Cooking Lessons From the Ghosts of Black Appalachians

In an excerpt from her new book, poet and writer Crystal Wilkinson explores the idea of legacy.

Handwritten recipes, crinkled and yellow with age, scattered over a lace fabric

Notes from Wilkinson’s family members have informed the writer’s understanding of her history.

Photo by Kelly Marshall

A few years ago, I was asked to lead a food presentation in Hindman, Kentucky, at Dumplin’s and Dancin’, a gathering of farmers, dancers, chefs, and food activists committed to the preservation of Appalachian foodways and music traditions. I was asked to demonstrate, Food Network–style, my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings. As a writer, my first inclination was just to write something and read it. But mountain people are stubborn. They insisted. Nervous, I came armed with history.

I hang a dress my grandmother had sewn and worn on the door of the kitchen. I place her photograph on the prep station, and I begin. I heft the heavy stockpot, add chicken, water, and salt. My grandmother used pieces cut from a whole chicken. I just use the breast. While the chicken is boiling, I make dumplings. Two cups of self-rising flour, a half cup shortening, one cup of milk. I cut the shortening into the flour, add the buttermilk. Sprinkle flour on the table. Roll out the dough, then cut the dough in one-and-a-half-inch squares with a knife. The steam in the hot pot rushes across my face. Once the chicken is done, I reduce the broth. I let the chicken cool, shred it. Add the dough squares to the boiling broth. Reduce the heat and let it thicken. Add the chicken. The pieces of tender meat float in the bowl with swirls of yellow fat and fluffy dumplings. I serve the dish with a pone of cornbread. I smile at my grandmother’s photograph. See her as a kitchen ghost. Thank her for being there.

My grandmother nursed my fevers, kissed my bruises, encouraged my dreams. She filled first her pots and then our bellies in the same way that her mother and grandmothers had for generations. Through slavery. Through manumission. Through the Great Depression. Through wars. Through poverty. Through segregation. Through the Civil Rights Movement. Through racism. Women of this ilk always find a way.

Years ago, when I left my grandmother’s house, she filled my car with food: jars of bright red canned tomatoes for soup; paper sacks of dried apples for making fried pies; recipes; whole cakes; jars of relish and green beans.

Left, Wilkinson’s chicken and dumplings in a large pot and in a small bowl on a table. Right, her grandmother’s pink dress hanging on a door.

Left to right, Wilkinson’s chicken and dumplings are one of nearly 40 recipes in her book; her grandmother’s pink dress, which features heavily in story anecdotes throughout the book.

Photos by Kelly Marshall

A jar of green beans she canned still sits on my counter. I refuse to use it because it is the last one she gifted me before she died. I rearrange the Mason jar on the counter so that it is in my line of sight while I cook. I have some of my grandmother’s pans and serving dishes. I invite each kitchen ghost in with open arms.

I take up the knife, the spoon, and the apron.
They watch.
I thank them.

One hot night while on a writing retreat in Florida, I woke up crying. Though she has been gone for more than 250 years, I could hear Grandma Aggy’s voice—urgent and persistent.

She says:

The cover of "Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts" featuring an old black-and-white photo of a young Black woman in a dress on the right and biscuits on the left

Of Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts, writer Kiese Laymon said, “Wilkinson unfolds and stirs a number of Appalachias that powered the nation, yet we seldom accept. Utter genius tastes like this.”

We slept in the corner of the kitchen. The kitchen smelled of fried meat, copper, and salt, and in the corner where we slept the air was so humid I felt nauseous. In the wee hours of the morning, before the plantation stirred, I lay half asleep, swiping at gnats swarming at the corners of my eyes and sweating through my dress. It was in those minutes between sleep and wake that I heard my mother singing my name, though she wasn’t calling to me in your language. The sound of her voice floated into the window like a feather and then took wings like a bird and flew in a circle around my head before it disappeared up toward the rafters while I lay there in the dark.

We take the buckets and draw water from the well. We empty the slop jars. We gather eggs from the henhouse and a bit of jowl from the smokehouse. We render fat for the biscuits and for the soap. We gather stored ashes and make lye soap. We sew Misses a dress but she wants one more fine, so we give a knapsack to David to take down to the Bowmans’ place for Sally to fix. We draw more water from the well and build a fire in the backyard for washing. We boil the clothes in lye soap. Hang the clothes on the line. We fold the clothes. We pick vegetables from the garden. We pick worms off the tobacco before Marse Bowman sends his field hands to help. We milk the cows. We churn the butter. We feed the chickens. We slop the hogs. Up in the night we pick a mess of beans from our little garden, fry up some hoecakes from our own rations and eat a little bit for ourselves. We cook. We share our food.

We cook. We share our food. We heal. I know that women in my family have been kitchen ghosts for centuries. Peeping over the shoulders of our daughters and granddaughters and sons and grandsons.


Just a little bit more.
Turn your fire down.
Not too much salt.
Please have some we have plenty.

And I imagine myself many years from now, standing in my great-grandchildren’s kitchens, nodding my head as they cook, whispering in their ears, “That’s right. Keep it up. We will always have plenty.”

Reprinted with permission from Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks by Crystal Wilkinson, copyright 2024. Photographs by Kelly Marshall, copyright 2024. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Crystal Wilkinson
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