On Knowledge

and its pursuit as an expression of care.

Suddenly my fiancé is an expert in various architectural styles. “Wait. Have you always known this?” I ask, as he explains what makes a building modernist. He’s been learning as a government historian, so that he knows what architects are talking about and when they’re trying to play him. This new knowledge took us to the Brooklyn Museum to see some Art Deco cocktail ware: a silver shaker, tall to mimic a skyscraper; coupes with thin, tall stems to match.

We’ve been collecting vintage glassware, despite not having space for it, because at one point it was important for simple things to be made well and reflect artistic styles—to be part of broader conversation. It’s the same reason I buy vintage clothes: the fun of it, sure, but also because more care is in every aspect. Care is expensive—was it always?

I was thinking about care and expertise again when my sister did my hair for our cousin’s wedding. She was in a huff and we were running late, but she still pulled my hair back into two parts and made a gorgeous ponytail, with technique I never could have conceived of as someone who only knows how to put her hair in a bun atop her head. Cameron, my sister, went to cosmetology school and was taught how to do this by a professional teacher whose haircuts usually run for $1200, and who took one look at me in 2019 and said, “make her hair rounder,” thus changing my life. Care, expertise. The ease that comes with prioritizing them. Let’s put aside cost for now.

It all started to relate to food for me when I picked up Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (a subtitle that is also a manifesto), which is a taxonomy and memoir of fruit in the writer’s life, along with recipes. It’s a beautiful book, one that prizes locality and knowledge but shows the reader it would take just more care and attention to acquire these for themselves. She chronicles wild blackberries, the poison of cherry pits, the smell of durian and the limits of “a palate raised on apples and bananas.” 

Like photographer William Mullan, she encourages people to look closer at trees for the free bounty of fruit and acknowledges the diversity the supermarket stamps out. Lebo’s own life emerges piecemeal among memories and reflections on each fruit, which is how our lives emerge in life itself. I love her explanation of how she’s arrived at recipes, too: reading many variations and blending them with experience. That’s reality. The recipe developer imagines, and researches, and experiments. It’s a studied process in search of enacting a dream.

I’ve been collecting mangos that fall from a tree on our morning walks in the hopes of saving their flavor in a jam to use in our wedding cake. This is the best time for me to read this book. Fruit, ephemeral and precious and celebratory.

From the title, we see she isn’t trying to set the reader up for ease. It reminds me of a podcast episode I listened to recently, where Jessa Crispin interviewed author Mauro Javier Cárdenas about “difficult” books. This word signifies complexity and the need for a little knowledge. But it also signifies work—that it’s not for everyone. This goes against most cultural conversation going on these days, where there’s an implicit suggestion that everything must be for everyone, which is a view that tends to privilege the dominant forces.

Call me silly, but I see a connection between the forced relatability of recipe writers who speak only to a middlebrow white audience and abbreviate words like “salad” and the conversation in literature where apparently characters should come rated by a moral scale, perhaps placed in the novel next to the table of contents so no reader has to think too hard. There is a resistance to filling it in yourself—or just simply letting gaps exist. I never read a novel for moral instruction. I don’t want recipes to infantilize me either. I love difficulty, and I love to be in the presence of expertise. I love to put in work on behalf of what I love.

It’s more difficult indeed to work to learn, to accept lack of knowledge not as a failure but an invitation to learn. To not be affronted by what could be perceived as a lack but engaged. Life is as difficult and messy as pitting cherries, as singular as everyone’s preference for the amount of vinegar in their blackberry shrub. This is a gift, not something to be simplified or flattened. It’s the balance of sweetness and acidity.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature writer Hannah Selinger, the author of the essay “Life Was Not a Peach” about her experience working for David Chang. We discuss her culinary and sommelier studies, her time in restaurants, the meaning of anthologies, and living in the class-stratified Hamptons.

I was quoted in a feature on “the new vegan food” in the June/July issue of GQ, which called this newsletter “popular.” We love the continued support of the fashion press. I was also on WNYC’s “The Takeaway,” interviewed by the brilliant Melissa Harris-Perry on meat. Her 2008 “Democracy Now!” debate with Gloria Steinem was formative for me politically.

My Struggle Book 3! And obviously The Book of Difficult Fruit.

Nothing because I’ve been in New York for my cousin’s wedding but I will make a list of the best stuff I’ve eaten once back in San Juan. Above is a carambola tatin! FRUIT!