ABOUT ME: Getting to now . .

Dr. Leni Sorensen Phd

More and more my work as a foodways teacher and historian leads me deeper into the importance of food production, gardens, farming, issues of food justice, cooking, and rural life skills.  I’ve named my Indigo House farmstead work ‘home provisioning’; by that I mean not only providing for oneself but visioning what it will take for everyone to have the security of food.  It may be an urban myth but I once heard that the average family does not have three days’ worth of  food in their homes should there be an emergency! That’s scary and I want what I do to help change that!

My classes attract students who want to learn about small livestock care, vegetable gardening, harvesting and storing, canning, and baking.  So my 5.1 acre farmstead and home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Central Virginia is my laboratory, office, teaching space and history dinner venue. I love teaching the skills I’ve learned over the years and still practice daily for my own household. For instance I bake bread regularly and make my own mayonnaise and annually butcher chickens. There are jars of tomatoes and fruit and beef and venison and stock in my pantry. If you have the opportunity to join me in my kitchen it would be wonderful but my current goal is to share my work more widely with my online audience. Now to get these processes captured on film in my garden, yard, and kitchen!  

In my Cooking Mary Randolph Project, I’m cooking my way through the fabulous 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph. With it as my guide I have created a series of history-themed dinners for eight reflecting the skill of enslaved cooks and the wide selections of dishes enjoyed in the antebellum era.  If you would like a seat at the dinner table go to Indigo House Dinners With History.

With the addition of current techniques and ingredients I am publishing a collection of her recipes interpreted for the modern cook.  Through the Seasons: A Garden of Recipes from The Virginia House-Wife and Through the Seasons: A Baker’s Dozen of Breads and Sweets from The Virginia House-Wife are available here. Volumes 3 and 4 are to be published in 2020. 

As well I write articles on food and food history for magazines both print and online. with me it’s always food and history, history and food . . .

It is gratifying that I’ve had wonderful historic kitchens and fire pits to demonstrate for the public in historic houses across the Mid-Atlantic: Monticello, Montpelier, Ash Lawn Highland, and Poplar Forest among many others. Twice I led First Lady Michelle Obama and her family through the kitchen at Monticello telling the story of the enslaved cooks who worked there. [picture] I’ve lectured at the Smithsonian, written articles and been interviewed for articles and podcasts. (links below).  And I’ve had the real delight of filming historic food cookery with Chef Walter Staib A Taste of History, Seasons 1 and 4. Most recently I was part of a Netflix production on African American cuisine to be aired in the Fall of 2020.

But as with all such interests the roots are deep and sometimes seemingly contradictory.  I always tell my kids I’ve lived my life backwards; working for decades at several careers before earning my academic degrees.  link for  more 

I was a young folksinger in the late 1950′s.  In the early 1960′s with four other women I co-founded The Womenfolk the only all-female folk group in the country at that time.  A stint in the West Coast company of the musical HAIR rounded out the 60s for me.  In an abrupt shift of life trajectory I began teaching cookery, spent time in rural Canada, and eventually ended up farming in South Dakota. I’m the sort of person who has often needed to make pretty dramatic life changes and my families move to Virginia was no different; within six months of our arrival I began to work in the world of the historic house museum bringing my skills as a farmer to the interpretation of African American life in slavery. Deciding to go to college was a next logical step.

The Mary Baldwin College Adult Degree Program offered me the opportunity to earn a BA in History in 1992 and once that academic train left the station there was no getting off till I had earned my MA in 1997 and defended my doctoral dissertation in American Studies in 2005.  Whew!

Beginning in 2006 the Jefferson Library at Monticello,, my incredible colleagues, the many visiting scholars, all created an opportunity for me to develop as a food historian.  While there I began to narrow my research to focus on the Jefferson kitchen and all the cooks whose lives were devoted to creating what has become the reputation of Jefferson as a man of fine dining.  I don’t phrase it this way to disparage Jefferson’s high regard for French cuisine and his devotion to growing a wonderful garden, but to emphasize that for me it was always about the people who did the actual work, who surely must have known almost as much about those topics as Jefferson, and who lived their lives enslaved.

In the spring of 2012 I retired from daily work in the history museum world.  As an independent scholar I am continuing to consult and give lectures on food history in museum settings as well as in university classrooms, food events and festivals! My history dinners in my home, using recipes from old cookbooks, are well received.

My late husband and I tilled the same garden plot for over three decades; the soil has gone from the usual Albemarle County red brick clay to a deep dark friable brown loam.  With the help of our grown children I grow as much of my own food as possible.

If I have a philosophy it is this: to pass on the stuff I know guided by the dictum “Each one teach one.”