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The 'kitchen ghosts' of Black Appalachia who guide Crystal Wilkinson

Poet, author and cook Crystal Wilkinson has a lot to say about blackberries.
Poet, author and cook Crystal Wilkinson has a lot to say about blackberries.

Who are your kitchen ghosts and what do they help you cook?

The term “kitchen ghost” comes from former poet laureate of Kentucky Crystal Wilkinson. She’s out with her first cookbook, a celebration of the ancestors from her home in Appalachia whose spirits guide her in the kitchen.

Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Stories and Recipes from Five Generations of Black Country Cooks” was inspired by an essay of the same name, published in Emergence Magazine.

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 kitchen, nodding my head as they work, whispering in their ears, “That’s right. Keep it up. We will always have plenty.”

We cook and talk with Crystal Wilkinson, who guides us through the history of Black Appalachia and her family’s kitchen. She helped Jenn cook her grandmother’s Blackberry Cobbler. The recipe is reprinted below. 

Grandmother’s Blackberry Cobbler

Uncle Sherman and Aunt Lo, who can both come close to re-creating

this dessert—my grandmother’s prized blackberry cobbler—say the

secret to perfection is in the crust. The sugar sprinkled on top gives

this one a lovely look. An 8-cup casserole or 8-inch Pyrex baking dish

works well here. This deep-dish, wrap-around rolled crust method

is something like an old-fashioned pandowdy that was popular in the

1800s, where you dowsed the crust into the fruit mixture and baked it in

a skillet. I was an adult before I perfected this cobbler; getting the ratio

of fruit, juice, and crust in each bite is important. This cobbler screams

July in Kentucky to me, even if it’s the dead of winter and you are

anywhere in the world.

Serves 6

For the fruit

1 cup sugar

4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter

16 to 18 ounces fresh blackberries

(3 generous cups), preferably wild if you can find them

For the crust

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1 teaspoon table salt

⅔ cup cold vegetable shortening

½ cup ice water, or as needed

1 tablespoon sugar, for sprinkling

Make the fruit:

Combine the sugar, 1 cup water, the butter, and

blackberries in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring only after the berries begin to soften,

the butter has melted, and the liquid in the pan turns deep purple. Do

not overcook. Remove from the heat and let cool while you make

the crust.

make the crust: Combine the flour and salt in a chilled glass, ceramic,

or metal mixing bowl. Use a pastry cutter or two forks to work in the

shortening, blending until the mixture is the consistency of coarse meal.

Again, do not overwork it.

Add half of the ice water, stirring to form a dough that begins to gather,

then continue to add a little more ice water at a time—just enough for

the dough to hold together. You may not use all the water.

Lightly flour a rolling pin and your work surface. Turn out the

dough and roll it out evenly to a size much larger than your cobbler/

casserole pan. Lay the dough in the pan so there is a generous amount

of overhang on all sides (1 to 2 inches or so). Use the tines of a fork to

dock the bottom of the dough in several places.

When you’re ready to assemble the cobbler, place a rack in the middle

position and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Spoon the cooled, softened fruit and some of its liquid into the doughlined

pan. The berries should not be “swimming.” Discard or reserve

the remaining liquid to cook down for an accompanying syrup;

see Note.

Pull the overhanging dough up toward the center on all sides to cover

most of the fruit. Sprinkle the top with the sugar. Bake on the middle

rack for 40 to 45 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned and any

exposed fruit is bubbling. Spoon into bowls and serve warm or at room


note: While the cobbler is baking, you may cook down the extra

berry liquid to create a syrupy sauce you can serve with the cobbler

or with ice cream, or use it to flavor drinks. Simply pour the leftover

cooking juices in a saucepan and simmer over medium heat until thick

enough to coat a spoon, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool.

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.

Copyright 2024 WAMU 88.5

Avery Jessa Chapnick