Culinary arts can tell us a lot about a certain culture, region or people, and no one knows that better than culinary historian, Leni Sorensen. Miss Leni has developed a penchant for southern culinary arts and uses it to spark dialogue on the lifestyles of US Southerners. In preparation for the 7th annual BUGS conference, we got a chance to talk to Miss Leni about her homestead life, antiquated cooking tools, and Thomas Jefferson’s cooks.
Don’t miss Leni Sorensen and our three other Southern-glazed keynote speakers— Matthew Raiford, Rukia Lumumba and Shirley Sherrod— at the 7th Annual BUGS Conference on November 10-12 in Atlanta, GA. Register here.
How would you define your role/title?
Over the past decade, I’ve more and more tended to describe myself as a Culinary Historian even though my doctorate and much of my teaching and research has been in African American History & Culture 18th-20th century. I haven’t found a title that includes food, agriculture, history, culture in one phrase.
In your busy world as a chef, historian, and homesteader, what are you currently working on?
On a day to day basis, my projects on my small farmstead take a lot of my time and planning. I have a new order of chicks arriving in a week to raise up a new flock of laying hens for next year; some to sell, some to keep. The garden is still producing so harvesting and sharing food within what I call Home Provisioning with my adult kids and their households. And of course I’m planning for next year’s garden and the distinct possibility we will raise another pig. In my professional arena, I’m writing a memoir - no publisher yet but . . .
A few years ago, you began to cook your way through a 1824 cookbook, Mary Randolph’s ”The Virginia Housewife”. What has the cookbook revealed to you about food culture in the late 19-century including sourcing ingredients, culinary techniques, and diet?
I am slowly cooking my way through The Virginia House-Wife. I often use the recipes as part of talks and food demonstrations at historic house museums. The book is a window into foods grown and imported in that era as well as the skills needed to prepare them. This summer I gave a talk at the Smithsonian on a dinner prepared by a freedman caterer in Washington DC in 1837 using The Virginia House-Wife to understand the menu details. The book offers a window into the work and skills of the most often unnamed enslaved chefs/cooks in the kitchens of the antebellum south.
Through your research, blog posts and professional experience it is clear that you have an affinity for southern food culture, especially Virginia. What is it about American southern cuisine that attracts you most and how would you describe it to a stranger?
Although I was raised in Southern California it was in a home in which my stepfather was a man born in New Orleans in 1914. My paternal grandparents were from Alabama and from Texas. So I do have Southern roots. I’ve lived and worked in Virginia for over 35 years now. I see it as the original homeplace of southern foods beginning in the 17th century Tidewater. Foods that moved ever westward with enslaved blacks, poor whites and at the dining tables of elite whites.
As the historian of the Thomas Jefferson Monticello Estate, you adopted an intimate connection with Thomas Jefferson’s cooks. What are some discoveries you’ve found about the cooks? (This can include names, interesting facts, signature dishes, etc…)
The cooks at Monticello were all either trained in France (James Hemings), learned from someone trained in France (Peter Hemings who was taught by his brother James), or trained in cookery by a French chef in America (Edith Fossett and Frances Hern at the President’s House). So my respect for their skills has only grown over the years of my study. Certainly my own experiences cooking on the hearth in the restored kitchen at Monticello only increased my admiration; they not only knew the uses of utensils we no longer use (reflector ovens, spit jacks to turn the roasting meat, wood-fired bread ovens, and stew holes) but had stamina of an uncommon strength and endurance.
Homesteading is more recently piquing the interest of young black farmers that are trying to identify ways to farm and make a viable living while doing it. You currently live at Indigo House, your family's homestead. Why did you choose the homestead life?
My late husband and I were part of the late 60s back-to-the-land counterculture. In our cases, we were among the oldest of that cohort and already had the experience to teach and share. I had been gardening and cooking since childhood while he was actually born and raised on his grandfather’s South Dakota homestead farm. As avid readers, we even had quite a library of books and magazines on helpful agriculture topics. It was a life we knew about in many ways and it didn’t take degrees and credentials neither of which we possessed.
What would you recommend for people interested in the lifestyle?
Read, read, and read. Read old collections of the back to the land mags and books. Read contemporary how-to. Watch - with a super critical eye - a wide variety of youtube presentation on farming, home food production, DYI living spaces. Meet folks who are living on everything from smallholdings to production farms. Meet people from intentional communities (often called communes). Meet urban farmers, donate time to them, observe the connection between urban and rural life. Be willing to live outside your comfort zone - as you can imagine there are far fewer black smallholding/farmer types than white so it is important to be prepared for living in what can seem like another world. And of course if/when possible rent someplace with a big yard and start gardening and feeding yourselves!
For those who are already in place on the land, it takes continued innovation and creative connections to the community to make it possible to succeed. Digital technology allows ways to connect with others on the same journey that was impossible 40 years ago.