Thursday, May 9

RVA Eats: Leni Sorensen

Photo courtesy of Sarah Cramer Shields and Andrea Hubbell.

Throughout the spring, Nicole Lang is blogging for us about her adopted hometown of Richmond, Virginia (aka RVA). Richmond is the site for this year's Summer Foodways Symposium, which will take place from June 20–22. Over on her own blog, Food Punk, Nicole is telling more stories of the folks—from musicians to fashion bloggers—who make Richmond awesome. Check out her "One Day in RVA" series to meet these men and women. 

On a road flanked by the Doyles River in the Blue Ridge mountain town of Crozet, Virginia, is Dr. Leni Sorensen’s home, Indigo House. There, she and her husband garden and raise hens and livestock. 

A few weeks ago, I visited Indigo House for the first time. From the end of a long hallway decorated with paintings and framed early blues 78s came a yell, “We’re in the kitchen, come on back!” Leni Sorensen spends a lot of time in her kitchen. And in her garden. In fact, she keeps daily diaries on both. She is warm, direct, and prone to dropping all kinds of knowledge in causal conversation—which she tends to punctuate with a salty phrase here and there. “If I’m talking about food, I’m also talking about history," she says.

Sorensen's journals. Photo by Nicole Lang.

An expert in culinary history and agriculture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, she was the African-American Research Historian for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Her resume also includes folk singer and former cast member of the musical Hair. She is now retired—which means that on any given day at Indigo House, she might be butchering a lamb or constructing a garden hoop house. 

Sorensen started cooking at age 9 alongside her stepfather, a Louisiana native who was an avid home cook. “He was my first food mentor, and he left me alone to cook. If something didn’t work out, I fed it to the dog and tried again,” she says. 

Sorensen's chickens. Photo by Nicole Lang.

Because Sorensen learned to cook by following her stepfather's example and tasting as she went, cookbooks were a revelation later in life. Her kitchen is bursting with them, from every shelf and nook. One of her favorites is the 1970s baking classic The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. Sorensen says that she likes to make several loaves at a time, because “you always end up eating the first loaf when it comes out warm from the oven.”

Sorensen has taught others to cook since the 1960s. “Anything you see in the grocery store, somebody cooked it. Maybe it was in a factory and they added a bunch of stuff, but it was cooked somewhere," she says. "You can make it, too—without the additives.”  

She continues to teach cooking and rural skills classes out of her home. Over the summer, she hosts a monthly open house where folks are invited to show up on her doorstep, tour through her gardens and talk food. "I have a beautiful garden and house, and it's fun to share it," Sorensen says. "They bring some local cheeses or some wine, and lots of conversation—and I make fresh bread!" 

Dr. Sorensen will be a speaker at the SFA’s Summer Foodways Symposium, discussing the relationships between white and black women in 19th-century kitchens.