Author discusses book about her Black family in Appalachia

During Black History Month, stories of little-known parts of the African-American journey sometimes emerge. That was the case at an event Feb. 1 at Charis Books and More on the campus of Agnes Scott College when author Crystal Wilkinson discussed her recently published book Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks, which draws on her family history in a part of the country that many think of as populated only by poverty-stricken White people.

“People are always surprised that Black people reside in the hills of Appalachia. Those not surprised that we were there, are surprised that we stayed,” Wilkinson said.

The book’s dustjacket describes Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts as “a lyrical journey that explores the hidden legacy of Black Appalachia through powerful storytelling alongside nearly 40 comforting recipes from the former poet laureate of Kentucky.” Adding that Wilkinson is “the keeper of her family stories and treasured dishes,” the blurb states, “She found their stories in her apron pockets, floating inside the steam of hot mustard greens, and tucked into the sweet scent of clove and cinnamon in her kitchen. Part memoir, part cookbook [the book] weaves those stories together with recipes, family photos and a lyrical imagination to present a culinary portrait of a family that has lived and worked the earth of the mountains for over a century.”

“Chroniclers of Appalachian history have sometimes ignored the existence of Black people in the Appalachian South because of the belief that the Scots-Irish descendants who settled in the region were mostly poor and therefore couldn’t afford slaves….While the rampant stereotype of the White hillbilly remains, Black people have always been in these hills, and I need to look no further than my own family as proof,” Wilkinson said.

The reference in the title to ghosts is explained in Wilkinson’s recollection that years ago she was baking a jam cake and felt her grandmother’s presence. “She soon realized that she was not the only cook in the kitchen; there were her ancestors, too, stirring, measuring, and braising alongside her,” the story as recounted on the book cover states. “These are her kitchen ghosts, five generations of Black women who settled in Appalachia and made a life, a legacy and a cuisine.”

Wilkinson said she learned to cook from her grandmother, in whose care she often was because of her mother’s mental illness. As in many families of limited means, Wilkinson’s family took a combination of food grown at home, foraged from nearby wild areas, and purchased to create memorable meals. “I can’t remember exactly when I started cooking,” she said, “but there is a photograph of me as a girl standing at the stove with a splotch of grease on the front of my dress, holding a spatula, my hip cocked, a grown-up look on my face.”

Each recipe in the book is accompanied by stories of the dish as it was prepared and served among Wilkinson’s Kentucky relatives. When she cooks, Wilkinson said, she feels a power larger than herself. She recalled how she loved to watch her grandmother cook. “There was a grace and poise in her kitchen dance,” she said.

Wilkinson said of Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts, “This is not a book of the head; it’s a book of the heart. I don’t claim to be a historian. I am a storyteller…”

A recent recipient of a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, Wilkinson also is the author of Perfect Black, a collection of poems, and three works of fiction—The Birds of Opulence; Water Street; and Blackberries, Blackberries. She is the recipient of an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Poetry, an O. Henry Prize, a USA Artists Fellowship, and an Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. She was Poet Laurente of Kentucky from 2021 until 2023. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky, where she is a Bush-Holbrook Endowed Professor.


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