Food Scholar, Folk Singer, Blunt Speaker: The Many Lives of Leni Sorensen
An irreverent historian who gets her hands into traditional cooking, farming and crafts is finally, at 79, winning fame with Netflix’s “High on the Hog.”
Leni Sorensen lives on a farmstead in Crozet, Va., where she teaches canning classes, writes and hosts dinners based on her work as a food historian specializing in Black cooks from the Colonial period and the early 19th century. Credit…Eze Amos for The New York Times
By Kim Severson
CROZET, Va. — You pick up a lot of skills after 79 years of being Leni Sorensen, perhaps America’s most unsung food historian.
She can spin wool, butcher hogs and can venison. If she had to, she could make money sewing clothes or selling tamales. She can sing, too. Her contralto voice landed her a spot as the only Black member of the Womenfolk, a quintet whose cover of the suburban satire “Little Boxes” spent three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1964.
Dr. Sorensen can also talk. And talk. I learned this after pulling off the blacktop into her five-acre homestead here in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, Va. Over glasses of cold tea she made by poking hibiscus flowers and herbal tea bags into a bottle of supermarket seltzer, an afternoon visit stretched into the evening. One story led to the next, each a skillful mix of erudition and profanity.
When I pointed out that this newspaper’s editorial standards might prevent me from quoting much of what she said because of the language, she brushed me off. “I’ve always been a curser,” she said, “and I have never been chastised for it because I knew when to do it.”
It’s not as if I hadn’t been warned.
“She’s fascinating and quite funny and bawdy, but be prepared,” said Shoshana Guy, the showrunner for “High on the Hog,” the recent Netflix series based on the book of the same name by the culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, who recommended that Dr. Sorensen be included in the cast. “The first pre-interview I did with her, I swear to God it was three hours,” Ms. Guy said, “and we were only halfway through her life.”
One episode includes a trip to Monticello, the former Virginia plantation and home of Thomas Jefferson. Dr. Sorensen once worked there as a research historian specializing in African American food culture. On “High on the Hog,” she layers butter, Cheddar and macaroni boiled in milk in a Dutch oven, and cooks it on a hearth in the manner of James Hemings, the French-trained cook enslaved by Jefferson.
Much to her annoyance, many viewers were left with the impression that Hemings had created the dish.
“Anyone who tries to tell you James Hemings invented mac and cheese is lying,” she said. “Any cook at the time who had studied French cookery could have been making this. It’s not a [expletive] secret.”
Such is the style of Dr. Sorensen, who walked out of a San Diego high school at 16 to become a folk singer and didn’t return to a classroom until after she had raised four children. She was 60 when she secured a doctorate in American studies from the College of William & Mary.
She wears a Phi Beta Kappa key on a necklace, an exclusive signifier of excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. “I am an old woman of color who beat my ass to get a degree,” she said. “That’s why I have it around my neck.”
Her wheelhouse is studying American history through the lives of Black cooks, especially those from the Colonial period and the early 19th century. They didn’t leave many written records, but the white people who enslaved them did. Dr. Sorensen pores over those texts, reading between the lines. If a cookbook describes how to fatten a chicken or prepare a perfect roast, she asks who was doing the fattening or the roasting. It’s history that puts the focus on the people who cooked the food, not the people it was cooked for.
“We don’t actually care what Mr. Jefferson thinks,” she said. “He never says anything about the food, anyway. The dumb [expletive] would eat anything that came out of that kitchen.”
Dr. Sorensen polished her interpretive skills while working in costume at historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, where she demonstrated how to dye cloth with indigo, spin wool and cook over a hearth — crafts at which Black women excelled.
“Her strength is conveying the experience of early American cooking to a wide audience, but asking questions about the kitchen in a very scholarly way,” said Susan R. Stein, senior curator at Monticello. “I think of her being almost like a living Laura Ingalls. She’s the prairie farmer. She’s the scholar. She’s the Jewish mother and an important African American voice.”
Dr. Sorensen put it more simply: “I was always just the person who knows [expletive].”
She thinks of herself more as a home provisioner and a teacher of rural-life skills than as a scholar. She grows as much of her own food as she can. Her cupboards are stocked with canning jars full of tomatoes and peaches and pork that shine like gems.
Her provisioning prowess has made her a minor celebrity on some of the 15 Facebook groups she follows. They have names like Black Queens Cooking From the Garden and Black Folks Love “Canning” Too.
Shakirah Simley, a Bay Area canner and social-justice advocate, discovered Dr. Sorensen and her formidable pantry on the private Facebook group Sistas Who Can. Until then, the only expert canners Ms. Simley knew of approached the craft with the sensibility of a white Midwestern farmer or a European.
“Not many folks have had a wide platform that expertly weaves the African American foodways into preserving tradition,” Ms. Simley wrote in an email. “Learning about Leni, her recipes and storytelling made me feel less alone as a canner.”
Dr. Sorensen is not exactly a cuddly role model. She loathes the “twee” approach to sustainable agriculture and local food taken by many well-known chefs and farmers. And don’t get her started on people who argue against genetic modification.
