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May 29, 2015

Book Notes - Kate Lebo "Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter"

Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

As well as an accomplished poet, Kate Lebo is also an eloquent evangelist for pie. Her cookbook Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter brings the lessons from her baking classes to print with the same flair, wit, and enthusiasm in a book as rewarding to bake from as it is to read.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Abbreviating her in-person, face-to-face pie-making course for the benefit of us all, Lebo is all about the how-tos of the handmade—no food processors, no other kitchen machines, and certainly no store-bought prepackaged ingredients. The writing itself is almost enough to seduce."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kate Lebo's Book Notes music playlist for her cookbook Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter:

If you live in the sort of place that gets rhubarb, you'll have it fresh and stacked in pink piles wherever you shop for produce right around now. The first day of the Pie School year coincides with that first rhubarb, a sign of the better weather and sweeter fruits to follow. If you started with the first recipe in Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter (rhubarb custard, yum) and continued to bake chronologically once or twice a week all the way through the book, hitting each fruit at its peak, you'd take the last of fifty pies (pumpkin chiffon for the win!) out of the oven around Christmas. January, February, March—that's cake season. Today is for fruit pie.

Here's a song for your pie kitchen from each chapter of Pie School.

"Lola" from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, The Kinks (A Hubbub of Rhubarb)

The Kinks did not go as far as to describe Lola's pie preference, but my bets are on rhubarb, the vegetable we crossdress in sugar, pair with strawberries, and eat like fruit. It's even taxed as fruit. In 1947, a New York court decided that taxes should agree with tastebuds, citing as precedent an 1893 Supreme Court ruling that allows vegetables to be called fruits and vice versa according to how they're most popularly used.

"Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Soundtrack, (Blueberry Beauregarde)

Maybe the only time blueberries and justice—or just desserts—come together in one terrific punishment is that scene from Gene Wilder's version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It happens after our golden ticket winners lick the wallpaper, after they pooh-pooh the snozzberry, after they gorge on sugar-spun toadstools while Wilder sings "Pure Imagination" with an enigmatic smirk. As a child, this was my first exposure to type of performance art that encourages the worst from strangers while the artist stands back, studying his idiots.

Punishment comes first to Augustus Gloop, who falls into Wonka's chocolate river, eliminating himself from the race to claim Wonka's empire. Now we know: this movie is an Agatha Christie-style And Then There Were None to Eat the Candy sort of story, but about business and candy, not murder.

Violet Beauregarde fails next. She grabs experimental gum from Wonka's palm and chews herself into a blueberry. Blueberries contribute to Violet what they contribute to pie—mildness. As Oompa Loompas roll her offstage, she's sweeter than she'll ever be again.

"Cherry Pie" from Cherry Pie, Warrant (She's My Cherry Pie)

Because I am a pie lady, I am reminded by well-meaning people of this stupid song more often than is entertaining. I cannot sing "She's My Cherry Pie" at karaoke or enjoy it ironically on the car stereo. It is not the kind of bad that bears delight. Warrant's song is not as party-stopping as my favorite 90s sad bastard anthem Hey Jealousy, but that song is at least ashamed of itself to the degree required to maintain sympathy for the narrator, which I cannot feel for the dumb innuendo of this one hit wonder, or for fools who still mistake women for desserts.

"Spanish Pipedream" from self-titled, John Prine (The Perfect Peach)

"She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol" is the best metaphor for peach pie anyone will ever write, though John Prine wasn't singing about peach pie, not precisely, just suggesting it's helpful to have a buddy when you decide to unplug, bow out, find god, have babies, and eat a lot of peaches. This is a fantasy of no war, no poverty or violence or accountability, no Facebook, a utopia got by getting the hell away from people, which is what good peach pie can do, but only for the amount of time it takes to eat a slice.

"City of New Orleans" from City of New Orleans, Willie Nelson (A Tyranny of Plums)

Italian plum trees grow in every neighborhood in Seattle. I don't know why or who planted them or when. Today, cities tend to plant ornamental cherries and pears to avoid the mess of real fruit. But the old fruit-bearing trees remain, especially in backyards.

I have not heard whether the renegade arborists from San Francisco who secretly graft fruit-bearing branches on ornamental trees have influenced a similar band of plant graffitists in Seattle. For my last September in that city, I paid my rent with pie and jam made from Italian plums gifted by weary tree owners overwhelmed with their abundance. In my new city, Spokane, a municipal program invites volunteers to pick fruit from untended trees to donate to food banks or keep for their own pantries.

