When Crystal Wilkinson wants to summon her kitchen ghosts, she retrieves a fuchsia-hued dress from her closet and hangs it in the doorway. The sturdy, double-hemmed garment invites her grandmother Christine, who sewed it by hand and wore it often before she died in 1994, to join her.
The dress acts as “a literal and metaphorical tethering to her and this matriarchal lineage,” Ms. Wilkinson said in a phone interview from her kitchen.
A poet and professor at the University of Kentucky, Ms. Wilkinson, 62, 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 in Indian Creek, Ky., alongside recipes from five generations of her family, from her enslaved ancestors to the present day.
“The kitchen was where the secrets were revealed, plans were made, advice was given, all while preparing mouthwatering meals,” she writes, describing her grandmother’s kitchen.
Raised by her grandparents in rural Appalachia, Ms. Wilkinson remembers in vivid detail the dishes that were commonplace in her childhood: thick and buttery biscuits, sorghum syrup boiled by her grandfather, wild kale and dandelion greens stewed with alliums, and sweet jam cake made with preserved blackberries picked during the previous summer’s harvest.
Those memories and the techniques her grandmother used — which her grandmother had learned from her own mother, and so on back through the generations — inspired Ms. Wilkinson to explore the idea that cooking, whether we acknowledge it or not, is always tied to the past and memory.
“I still see the kitchen as a place of power,” Ms. Wilkinson said. To her, it is not only a place to nourish but also a tie to both the matriarchs of past generations of her family and their specific location. “The regional differences in the way we ate were grounded and ancestral.”
Researching her family history, she 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 other documentation. Yet Ms. Wilkinson was able to find records of her white ancestor all the way back to his family’s arrival from Europe. This discrepancy pushed Ms. Wilkinson to envision a life for her Black ancestors beyond the dehumanization of their time.
“The absence of her became a driving force,” she said. “It represented the whole history of Black people in this country. It opened up a path for me to walk down.”
She began to think about what Aggy’s day-to-day life would have been like — what meals she would have made for her 10 children, what she would have taught her daughters, what lessons are enshrined in the cooking methods she passed down.
The matriarchs show up in Ms. Wilkinson’s kitchen, and in her cookbook. “These women, some of them dead for two hundred years, still affect the ways in which I hold my hands, the tools I choose, the way kitchen work feels in my body,” she writes.
Departing from the traditional cookbook format at times, allowed her to “own and define” those touches that have ben passed down. “It’s sort of a reckoning with the lack of documentation,” she said.
“Crystal conveys recipes in the same ways so many of us learn them,” said Ronni Lundy, an award-winning author of cookbooks focusing on Appalachian foodways and the owner of Plott Hound Books in Burnsville, N.C.
Writing recipes as poems instead of following the traditional structure often found in cookbooks, speaks to the oral tradition of passing recipes from one generation to another, and adds a layer of understanding that can be lost in the traditional cookbook format. “Those small touches she writes about are the kind of thing we sometimes lose if we don’t actually listen to the vernacular of the person sharing the recipe with us,” Ms. Lundy said.
Ms. Wilkinson also offers a corrective to the definition of who is Appalachian — from the mountainous region that stretches from Pennsylvania all the way to Mississippi.
“The dominant narrative is that there’s no Black people here,” said Frank X Walker, a playwright, professor at the University of Kentucky and co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets Society. Mr. Walker popularized the term Affrilachian to refer to people of African descent from the region, and to foster a community “to celebrate the fact that we’re here.”
It’s not a new topic for Ms. Wilkinson, who has explored Affrilachian life in poetry and fiction, including in her short story “Endangered Species: Case 47401,” which won the O. Henry Prize in 2021. In her work, food is part of the story, showing the breadth of Black Appalachian life and cooking as evidence of love and familial duty in simple, unflinching terms.
“I think many of us have these romantic notions of who our grandmothers and mothers are or were, and I wanted to avoid that,” Ms. Wilkinson said.
Cooking for the family was an act of love, but also hard, laborious work that needed to be done, she added. Some of the dishes were about pleasure, but some were about survival, born of hard times.
Take, for example, the act of picking wild blackberries on her grandparents’ farm in Indian Creek. It required long sleeves and pants in the height of summer to avoid pricks from the bramble, rags soaked in coal oil to “stave off the stinging bite of chiggers,” and the threat of copperhead snakes that loved to rest among the dense bushes.
Still, there was the lure of fresh blackberries eaten by the handful, cooked into a cobbler or canned and made into a jam cake during the winter. “That jam cake was to celebrate that you’re alive,” she said. “Black joy is so important, and food is one of the ways that we maintain, receive and give joy.”
She makes the cake now for her family, to connect them with their ancestors. “My children have never picked blackberries, but those were a treat in a Black Appalachian family.”
Looking at her own kitchen, she now sees that using that labor to provide for her family is part of the inheritance that her grandmother and the rest of the kitchen matriarchs have passed on. “She had this mind-set of ‘Take some, we have plenty,’ and I try to use that mind-set too,” Ms. Wilkinson said.
For Mr. Walker, who has known Ms. Wilkinson since the 1990s, her kitchen is a place of reverence. “If she’s feeding you, it’s because she loves you,” he said. “It’s an offering and her table is an altar. You grab a plate and it’s time for worship.”
Ms. Lundy said the book made her consider her own kitchen ghosts, namely her mother, whom she is reminded of when she’s slicing cabbage for coleslaw. “I can hear her saying, ‘That’s not thin enough’ and that process connects us,” she said.
Ms. Wilkinson’s work encourages us all to reflect on our own family connections.
“I want to make people think about their own kitchen ghosts,” she said. “No matter who you are, you have them.”