“The first time I ever came across somebody that said something about eating clean, I almost had hysterics,” she said. “People are so frightened of food and they’re frightened of their guts and they’re frightened of their poop, and they’re almost always deeply narcissistic people who have never grown a [expletive] tomato.”
She is cheering on the rise of talented Black chefs and farmers, but has no patience for those who evoke their spiritual connection to Africa.
“I’m about as spiritual as that stainless steel pan,” she said. “I know my people came from Africa, but I don’t know it as the homeland. We’ve been here for eight or nine generations. I’ve always just discussed what I needed to discuss from the vantage point of being a Black American.”
She is well aware that is a loaded statement. “If the young, woke generation wants to come after me, this is my address,” she said.
Dr. Sorensen’s mother was a white, self-proclaimed Communist who later joined a Unitarian church. Her father was Black, the grandson of an enslaved man from Texas. They met in the early 1940s and eloped to Mexico because interracial marriages were illegal in California.
They soon divorced, and her mother married a Black man from New Orleans who became her culinary coach, taking a young Leni to barbecue stands and teaching her how to cook the Southern Creole standards. “He had some real fixed notions about gravy,” she said.
She taught herself how to play guitar, then dropped out of high school to become what she describes as San Diego’s first folk singer. She joined the Womenfolk, which broke up after five albums and three appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
She had her first child at 18, and jumped into California’s hippie food scene, hosting dinner parties and teaching informal cooking classes on vegetarian food and sprouted grain bread. “I’ve been spatchcocking chicken since 1965,” she said.
She moved to Canada, and in 1974 placed a personal ad in Mother Earth News, then a new journal of self-sufficiency. “I’m 31, Black, tall (5’9”) and sorta freaky for around here,” it read. “I’m a hell of a good cook and am skilled at gardening, canning, raising rabbits, sewing and minor carpentry (have also begun to handspin wool) so favor a man with a country lifestyle over a city-minded dude.”
A carpenter named Kip Sorensen answered, they fell in love and she moved to his family’s 160-acre farm in Flandreau, S.D. They grew acres of pinto and Great Northern beans, and raised a few cows for milk and beef. They had hundreds of chickens. She canned what they grew and learned to turn milk into yogurt and cheese.
There were no other Black people, let alone Black farmers, anywhere nearby. “I’ve always lived in a world in which I was the raisin in the rice pudding,” she said.
Changes in federal loan policies pushed the couple out of farming in 1982. They visited a friend in Virginia, who offered Mr. Sorensen a job building cabins. They moved there, and Dr. Sorensen raised the last two children still at home. To make money, she baked bread and took her first job at a historic site.
Their house burned in the winter of 2000. Mr. Sorensen spent 12 years building a new one on the same footprint. He created a big, airy great room and custom kitchen with the high counters that his wife preferred. It was here that she nursed her husband through the cancer that would take his life in 2017. His ashes are buried under a bur oak she can see from the kitchen window.
She has named the compound, with its half-built pizza oven and gardens defined by cinder blocks, Indigo House. She recently turned it into an educational foundation, and still teaches canning classes and hosts history dinners for $85 a person.
I joined nine people on a muggy night in August for one of them. The theme was three centuries of women chefs. Dr. Sorensen began her lecture with the first course: a simple cold tomato soup adapted from the 1770 “Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry,” a South Carolina cook.
Next came fish fricasseed in stock, cream and butter from Malinda Russell, who in 1866 published “A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen,” the oldest known cookbook by an African American woman. The fish shared a plate with a salad tossed with tarragon dressing, a favorite of Jefferson’s.
The recipe came from “The Virginia House-wife” by Mary Randolph, a white woman born in Virginia in 1762 to a family headed by a wealthy politician. The book, published in 1824, was intended to help young wives run a plantation kitchen. Dr. Sorensen is cooking her way through it, documenting every recipe.
The centerpiece of the meal was a variation on her recipe for “barbecue shote,” which is a quarter of a fat young hog. “I didn’t have a [expletive] shote,” Dr. Sorensen said. Instead, she butterflied a pork belly and rolled it around a pork loin, fat side out.
We dipped pieces in a fruity game sauce from Abby Fisher, a formerly enslaved cook who moved from South Carolina to San Francisco and started a thriving pickle business. Her book, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” was published in 1881, and is the second-oldest known American cookbook by a Black woman.
Dessert was Edna Lewis’s custardy bread pudding from “The Taste of Country Cooking.” Someone sent Dr. Sorensen the book in 1977 when she was in South Dakota. Finally, she thought, here was another Black woman who milked cows, cooked on a wood stove and understood the seasonal beauty of farm life.
When she moved to Virginia, Dr. Sorensen was thrilled to discover that the farm Miss Lewis had written about so lovingly was in the next county. She met her only once, late in Miss Lewis’s life. Miss Lewis signed Dr. Sorensen’s book.
“She exemplifies some of the finest aspects of people who love food and paid their dues and left a legacy that I think we can all be just immensely proud of,” Dr. Sorensen told us.
Then she announced that dinner was over.
“As the bartender says,” she declared, “you do not have to go home, but you cannot stay here.”
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