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A lyrical culinary journey that explores the hidden legacy of Black Appalachians, through powerful storytelling alongside nearly forty comforting recipes, from the former poet laureate of Kentucky.
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.
Years ago, when O. Henry Prize-winning writer Crystal Wilkinson was baking a jam cake, she felt her late grandmother’s presence. She soon realized that she was not the only cook in her kitchen; there were her ancestors, too, stirring, measuring, and braising alongside her. These are her kitchen ghosts, five generations of Black women who settled in Appalachia and made a life, a legacy, and a cuisine.
An expert cook, Wilkinson shares nearly forty family recipes rooted deep in the past, full of flavor—delicious favorites including Corn Pudding, Chicken and Dumplings, Granny Christine’s Jam Cake, and Praisesong Biscuits, brought to vivid life through stunning photography. Together, Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts honors the mothers who came before, the land that provided for generations of her family, and the untold heritage of Black Appalachia.
As the keeper of her family’s stories and treasured dishes, Wilkinson shares her inheritance in Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts. 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, Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts 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.
About the Author
Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate from 2021 to 2023, is the award-winning author of Perfect Black; 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 has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Hermitage Foundation, and others. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky in the creative writing MFA program.
“Crystal Wilkinson reminds us all that we cannot embrace our precious time in the kitchen without a song our grandmothers sang or a spice our great-grandmothers added. We put the same apron on if we are lucky enough to still have it, wash our hands, say a little prayer, and cook for and with generations.”—Nikki Giovanni, poet
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts is a beautiful cookbook, and a longed-for corrective to the history of Appalachia, but far more than that, it is a testimony to the power of artistry and heart of those who make love manifest in the garden and on the table.”—Ronni Lundy, James Beard Award-winning author of Victuals
“It is now common in my part of the world to laud Crystal Wilkinson as one of the greatest poets on earth. With Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts, Wilkinson cements herself as one of most dynamic book makers in our generation and a literary giant. Wilkinson unfolds and stirs a number of Appalachias that powered the nation, yet we seldom accept. Utter genius tastes like this.”—Kiese Laymon, author of the Carnegie Medal-winning Heavy: An American Memoir
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts celebrates the presence and rich legacy of Black Appalachians. Through meticulous research and personal anecdotes, Wilkinson unearths the captivating stories of her culinary matriarchs, generously sharing their kitchen wisdom and cherished recipes, as well as her own.”—Bryant Terry, James Beard award-winning author of Black Food and Vegetable Kingdom
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts is an ode to food, yes, but it’s also a brilliant ode to ancestors, to history, to survival. Wilkinson has made a deeply necessary book about how we cook, how we eat, and most importantly, how we love. With stories that make you ache and recipes that make you heal, this book is an essential new addition to any food lover’s collection. I didn’t just read this book, I devoured it.”—Ada Limón, 24th Poet Laureate of the United States
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts is a treasure. A history, an homage, and a beautiful testament to Affrilachian people, foodways, traditions, and culture. Crystal Wilkinson is a writer of stunning prose and deep spirit who teaches us that cooking is essential to caring.”—Imani Perry, National Book Award winning author of South to America
“This is a much-needed, extraordinary, multi-generational look at the African American influence on Appalachian foodways. I’m blown away.”—Sean Brock, author of New York Times bestsellers Heritage and South, and chef of Audrey and June in Nashville