sigh.
We eat in silence for a while, letting the ambient noise of a reawakened city fill the space. What's ahead will undoubtedly be rife with difficult things—but I savor the fact that this moment is not one of them. Instead, hunger and fullness have collided into a few minutes of shared humanity. It is all so wonderfully ordinary. I take a bite and then another.
Here is a habit I want to celebrate: working—and reading—towards a new chapter in life.
Stories have played a role in my identity for as long as I can remember. Now, they've taken on a new level of importance as I make my way through a world that's being rewritten in real-time. Lately, I find myself thinking about a passage in Lebo's essay "Osage Orange." She writes:
"Delight isn't a story. Appetite isn't a story. Anxiety isn't a story, either. If I were writing an encyclopedia, the facts would be the story. But that's not what I'm writing."
Technically speaking, it is hard to sum up what Lebo has written, but genre aside, The Book of Difficult Fruit has broken open the possibility of a life unfettered. Lebo is right: Appetite, anxiety, and delight may not be stories themselves, but to me, they are just a few of the vital ingredients necessary to nourish a habit of understanding—and love: for the self, for each other, for the difficult and the ordinary alike.
I'll take a bite out of life and then another.