Food Historian: A career that combines a love of food, cooking, growing, and preserving with the Oldways.
Food has a fascinating history very rarely discussed in history books and classrooms even though so much time and effort is spent feeding people. Through food history, we can piece together the way people lived; culture, plant science, farming, cooking methods and technology, labor and of course the role of the enslaved people in the early lives and economy of important historical figures that shaped the United States as we know it.
Kim Severson’s article in the New York Times Food section, “Food History, From the Hip” captures Leni Sorenson’s interesting career as a food historian, her irreverent, feisty personality, and the major events in her life. She was introduced to food by her New Orleans stepfather and Southern Creole cooking. Through many twists and turns, she perfected homesteading or “rural-life skills” and eventually wound up in rural Virginia. Dr. Sorenson received little formal education until returning to school at the age of 60 to earn a doctorate in American Studies from the College of William and Mary. Her focus was on early American cooking especially from 18th and 19th century Colonial America. “It’s a history that puts the focus on the people who cooked the food, not the people it was cooked for.”
Using the oldest cookbooks she has found, she recreates the recipes of early Black chefs and hosts small gatherings at her home, Indigo House. How fantastic it would be to sit at table with her to enjoy her replications of recipes from the earliest known records of Black cooks including Thomas Jefferson’s James Hemings. Having coincidentally just visited Monticello in Charlottesville, I had brushed up on the complicated juxtaposition of the messages of the Declaration of Independence and a lifestyle and economy dependent on slave labor. Dr. Sorenson doesn’t hold back her feelings about these sensitive topics. Her irreverence for conflicting and traditional thought is refreshing and thought provoking. And her free spirited, non-traditional career is an example of living honestly, with passion.
Food History, From the Hip/Food Scholar, Folk Singer, Blunt Speaker: The Many Lives of Leni Sorensen
The New York Times Food, September 22, 2021