The Life of Pie
Kate Lebo‘s work as a food writer, poet, essayist, and baker is all about the collision of flavors. Sugar and butter. Vanilla and cinnamon. Pie and . . . whiskey?
Why not? With her partner, fellow writer Samuel Ligon, Lebo conceived and orchestrated the first Pie & Whiskey literary celebration in 2012, as part of Spokane’s annual Get Lit! festival. Five years later, it’s evolved into a new anthology book: Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze, due in October from Sasquatch Books (recipe excerpt below!). The experience of curating both the event and the book illustrated for Lebo “the way we can use food as an easy door into harder subjects.”
“Because our job often as food writers is to render a subject palatable, the danger is to stay at that sweet surface, so you don’t have to plumb further to make the piece appealing,” she says. “That book is the fruition of a dream that I’ve had about topics like pie and topics like whiskey, which obviously have very, very broad appeal. But they also have certain cliches attached to them, and our job as writers is to get way past those cliches.”
Lebo’s 2013 debut book was A Commonplace Book of Pie, spun out of her experiences as a popular Seattle food blogger and piemaker. She relocated to Spokane in 2014, the same year Sasquatch published her recipe collection Pie School. She’s now at work on a new essay collection, The Book of Difficult Fruits, and offers up a sampling at Bedtime Stories Spokane 2017. It might focus on the Osage orange — a hardy and widespread Midwestern tree whose fruits, sometimes called “hedge apples,” look a lot like brains.
“Their fruit is this knobby, funny-looking, grainy green fruit that folklore says scares away spiders — but does not really.”
Humanities Washington: Which defines the nature of pie: Crust or filling?
Kate Lebo: It’s the relationship between the two. The more I make pie, as the years pass with my piemaking practice, I really drill right down to basics every time. I want to make a really great crust, which is super simple once you get the hang of it, and the filling should be good enough to set it off. My publishing started with pie, kind of the first thing out of the gate, but I have been writing about a lot of other stuff, particularly through essays. I’m coming at it through pie, but no longer just pie — I’m interested in fruits, and the practical requirements of fruit, and also the myth of it. It’s a pretty universal site of story. And pie for me was this kind of universal, American site for a certain type of story, a certain type of symbolism.
What drove you to get more engaged with fruit itself, rather than the things that can be made from it?
Some of it is about an elemental feeling. Sam’s daughter has a fascination with rocks and crystals, and she’s attracted to them and can really feel their properties and personalities. I came to feel I had a similar obsession with fruit. I think many, many people pick a thing that speaks to them, and given a chance, can get really into it. I find a lot of meaning and pleasure in growing fruit, and picking fruit, and dealing with fruit as a substance, and thinking about the things I could possibly do with it. There’s so much that’s about bounty and pleasure and generosity in the season, and the way time passes cyclically — fruit just gets at that for me. It helps me interact with that cycle in a way that is on the one hand intellectual and artistic, but on the other hand, practical. There’s this urgency to fruit, too, because that is a fruition of a plant’s energy over one season, and we only have a certain amount of time, while it’s really, really good, to figure out what to do with it. It calls to us in that way, to make use of it.
Pie for me was this kind of universal, American site for a certain type of story, a certain type of symbolism.
Has transplanting to Spokane changed your approach to baking? Different accessibility of ingredients and so forth?
Absolutely. And being fluent with both sides of the state has been really fun — being able to see the west side from this angle and appreciate what I took for granted there. I’ve got access to a massive amount of huckleberries in Spokane, and there’s a sense of regional pride here around huckleberries. And the huckleberries here are a sweeter, bigger berry than the one you find on the west side. There’s a lot of grains on the Palouse, this massive natural and agricultural area, that stretches from Spokane down to Walla Walla — it’s Washington’s breadbasket. I’m working with lentils, chickpeas, different kinds of beans. In that way, it’s really opened up the palette for my cooking. I was excited to learn there’s great pie apples out here too. Not as many as there are on the west side — the cool weather there means you get awesome, sour baking fruits — but here, we’re better at sweet fruits.
