If you’re a fan of trendy, exclusionary ways of eating, Leni Sorensen doesn’t want to hear about it, and she’ll tell you so in blunt language salted with profanity. “People are so afraid of food,” she said. “I think my mission right now is to help them get over their fear.” Don’t get her started on avocado toast, kale smoothies, or no-carb diets: “Of course, it’s different if you have a medical condition,” she conceded.
The truth is that Dr. Sorensen has dozens, maybe hundreds, of missions: helping people learn a little self-sufficiency, bridging the gap between urban and rural sensibilities, even finding a way to encourage the cyclists who pedal past her Brown’s Gap home to show a little courtesy.
That’s only a glimpse, a tiny fraction of her ideas for the future. The 81-year-old Sorensen has been a professional singer in San Diego, a serious farmer in South Dakota, a middle-age student (she got her Ph.D. in her 60’s), and an interpreter of history in Williamsburg, Monticello, and at other historic landmarks. More than three decades ago, she and her late husband, Kip, landed at a homestead near Crozet, where they added gardens, a chicken house, an outdoor oven, and hundreds of edible and useful plants. When their house was destroyed by fire they rebuilt and kept on planting. There are many more chapters in her wonderful, courageous, offbeat life, so many that it seems a disservice to try to summarize them.
“No one wants to hear about that ancient history, anyway,” she said. She likes to focus on what’s ahead, and to say that she’s prepared for almost anything is an understatement. “Now, I’m not stocking up for the zombie apocalypse, but most people don’t think much ahead, and I’d like to change that.” On a chilly day in early spring, her kitchen is full of seeds ready to plant, although she scoffs at all of us who sometimes jump the gun. “Plant potatoes now? Insanity!”
It’s hard to see just where she might put the fruit of her next garden harvest. Colorful jars of canned meat, fruit, vegetables and juice completely fill her cupboards, her freezer’s so full that she’s trying out various ways to keep track of what’s in its depths, and there’s a pantry crammed with dried goods. She’s the provisioner for family members who live nearby, and she firmly believes that everyone does better when they are well-fed. That’s the thread that weaves through her many interests, and most of her enterprises: It all seems to come back to the food.
Cooking has been her profession as well as her hobby. It was something to fall back on through all the changes in her life. Partly, it was out of necessity, she said, not only when she needed extra money but from early childhood when her mother simply didn’t cook. “She just refused to,” Sorensen said. She’s peddled whole-grain bread to early hippies; fed her children on good food she grew herself; made pita bread for Charlottes-ville connoisseurs, and hosted dinners for those wanting to learn ancient foodways or modern techniques for preparing real food from real ingredients. She was an expert in farm-to-table cuisine long before it became a familiar term in the food world. Her historical research on the meals prepared at Monticello—whether eaten by the enslaved community or Jefferson’s family—catapulted her into the national spotlight as the go-to person for historically accurate food lore.
These days, Sorensen offers classes in a variety of kitchen skills, plans historical and garden to table dinners––some in conjunction with neighboring Montfair––and is working on a home provisioning book.
There are some cooks she admires, especially Edna Lewis, one of the first Black cooks to show that meals put together from humble American ingredients could be as uplifting as any continental cuisine. She developed a grudging admiration for Martha Stewart, although her first exposure was not so positive: “I had trouble growing Brussels sprouts, so when I saw this attractive young woman talking about them on television, I paid attention. She mentioned how she instructed her gardeners to tend to them, but she kind of lost me at ‘gardeners.’”
Food is also in the plan for some of her goals that, on their face, don’t seem food-related. The urban-rural conflicts she mentioned at the beginning? “Sit all of them down at a meal and see what they have in common,” she said. The rude cyclists might not get off so easy: “They’d have to listen to me rant a little first.”
Step into the kitchen at Sorensen’s Indigo House and you’ll understand that her artistic sensibilities aren’t confined to music and cooking. No set designer could have created the blend of practicality, warmth and color that Sorensen has assembled in the large light-filled, handmade space. With the eye of an artist, she’s juxtaposed ancient kitchen tools with modern appliances. Crockery, cutlery and basketry provide warmth. Teapots and pitchers, bottles and jars, colanders, funnels and huge pots are all within the cook’s reach.
Despite her considerable ability as a chef, Leni Sorensen is not a food snob. She has a heart for those struggling to afford today’s dizzying and expensive variety of processed food, sometimes the only edible things available at the corner convenience store. “If all you can afford is $40 worth of canned or frozen food, or if you get a bag of items from the food bank, put it on the table, sit down and think about what meals you can make from the little you have,” she said.
She has ideas, lots of them, about how to correct the lack of affordable, wholesome food in poor neighborhoods, but they involve wider societal changes. Where to start? One way––the way she’s always chosen––is to produce some of your own food. That in itself makes people feel less helpless, and a lot of good can come from that. “If you have just an apartment and can grow basil in a pot, do it. And maybe the next year you’ll grow two pots of something. Soon, you’re a gardener,” she said. “Start where you are.”
Indigo House is a non-profit foundation devoted to furthering community engagement in rural arts and research. Find more about Sorensen’s work, donate, buy her books, read her blog or sign up for a class or a dinner at indigohouse.us.