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Former Ky. Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses new book about food and family

The cover for Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts is evenly split between a picture carefully placed homemade biscuits and a black and white picture of one of the author's  foremothers
Photo Courtesy of Crystal Wilkinson
Through the book, Wilkinson says she hopes to both honor the memories of her ancestors and communicate the power food played for Black Appalachians through the generations.

Inspiration for Crystal Wilkinson's new book comes from time growing up with her grandparents in rural Indian Creek, Kentucky.

2021 Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson is out with a new book, but it may not be what you expect. In Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks, Wilkinson explores Black Appalachian cuisine through her own family’s recipes and history.

LPM’s William Padmore spoke with Wilkinson about the book.

So first things first, what is your most vivid memory of a meal served to you growing up as a child and Indian Creek? And why is that so important to you?

I think the most vivid memories would be any breakfast. You know, my grandmother cooked breakfast every single morning of my, my whole life. And so it was always what we would call a "Big Breakfast," right? So it was always, you know, it'd be eggs from our chickens, it would be sausage, or bacon that came from a pig that had been raised there, jam or jelly that she had made from peaches or blackberries or fruit that she had also harvested. So now, you know, when I think about those things, and how accessible everything is, to us, I think it's important to be mindful of what we eat. And then I think that that the heritage of that is, is also very important.

For those who are not familiar with Appalachian or black Appalachian cuisine, what sorts of foods can the reader expect to find? You already hinted at it with the jams, jellies, but what types of flavors are popular in the part of Appalachia where you grew up?

I mean, I think some of the foods have some lap over with Southern cuisine. In this book, you'll find recipes for chicken and dumplings, for cornbread, for biscuits.
There's a forged recipe for fiddlehead ferns. There's a recipe for wild greens. So some of this is food that I grew up with and I think what makes food Appalachian per se, it has a lot to do - like the difference between Southern cuisine and Appalachian cuisine, it has to do with the terrain. It has everything to do with the terrain. So for example, if we had a pig that was slaughtered, where I'm from, we'd be more concerned about preserving that pig than putting it on a barbecue.

You've mentioned in your interviews and in the book, I believe, that you hang the dress of your grandmother in the kitchen doorway before you start cooking. When most people think of ghosts they think of "Spooky," but your interpretation of ghosts I think is very different. To you, what is a ghost? And what purpose does it serve?

Yeah, I don't always hang my grandmother's dress up anymore. But the impetus for that, and the idea of of the "kitchen ghost" came when she passed away. So my grandmother died in 1994 and she had seven children and 25 grandchildren and several great grandchildren. And so for every holiday, we would go home, right? We would go home and she would cook for 30 people or more - significant others and whoever else came by. And that's what we were accustomed to. My grandmother got married at 14 and when I think about that, she prepared those meals for 60 years. You know, her last Thanksgiving meal that she prepared before she passed away would have been her 60th year of preparing food and showing love to her family by preparing food. So when she died, I thought, okay, you know, everybody's sort of split splintered off into their individual families and my task was to cook for my three children and my mother. I remember coming into the kitchen and feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with grief, but also the tasks that was before me. Like, I'd always been in my grandmother's kitchen, I'd always helped her and I always watched her. So I knew how to do this. But I didn't know if I could meet the expectation of of doing it the way that She did. In that moment of feeling overwhelmed and starting to prepare this large meal, I went back to the closet and got her dress out and brought it into the kitchen and hung it up on the back door. And I can almost hear and feel her say, 'All right, a little more sage. Don't put too much salt in,' you know, 'Check your yeast rolls before they burn.' And that sort of communion with her became the kitchen gross phrase that I've used for years.

Five generations of family recipes, you can pick only one. Which is your favorite recipe?

Chicken and dumplings.

Wow, no hesitation.

Even if someone who was a vegetarian for 20 years, chicken and dumplings would still be number one.

William is LPM's "All Things Considered" host. Email William at wpadmore@lpm.org.