How did you discover baking?
I was writing poems, I was working on a blog, ten years ago now —and I realized that food could be a really great prompt for my writing, through the food blog. This was when food blogs were really, really getting going. On a really tight budget, there was room for me to spend money and time on this thing that also prompted writing, because I could write about what I was cooking. But also it prompted a lot of social connections and relationships. Of course food does that, but I didn’t realize that when I was starting. The third part of it was that economic part. After I finished graduate school, I realized one of the ways I could support myself as a writer was to teach people how to make pie. I was making pie on my front lawn to make ends meet, I was teaching people how to make pie at Pike Place Market, and those were all ways I could support myself. All these different pieces came together, because the complex nature of food can hold all these different applications.
Does inspiration for writing strike while you’re baking?
They definitely do feed on each other, but they use completely different parts of my brain. And I actually have found it difficult to do both in one day. The type of writing you do when you’re recipe-developing is meticulous, and requires hands-on work with the food. I can’t sit there and explain it while I’m doing it. Very different from doing an essay, where I’m pulling up research I’ve done and trying to stew it into something new. The way that exchange works best for me is when I think of it as things to do according to different energies I have. Some days, I cannot sit down and write an essay; I can’t get my brain to that quiet place. So I’ll go work on a recipe. One thing that cooking and recipe-writing has taught me is something I value in essay-writing, perhaps also in poems — that really, really good recipes and food writing balance between technical writing and lyric writing. You have to have that side where the recipe says, “This is how you do it,” very specifically telling the reader what to do. The lyric side is where you fill in the reader on the context of this dish, or describe elements of the dish that give room for interpretation and imagination.
Chocolate Pecan Pie Whiskey Shots
While caramelized pecan pie filling is still hot, it can be smooshed into a shot-glass shape and then cooled, painted with melted chocolate, and filled with whiskey. You’ll need a standard muffin pan and muffin cups, a culinary brush or offset spatula, and a tart press or something similarly shaped. Shoot the whiskey; eat the glass. For those holidays we can’t remember to regret.
MAKES 6 to 8 SHOTS
8 ounces finely chopped pecans (a little less than 2 cups once prepared)
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cream
2 tablespoons golden syrup (Lyle’s, or use Karo syrup in a pinch)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped roughly
4 to 6 ounces bourbon or rye
- In a medium bowl, put the chopped nuts. Grease a standard muffin pan, and set both aside.
- In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, bring the honey and water to a simmer. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until brown and nutty, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the sugar, cream, syrup, butter, salt, vanilla, and cloves. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is darkened and caramelized, 5 to 8 minutes. It should be molten, bubbly, and thick, but not burned. Remove the pan from the heat. Pour the caramel over the nuts, and stir until evenly coated.
- Immediately fill each muffin cup with about 1⁄4 cup of the mixture, place a muffin liner on top, then, using a tart press or the end of a wooden spoon, press the mixture to create cups. If there are any holes in the floor or walls of the cups, use a little more of the nut mixture to patch them. Discard the muffin liners. Chill for 10 minutes in the refrigerator, then remove the pecan cups from the muffin tin and place them on a large plate or baking sheet. Set aside.
- In a small microwave-safe glass bowl, place the chocolate and microwave on medium for 2 minutes. Stir. Microwave again in 15-second bursts, stirring in between each, until the chocolate has melted. While the chocolate is hot, brush the insides of the pecan cups with it. Chill the cups in the refrigerator for another 10 minutes, then brush them with another layer of melted chocolate. Set the cups aside to cool in the refrigerator again, about 10 minutes.
- Once the cups have cooled completely, fill them with whiskey. They’ll hold between 1⁄2 and 1 ounce of liquor, depending on how high and even their walls are.
- Drink immediately; eat at your leisure.
*(c)2017 by Kate Lebo and Samuel Ligon. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Pie & Whiskey by permission of Sasquatch Books.
Lebo will be reading as part of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser in Spokane on October 27. Tickets and more information is available here.