Willie's cover of Arlo Guthrie's elegy for the railroad makes me ache with nostalgia for an America that doesn't exist, which is exactly how I miss the Italian plum trees of Seattle, which I lost when the rent on my apartment followed a city-wide trend of rising ridiculously. Economic eviction, Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times called it. Out here on the east side of the state, huckleberries are the fruit of choice. They only grow wild in the mountains and aren't nearly as prolific as plum trees, but because they haven't yet been domesticated, because they thrive in forest clearings but not backyards, as long as we protect public lands, huckleberries—unlike plums—can belong to everyone.

"We Are Never Getting Back Together" from 1989, Taylor Swift (Blackberry, Blackberry, Blackberry)

An earworm best represents blackberries, an invasive vine that jubilantly tears through clearcuts, sneaks down alleys, and breaks down (then becomes) fences all over Western Washington, where I have watched people snack on berries growing from a not-yet-rebuilt lot while they wait for the number 7 bus to downtown Seattle. Blackberries thrive where the land is so damp and fertile it teeters on the edge of rot, which is almost exactly how I feel listening to Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, Ace of Bass, and all the other candy pop I should be embarrassed to admit to, invasive weeds that root through the ear until the only way to clear them is by ritual karaoke performance, preferably in the company of others whose vocal range is as wishful as my own.

"Apple Tree" from Winter Creatures, Grand Hallway (An Everlasting Apple Pie)

As a pie lady I am regularly asked the following three questions.

1. Did your grandmother teach you how to make pie?

Answer: No. My grandmother made vodka tonics and Christmas Jello but could barely bake her way out of a brownie box. I learned from my mother, practicing on my own, and other pie ladies, including crust magic from Kate McDermott of The Art of the Pie and baking for the masses from Beth Howard of the American Gothic House. Now I learn the most from my students, who routinely come to Pie School (the in-person version of my cookbook) with fantastic tips from their own family pie traditions.

2. How do you stay so thin?

Answer: Contrary to what our teachers said, there is such a thing as a stupid question. This is one of them. On the other hand: My favorite bad Amazon review chastised me for paying "no attention, as far as I can recall, to health concerns regarding overuse of butter (fat)," which is absolutely completely correct.

If you can't beat them, bake for them.

3. What's your favorite pie?

Answer: The apple pie I make in early September when the early-season heirloom pie apples arrive. Heirloom fruits aren't just a branch of the vintage craze. They are often better bakers because fruit that lends itself to the preserving pan would have been more useful in the "heirloom" days before refrigeration. I prefer Gravensteins. They're a tart green Danish apple grown in California's Sonoma Valley and the western half of the Pacific Northwest. The Gravenstein's crisp, cream-white fruit bakes like a dream, soft but not mushy, sweet but not cloying, shapely but not—like question #2—underbaked.

"Sweet Illusions" from Cold Roses, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (Snow Cupboard Pies) and "Fantasy" from Daydream, Mariah Carey (Chiffon Pie Chic)

When pumpkins, meyer lemons, and cranberries make their appearance at the market, the pie year has come to a close. Thin-skinned lemons can be mandolined, peel and all, into a pile of tart-bitter-sweet slices and soaked in sugar overnight, then baked with four eggs between two crusts. A handful of tart cranberries in an apple pie can end a year begun by tart rhubarb. Pumpkin is as good in a can as it is roasted and pulped from your own kitchen, so choose whichever degree of labor suits your November day. I lighten my pumpkin by making it into chiffon pie—a cream, meringue, and gelatin concoction popular in the mid 20th century and named after the sort of fabric you'd find in Betty Draper's party dresses.

After pumpkin I put the pie plates away, but that doesn't mean you have to. Cream, shoofly, Hoosier and chess pies made from shelf-stable sugar, nuts, vinegar, and always-available good dairy are the best option. I suggest Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies or check out Emily Hilliard's Nothing in the House blog for year-round recipes in this vein.

I hope your pie year is sweet and tart, and full of friends who'll help polish off all those spare slices. Happy baking!

Kate Lebo and Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour & Butter links:

the author's website
Pie School website

The Los Angeles Review review
Seattle Times review

Ploughshares interview with the author
Seattle Weekly profile of the author
Spokesman-Review profile of the author
To the Best of Our Knowledge interview with the author
USA Today profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)