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Crystal Wilkinson explores Black Appalachia cooking in 'Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts'

By Lindsey Piercy and Kody Kiser

Crystal Wilkinson on book tourWho are your kitchen ghosts?

Hold onto that question, we’re going to come back to it.

We don’t all have the same upbringings. But we do all have people, places and things that inform who we are today.

We all have loved ones we try so dearly to hold onto — even when they are no longer physically with us. And Crystal Wilkinson finds, in those desperate moments, happy memories centered around food have a uniquely protective power.

When baking thick and buttery biscuits, the acclaimed poet and fiction writer often summons “Granny Christine” to join her.

“The kitchen was where the secrets were revealed, plans were made, advice was given — all while preparing mouthwatering meals,” Wilkinson said.

Raised by her grandparents in the hollers of Indian Creek, Kentucky, Wilkinson vividly remembers the dishes that were commonplace in her childhood.

From wild kale and dandelion greens stewed with alliums to sweet jam cake made with preserved blackberries picked during the previous summer’s harvest, the kitchen is where she felt the most connected to her family.

When her grandmother passed in the early 90s, Wilkinson felt a deep sense of grief, especially as the holidays approached.

“That’s the first time I was going to cook a holiday meal by myself — it was daunting,” she said. “Then, I remembered I had one of her dresses hanging up in the closet, so I brought that out. And something came over me. I felt as if her spirit was there whispering, ‘C’mon, let’s do this. Don’t put too much salt in that.’”

Today, Wilkinson still believes the kitchen is a place of power.

The recipes her grandmother cooked and the techniques she used — which her grandmother had learned from her own mother and so on — inspired Wilkinson to explore a universal idea: cooking is always tied to memory.

“I started to introduce the idea of ‘kitchen ghosts’ into my fiction and into my poetry,” she said.

A professor in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, Wilkinson explores such physical and spiritual ties between the past and present in her new book, “Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts.”

Combining elements of poetry, prose and fiction, the book tells stories from her upbringing, alongside 40 recipes from five generations. Part memoir, part cookbook, Wilkinson’s lyrical imagination also presents a culinary portrait of a family that has lived and worked the earth of the mountains for more than a century.

“Most of all, it’s a love song to Appalachian culture and the African American influence, and food is the conduit,” she said.


While researching her family history, Wilkinson learned about her ancestor, Aggy, who was enslaved and became a free woman once she married Tarlton Wilkinson, the white man who owned her.

In historical records, Aggy’s name is given as “Aggy of Color,” with no additional details or documentation. But Wilkinson was able to find records of her white ancestor all the way back to his family’s arrival from Europe.

“To be able to touch those documents, that was very emotional for me,” she recalled. “It felt like I was touching history.”

Wilkinson began to think about Aggy’s day-to-day life — what it would have been like and what meals she would have made for her 10 children.

“The absence of her became a driving force. It represented the whole history of Black people in this country, and it opened a path for me to walk down.”


Wilkinson is certainly a pioneer in her own right.

As the first Black woman to hold the appointment of Poet Laureate of Kentucky, she serves as an inspiration to young people with an eye toward a career in writing, while also connecting with senior community members. 

Wilkinson’s research and work primarily focuses on the stories of Black women and communities in the Appalachian and rural Southern canon. 

She is the author of “Perfect Black,” NAACP Image Award winner; “The Birds of Opulence,” winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award; “Blackberries, Blackberries,” winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature; and “Water Street,” a finalist for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She also is the winner of a 2020 USA Artist Fellowship.   

Wilkinson, who was recently named the Bush-Holbrook Endowed Chair of English, has won an O. Henry Prize in fiction. Her short stories, poems and essays have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the Oxford American and Southern Cultures.

Wilkinson has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Hermitage Foundation and others.


Despite her extensive and impressive list of accolades, “Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” is Wilkinson’s first book where she delves directly into non-fiction. And it's already receiving widespread recognition, which includes being the focus of a recent New York Times article

“I want it to be able to go from the nightstand to the kitchen,” she said.

Departing from the traditional cookbook format, at times, allowed Wilkinson to “own and define” the recipes passed down from generation to generation.

“I think a lot of readers have connected to it, because they’ve had a similar experience,” she explained. “When I asked my grandmother, ‘How do you make biscuits?’ it was very oral. It depended on the teller and the listener. Having that authentic voice on the page was incredibly important.”

Every kitchen tells a story — about our family history, those who have passed and the traditions that will live on.

As Wilkinson prepares to bake yet another batch of thick and buttery biscuits, she reaches for Granny Christine’s yellow mixing bowl. “It seems as if they won’t rise without that bowl.”

Now, we circle back to the original question: who are your kitchen ghosts?

While Wilkinson’s work is deeply personal, it also encourages us all to reflect on our own family connections, and perhaps provides the realization that no matter where we come from — a busy, bustling city or the hollers of Appalachia — many stories start around the table.

“I want to make people think about their own kitchen ghosts,” she said. “No matter who you are, you have them.”

UKNow caught up with Wilkinson while on her book tour in Atlanta. You can listen to the full interview on "Behind the Blue," here.

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