By Mike Templeton

We have explored the importance of foodways in numerous articles on this blog. The myriad ways that Appalachian culture is preserved and sustained are of central importance to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, and foodways are one of the most important ways our culture remains such an intimate part of our lives. With this is mind, we are extremely excited about the upcoming appearance of poet and writer Crystal Wilkinson in Cincinnati. Award winning poet and writer Crystal Wilkinson will be discussing and signing her latest work, Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks, on Tuesday, February 27 at 7:00 pm at Joseph Beth Books in Norwood. This an exciting and rare opportunity to hear one of the most important poets in Appalachian and Affrilachian literature. Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts explores the close ties of family and women, food and culture, and the ways all these things have historically formed the threads of the cultural life of Black people in Appalachia.

Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s former Poet Laureate, is the author of a collection of poems called Perfect Black, and three works of fiction: The Birds of Opulence, Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. Wilkinson is the recipient of numerous awards for her work including the NAACP Image Award for outstanding poetry and an O. Henry Prize, among many others. She was recently named a Writing Freedom Fellow by Haymarket Books and the Mellon Foundation. Crystal Wilkinson currently teaches creative writing at the University of Kentucky where she is a Bush-Holbrook Endowed Professor, and is the series editor for the newly established imprint of University Press of Kentucky, Screen Door Press, “dedicated to discovering unique, exceptional, and varied voices within Black literary traditions.”

Wilkinson grew up on her grandparents’ farm in Indian Creek, Kentucky, but she is a native of Hamilton, Ohio, and therefore we urban Appalachians get to lay some claim to this distinguished scholar, writer, and poet. Her award-winning book Blackberries, Blackberries is about her childhood on the farm and what she describes as “an enchanted childhood,” and this perhaps lays some of the groundwork for her current book.  

Wilkinson has carved out a place within Appalachian studies and Appalachian literature as an Afrillachian—those who identify as Black Appalachians using terminology developed by scholar Frank X. Walker and others. This is a crucial dimension of Appalachian life and culture and the fact that Black people make up such a large part of what we now recognize as Appalachian culture in the broadest sense of the term. As Wilkinson says, her Appalachian heritage is as important as her heritage as a Black woman and “(b)eing country is as much a part of me as my full lips, wide hips, dreadlocks and high cheek bones. There are many Black country folks who have lived and are living in small towns, up hollers and across knobs.” The combination of that enchanted childhood and her Affrilachian heritage serve to shape Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts.

Book cover of Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts by Crystal Wilkinson

 Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts is a memoir, it is a cookbook, and it is a testimonial to the central place of food to Appalachian life and culture. Wilkinson is an expert in the kitchen herself, and this expertise comes to her from her family. Wilkinson explained that part of the genesis of the book came while she was baking a jam cake and felt the presence of her late grandmother with her in that moment. It was, and remains, the presence of these ghosts in her life that bear down and inspire her as she writes and cooks. In fact, the kernel of the current book can be found in a poem in Wilkinson’s poetry collection Perfect Black. The poem “Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts” would grow into this more expansive memoir. At the heart of much of Wilkinson’s creative work has been both the ghosts of her life as an Affrilachian and as a creative writer in the kitchen. Praisesong brings this altogether. The early childhood experiences and the accretion of a lifetime as a writer and a cook have all come together to bring this book into existence. The book is a personal memoir even as it serves as a testament to the heritage of Black Appalachia.  Since its release earlier this year, Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts has become a national bestseller, garnering Wilkinson interviews at the likes of The New York Times and various NPR shows, and drawing standing room only crowds at readings throughout the country.

UACC Core Member Pauletta Hansel has been a friend and colleague of Crystal Wilkinson for a few decades. She told me, “I cannot begin to express how thrilled I am for Crystal and for those who are coming to know her through this book. She is a brilliant and generous person; it is a true joy to witness her well-deserved success.”

Crystal Wilkinson has said that “food and the foodways, the way it’s grown and prepared, are as much a part of the culture as the accents. It has to do with that sort of ancestral nature and the heritage we pass on, and how much of that is saved.” One could easily say the same things about our poetry and other creative works. It all becomes of a piece for Appalachian life and culture. We at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition are extremely excited about Crystal Wilkinson’s appearance in our area. This is a rare opportunity to meet and listen to a poet, writer, and cook who offers such profound insights into Affrilachian life and Appalachian life and culture more generally. Again, Crystal Wilkinson will be reading and signing books at Joseph Beth Books on Tuesday, February 27th at 7:00 pm. A link with full information on this event is below.

Full information on Crystal Wilkinson’s appearance at Joseph Beth Books can be found at this link:

Crystal Wilkinson’s website is at this link:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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