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Don’t call it a cookbook.
A meditation, maybe. 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 your hand at Praisesong Biscuits, or Chicken and Dumplings, then feel free.
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.”
That seems fair.
She goes down so many of the winding paths of her life in Kentucky. She researches the obscured beginnings of her enslaved family in Casey County and imagines their lives there. She describes the sorrow and pride of a feminist and cook whose daughter decides she will not exhaust herself preparing the perfect Thanksgiving feast as her forebears have always done.
Certainly, Wilkinson, 61, a former Kentucky Poet Laureate, pays homage to the mother who loved her and the grandparents who raised her and surrounded her always with delicious, homegrown, homemade food.
“Both my sorrow and love have no end in the kitchen,” she writes.
Praisesong is the biggest production of Wilkinson’s literary career. It’s published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin, and was edited by Francis Lam, Clarkson Potter’s editor in chief and the host of “The Splendid Table.”
Its publication included a professional recipe tester and a glamorous food photo shoot in Brooklyn, N.Y., plus an upcoming book tour.
Praisesong is blurbed by such literary luminaries 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 makers in our generation and a literary giant.”
The book now tops several years of literary prizes and fellowships for Wilkinson, including the NAACP Image Award for her poetry collection “Perfect Black,” and Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to her novel, “Birds of Opulence.”
Which is lovely, Wilkinson says, but, “I’ve never written for fame. I write to access that artistic part of me that’s been present since I was a child and it won’t matter how old I am, or being published by a big house or to winning awards or having recognition.
“I have always wanted to be published so people could read my work, but I didn’t have a desire 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.”
A writer and chef
Wilkinson was always a writer.
As a little a girl, she would follow her grandmother into the woods of their community of Indian Creek, 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 yet another meal.
Christine Wilkinson cooked three full meals a day, while grandfather Silas raised the vegetables and animals that kept them all fed.
“Every morning of my childhood, my grandmother donned an apron and cooked breakfast,” Wilkinson writes.
“Slow. Precise. Deliberate. She equated food with love, and she cooked with both a fury and a quiet joy. She fried bacon, sausage or country ham. She scrambled eggs. The eggs came from our chickens. She made biscuits from scratch. The lard was rendered from our pigs. the milk from our cows. She rolled out the dough and threw flour in the air like magic dust. She churned butter, made the preserves from pears, peaches or blackberries that she had harvested 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 later institutionalized at Eastern State Hospital for almost a decade, and her parents raised Crystal.
“My grandmother’s kitchen was where I got my hair pressed, completed my homework, learned about marriages, divorces and death. My grandmother would look out the window as if dreaming of the past, place her hands on her hips as she began telling the stories of the mothers. She allows me the freedom to practice my culinary skills, and I went from a girl novice to a woman worth my salt in her small kitchen as I listened to her.”
As Wilkinson learned her grandmother’s recipes, she kept writing — through high school, and into college, and her many jobs.
She wrote through the birth of three children. Sometimes as a single mom working full-time, she didn’t exactly know how she would keep writing, but she did.
By the late 1990s, she was assistant director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy in downtown Lexington. That’s when the concept of a literary community first surrounded her, first thanks to Laverne Zabielski’s Working Class Kitchen, which supported local writers.
Wilkinson started getting poems and short stories published in magazines all over the country. She got a MFA from the Spalding University low-residency creative writing program. That’s when academia beckoned throughout the 2000s with teaching jobs at Indiana University, Morehead State, Berea College, and in 2019, the University of Kentucky, where she is now a full professor in the MFA program.
Some of you may also remember Wilkinson and her partner, poet Ron Davis, operating Wild Fig Bookstore for many years.
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” started with an essay by the same title that appeared in Emergence Magazine.
“My intention was to write about my women ancestors in some quick, 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 all the way to England (yes, she is related to another Casey Countian, the late Gov. Wallace Wilkinson). “But to find Aggie and start to think about her and not to be able to document her was such a haunting experience. I wanted to give honor to her. It was a way of walking with my people and paying homage to them.”
Because she could not find more details about Aggie in historical records, as was true for so many Black Kentuckians, Praisesong imagines Aggie’s life there in Casey County, along with her daughter, Patsy Riffe, who ran a hunting lodge there, and is pictured on the book’s cover.
At the same time, Appalachian food writer Ronni Lundy, a native Kentuckian who now lives in North Carolina, read the essay and told Wilkinson she had the material for a book.
Wilkinson was coming to the same conclusion. Before COVID, she’d attended a program at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College, where the whole school had read “Birds of Opulence,” and the culinary students prepared every meal documented in the novel.
“I didn’t even realize I had mentioned all those dishes, but culturally food is as much a marker as accents or geographic land,” Wilkinson said. “It’s as much of a character of a people in a region as the people themselves.”
She wrote a book proposal, which became the subject of a literary bidding war. And then her COVID project was born.
She started writing, and suddenly Aggy and Patsy and Christine and Dorsie and all the recipes they shared through generations were on the page. Plus, her own life as a mother, writer, and cook.
“All these complications converged in this book — what does it mean to be a feminist in 2023 who works herself to the bone to prepare a holiday meal?” Wilkinson said.
“And what it does mean to get passed down to the next generation? Do these traditions continue or is the knowledge it happened enough? That’s some of the questions that come up in the book, that are important to think about when you’re honoring your own kitchen ghosts.”
“Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” will be out on Jan. 23, 2024 and can be preordered from Joseph Beth at this link: https://www.josephbeth.com/product/pre-order-signed-copy-praisesong-kitchen-ghosts-crystal-wilkinson