Cook the Book

Cook the Book: Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts

By: Emily Havener
Cookbook Cover: Praisesong For The Kitchen Ghosts

“I’ve always felt a power larger than myself while cooking.” There are so many lines from Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts by Crystal Wilkinson (Clarkson Potter, 2024) that I’ve underlined, but this one encompasses the essence of her collection of stories and recipes of Black Appalachia. Wilkinson is a poet and storyteller, a writer and a cook, and Praisesong is both a lovely and powerful literary work that identifies writing a cookbook for what it truly ought to be—one of the highest forms of art. 

Wilkinson has researched and then imagined to life multiple generations of the women in her family, Black women who have lived in the Kentucky mountains since enslavement. She writes, “I refuse to believe that my grandmothers were just ordinary women who lived, then died, forever lost to me. … I’m closer to them when I cook. I become them when I cook.”

She writes about belonging to an area where the response to the generational existence of Black people has been, at best, surprise. She writes about scarcity: A conversation with her 86-year-old aunt, who recalls how to prepare poisonous pokeweed in such a way that it was at least nominally edible; how they’d eat wild greens whether they liked them or not because the alternative was starving to death. She writes about cooking from scratch to heal herself, about her grandmother’s face transforming from a scowl as she looked into the corners of her kitchen, as if she, too, saw the kitchen ghosts. 

Crystal Wilkinson, author of Praisesong

Wilkinson passes down food traditions from her family—hot milk cake, mutton leg, blackberry jam—and introduces her own—scrambled tofu, plantains, chess pie. “Recipes are like poems to me, meant to be aural,” she says. She writes of eggs, of cakes, of basket meetings at Pine Lick Baptist Church, to which every woman brought her specialty dishes, a tradition that has sustained Black churches and communities since before emancipation. She says of herself and her cousin, cooking for their grandchildren, “We are the kitchen ghosts of the future.”

As I was making the recipes I’d chosen, I caught a little magic from the book myself. Even though it’s June, I chose a Christmas recipe that Wilkinson’s grandmother would make at Christmas, because Christmas and grandmothers are so deeply related. Toasting pecans for the easy old-fashioned popcorn balls, I thought of my own grandmother, who moved to South Carolina from Pennsylvania for a job as a church choir director, toasting buttered and salted pecans that were one of my favorite childhood snacks. I made the Pimento Cheese with a Kick and thought of my parents making the simplest version of grated orange cheddar, mayonnaise, and jarred pimentos—this was the first time I’d made it differently, adding cream cheese and the spicy tang of horseradish and Worcestershire, and it was so good I ate the whole amount in two sittings. I made the hearty vegetable soup with hamburger, a version of which I’ve made for my own kids because it’s a great way to get vegetables into them, and I loved the addition of green bell pepper, which I’d never included before.

I followed all the recipes as closely as I could, but substitution is a part of cooking, whether out of scarcity, as in the lives of Wilkinson’s ancestors, or out of convenience, using what’s on hand, or out of creativity—the inspiration that comes in the practice of any art.

Recipes reprinted and adapted 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.

Handwritten notes, a sentimental image from the Praisesong cookbook

Selected Recipes from Praisesong

Pimento cheese and crackers from the Praisesong cookbook

Pimento Cheese with a Kick

vegetable soup with hamburger from the Praisesong Cookbook

Hearty Vegetable Soup with Hamburger

popcorn balls from the Praisesong cookbook

Easy Old-Fashioned Popcorn Balls

Get these recipes and more in Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts by Crystal Wilkinson (Clarkson Potter, 2024)

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