Even casual bakers know there is a poetry to making pie, but Kate Lebo goes beyond that.
Lebo, a Seattle-based author, both creates pies and uses them as her muse. She teaches both baking and writing, sometimes mixing the two.
Why pie? You might as well ask, why poems? With writing as well as with a crust, she said, “you know it’s done by looking at it.” And an envelope of dough which conceals its insides, “a secret waiting to be told,” doesn’t sound so different whether she’s talking about lemon meringue or lines between hardcovers.
Lebo took the Carl Sagan quote that “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe,” and took it as an invitation, she said at a recent reading at the Elliott Bay Book Co.
After all, she went on, pie is universal: It’s as American as. As sweet as. As easy as. Except when it’s not.
“Anyone who has made a pie knows it’s not easy,” she said.
As an instructor, Lebo is at least able to at least make it unintimidating, rubbing butter and ice water into flour on stage at her reading, talking about the truisms (the water has to be cold) and the falsehoods (“kneading” is not a word to use with pie dough) associated with the process, and passing around a bowl so audience members could see and even smell the proper texture of the dough.
Fittingly, Lebo herself won a “Cake vs. Pie” baking contest sponsored in Seattle by CakeSpy a few years back, with her Ginger Peach Pie (the recipe is in the book, with an accompanying prose poem). She has judged pie at the Iowa State Fair, and teaches “Pie School” baking classes at High Five Pie on Capitol Hill.
“Pie is a folk art. It’s best learned in person,” Lebo said.
Lebo’s “A Commonplace Book of Pie,” ($17.95, Chin Music Press), with illustrations by Jessica Lynn Bonin, is her take on the old-fashioned scrapbooks that used to contain items of interest on a topic, “the things you don’t want to lose.” She includes a handful of recipes — maple blueberry, “mumbleberry” (a mix of berries with a grated top crust), cherry rhubarb. She’s got practical notes, some archly phrased, on crust-making, and pie-related quotes that have caught her eye.
But the meat (or fruit, as you wish) of it is the essay-poems on various types of pie, with one line, for instance, describing turning “April’s greed of blossoms into August’s tyranny of plums.”
On pumpkin, Lebo asks us, in part, to “consider for a moment a can of Libby’s pumpkin purée, how a pumpkin does not have a choice, but if it did, it could become a porch light or a smear on the street. It could be hollowed and hallowed and filled with soup and served in a bistro to people who do not smash pumpkins. It could rot, unsold, in the field, or fill this can of future pie. Do you see now why pumpkin pie is not boring?”
That approach has won her fans like Sherman Alexie, who wrote that he loved banana cream pie and her poems with “the same fervor.” Writer Kristen Millares Young, who went through the University of Washington MFA program with Lebo, said she brought a warm and confident voice to her work, one that “can be elegant and knowing and innocent and bawdy all at once.” Young, who interviewed Lebo on stage at the book’s release party, called the “Commonplace Book” a book “that’s not about pie but uses pie as an excuse to comment on the desires that make us human,” one that subverts feminine context with feminist awareness.
“Her recipes are magic spells, just like her poems, which open up delight and self-recognition in equal measure.”
On stage, as she mixed the dough by hand, Lebo told the audience that “I think I got stuck in pie because it’s handmade.” Unlike cake, it’s a tactile art — one where you need to trust your senses as much as a recipe’s directives.
“If you’re ever lost, look at what’s in front of you, not what’s in the book,” she said.
And how did she get started baking herself? Did she want to make pie because she wanted to eat pie?
“I made it because I wanted to make it,” she said.
Lebo will be reading at 7 p.m. Jan. 8 at The Station, with Erin Malone, for the Beacon Bards Reading Series. Details here. She will also hold a reading and book signing 7 p.m. Jan. 23, University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). Schedules for Lebo’s pie-baking classes, which will resume after her book tour, are on her website, katelebo.wordpress.com.