Kitchn Love Letters

Cooking with Ghosts: How a Black Appalachian Cookbook Made Me Feel Closer to My Own Ancestors

published Feb 28, 2024
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Indian Creek Chili
Credit: Renae Wilson

Reading stories and cooking recipes from Crystal Wilkinson’s new best-selling book Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts became a treasure map into the life and foodways of my own family and ancestors. It is a gift and an honor — it’s also an emotional and personal experience. The pages foster a deep connection to the spirituality of food — specifically, Black Appalachian food.

Filled with recipes, stories, and photos from five generations of women in her family, its part cookbook, part memoir. Wilkinson got the idea when she realized that she felt most closely connected to her ancestors while she was cooking. “The art of cooking and engaging with my kitchen ghosts made me realize that food is never just about the present — every dish, every slice, every crumb and kernel also tethers us to the past,” she says in the book.

For me, becoming a cook later in life meant that I didn’t get the opportunity to cook alongside my great-grandmother. She was the cook in my family’s legacy. I fell into her footsteps by accident after she had been gone a decade. But cooking through this book has made her presence known to me in my own kitchen.   

About the Author, Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson is an award-winning storyteller, writer, and poet. Growing up on her grandparents farm in Indian Creek, Kentucky, Wilkinson talks about being the only Black family in the area. The stories of Black Appalachian people and their heritage aren’t prominent in the zeitgeist of the region. In fact, much of history doesn’t acknowledge that Black people are there at all. 

Wilkinson’s voice has become extremely significant in shining light onto and demystifying the existence, culture, and way of life of Black folks in Appalachia. “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. My family has lived in the region since the 1800s, and to disregard the Black mountain presence is to erase both the past and the present,” she says.  

Credit: Renae Wilson

Cooking from Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts

Although many of the recipes in this book are very minimal in ingredients, they’re bursting with poetry, family anecdotes, and deep yearning for what is gone. And they evoke a feeling of bonding and interconnectedness the author has with the land, her ancestry, her lineage, and her grief. 

Because the storytelling is so vivid, just looking at the pictures alone pulls the reader into that same heartspace. The words on the pages feel heavy and riddled with loss, but just the same, they feel uplifting, cozy, celebratory, and vibrant. Just like the food.

I chose to just blindly cook before I read. Yes, I was eager to dive deep into and comb over each of the pages. But even more, I was curious to see what I felt as I cooked and ate.  

Skimming through the table of contents and looking at the pictures to see what jumped out at me, these are the three recipes I wanted to eat the most: Wild Greens, Indian Creek Chili, and Biscuits with Blackberry Soup.  

As I cooked, I took note of how it felt to eat it. I shimmied a little just as a bite of biscuit sopped in slightly sweetened blackberry juice passed over my tongue. Once I read about this recipe from the author’s perspective, I saw that she too was just as physically excited for this bite as me.  

Each dish felt like something I’d cook for myself when I would feel homesick. Not just homesick for the places I grew up and people I grew up with, but homesick for the people and places of my ancestors that I never knew. I didn’t know of Indian Creek Chili before this, but it felt extremely familiar. I called my mother to ask if she had ever made this for us before. “No. I don’t think so,” she tried to recall. “But it sounds delicious like something I would have made for us when you were younger.”

As I cooked, I thought for a long time about how disconnected I felt to the ingredients themselves. I mostly felt this with the Wild Greens, and more specifically the dandelion greens in the recipe. Wilkinson speaks about foraging wild greens with her grandmother before her grandmother died — washing the wild greens thoroughly to get them clean and triple blanching them to remove the bitterness. But then notes later how a purchased bunch of dandelion greens from Whole Foods felt “tame.” I don’t know how to forage. My dandelion greens for this recipe also came beautifully bunched and washed (and from Whole Foods). As I chopped them up, my heart asked the question it usually asks whenever I cook: “How did Granny make hers?”  

Credit: Renae Wilson

My Honest Review of Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts

What I like about this book is how each recipe comes with factual, historical, artistic, and emotional context. The words paint a visual backdrop for the life and depth of the Black Appalachian people. It uplifts their survival and sings of their abundance.  

These recipes are very specific to the region, yes, but you don’t need to have a connection to Appalachia to enjoy them. Crystal’s storytelling breathes so much life into each recipe that you are able to be completely immersed and feel it all with every bite. The recipes are so comforting and delicious, and they are straightforward and minimal.  

Crystal’s stories vehemently summon up her own spirits, yes. But as you read, you cannot help but to dance with your own kitchen ghosts. The notion of my granny’s hands being my hands as I chop, feeling her in my spirit as I season, knowing she’s present on my lips as I taste was not a notion that I had the language for until I opened this book. Now what I feel when I cook is clear: She’s been with me in the kitchen the whole time.