A poet and novelist digs into her Appalachian roots, one recipe at a time

Don’t call it a recipe book.

A meditation, perhaps. An elegy of memory, loss and taste. The spoken word poem of a black Appalachian woman determined to keep her people at the center of her lyrical work.

And if along the way you want to try Praisesong Biscuits or Chicken and Dumplings, don’t hesitate.

Crystal Wilkinson describes her new book, “Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks,” as a “culinary memoir.”

This seems fair.

She takes many winding paths in her life in Kentucky. She studies her enslaved family’s obscure beginnings in Casey County and imagines their lives there. It describes the heartbreak and pride of a feminist and cook whose daughter decides she won’t exhaust herself preparing the perfect Thanksgiving feast like her ancestors always did.

Certainly, Wilkinson, 61, a former poet laureate of Kentucky, pays tribute to the mother who loved her and the grandparents who raised her and always surrounded her with delicious, home-grown, home-cooked food.

“My sorrow and my love have no end in the kitchen,” she wrote.

Praisesong is the greatest production of Wilkinson’s literary career. It is published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin, and was edited by Francis Lam, editor of Clarkson Potter and host of “The Splendid Table.”

Her post included a professional recipe tester and glamorous food photoshoot in Brooklyn, New York, as well as an upcoming book tour.

Praisesong is featured by literary luminaries such as U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limon and Kiese Laymon, who wrote that with Praisesong, Wilkinson “cements herself as one of the most dynamic book creators of our generation and a literary giant” .

The book now tops several years of literary awards and scholarships for Wilkinson, including the NAACP Image Award for his poetry collection “Perfect Black” and the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for his novel “Birds of Opulence.”

Former Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson and her new culinary memoir “Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” at Holly Hill in Midway, Ky. on Thursday, November 16, 2023.

Which is lovely, says Wilkinson, but: “I never wrote for fame. I write to access this artistic part of me that has been there since I was a child and it doesn’t matter how old I am, or whether I’m published by a major publishing house, or whether I win awards or recognition.

“I always wanted to be published so people could read my work, but I didn’t want to write just to be published – the goal was to represent my people in some way with characters that show who I am and who I was.”

Writer and cook

Wilkinson has always been a writer.

As a little girl, she would follow her grandmother into the woods in their community of Indian Creek in Casey County and write down the names of herbs and wild plants to eat. Then she would sit at the kitchen table and watch her grandmother turn that harvest into another meal.

Christine Wilkinson cooked three full meals a day, while her grandfather Silas raised the vegetables and animals that fed them all.

“Every morning of my childhood, my grandmother would put on an apron and make breakfast,” Wilkinson writes.

“Slow. Precise. Deliberate. She equated food with love, and she cooked with both fury and quiet joy. She fried bacon, sausages, or country ham. She scrambled eggs. eggs came from our chickens. She made biscuits from scratch. Lard came from our pigs. milk from our cows. She rolled out the dough and threw the flour into the air like magic dust. She churned the butter , prepared the preserves from pears, peaches or blackberries that she had picked herself.

Wilkinson had lived with her grandparents since she was a baby, after her mother, Dorsie, who was a visual artist, suffered her first emotional breakdown. She was then interned at Eastern State Hospital for almost a decade and her parents raised Crystal.

“It was in my grandmother’s kitchen that I had my hair done, that I did my homework, that I learned about marriages, divorces and death. My grandmother looked out the window as if dreaming of the past, placing her hands on her hips as she began to tell the mothers’ stories. She gives me the freedom to practice my cooking skills, and I went from a novice to a proper woman in her little kitchen by listening to her.

While Wilkinson learned her grandmother’s recipes, she continued to write – in high school, college and at her many jobs.

She wrote through the birth of three children. Sometimes, as a single mother working full time, she wasn’t sure how she would continue writing, but she knew.

Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson and chef Ouita Michel will discuss mountain cooking in an episode of the new documentary series “Up Home with Ouita Michel” available on Hollyhillandco.com.

Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson and chef Ouita Michel will discuss mountain cooking in an episode of the new documentary series “Up Home with Ouita Michel” available on Hollyhillandco.com.

In the late 1990s, she was assistant director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy in downtown Lexington. That’s when the concept of literary community first surrounded her, first through Laverne Zabielski’s Working Class Kitchen, which supported local writers.

Wilkinson began publishing poems and short stories in magazines across the country. She earned an MFA from Spalding University’s creative writing program. That’s when academia beckoned throughout the 2000s with teaching positions at Indiana University, Morehead State, Berea College, and, in 2019, the at the University of Kentucky, where she is now a full professor in the MFA program.

Some of you may also remember Wilkinson and his partner, poet Ron Davis, who operated the Wild Fig bookstore for many years.

Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis reopened their Wild Fig books in a renovated turn-of-the-century home in North Limestone last fall.  Wilkinson was named one of Southern Living magazine's Southerners of the Year.

Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis reopened their Wild Fig books in a renovated turn-of-the-century home in North Limestone last fall. Wilkinson was named one of Southern Living magazine’s Southerners of the Year.

Ancestor women

“Song of Praises for the Ghosts of the Kitchen” began with an essay of the same title published in Emergence magazine.

“My intention was to write about my female ancestors in a fast-paced, lyrical way,” she said.

Then she found her third great-grandmother, listed as Aggie of Color on a court document, who came to Kentucky from Virginia in 1795.

Wilkinson could trace her white lineage back to England (yes, she is related to another Casey Countian, the late Governor Wallace Wilkinson). “But finding Aggie and starting to think about her without being able to document her was such a haunting experience. I wanted to honor him. It was a way of walking with my people and paying homage to them.

Because she was unable to find more details about Aggie in historical records, as was the case for so many black people in Kentucky, Praisesong imagines Aggie’s life there, in Casey County, with her daughter, Patsy Riffe, who ran a hunting lodge there, and is pictured on the cover of the book.

At the same time, Appalachian food writer Ronni Lundy, originally from Kentucky and now living in North Carolina, read the essay and told Wilkinson she had the material for a book.

Wilkinson came to the same conclusion. Before COVID, she attended a program at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College, where the entire school read “Birds of Opulence” and the culinary students prepared every meal documented in the novel.

“I didn’t even realize I’d mentioned all these dishes, but culturally, food is as much of a marker as accents or geographic territory,” Wilkinson said. “It’s as much about the character of a people in a region as it is about the people themselves.”

She wrote a book proposal, which became the subject of a literary bidding war. And then his COVID project was born.

She started writing, and suddenly Aggy, Patsy, Christine and Dorsie and all the recipes they shared across the generations were on the page. Plus, her own life as a mother, writer and cook.

“All of these complications converged in this book: What does it mean to be a feminist in 2023 who works yourself to the bone to prepare a holiday meal?” » said Wilkinson.

“And what does it mean to be passed on to the next generation? Do these traditions continue or is knowledge of their existence sufficient? These are some of the questions that come up in the book and are important to think about as you honor your own kitchen ghosts.

“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” will be released on January 23, 2024 and can be pre-ordered from Joseph Beth at this link: https://www.josephbeth.com/product/pre-order-signed-copy-praisesong-kitchen -ghosts- crystal-wilkinson

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