036 – Dr. Leni Sorensen, Culinary Historian
Food Views. The way people view “good food” differs depending on whether they’re a privileged mother of two selecting asparagus at a farmer’s market, or a lower middle class mother who needs to live on the busline and is wondering how she will feed her children until her next paycheck, or a mother in India or Africa whose dearest wish is to live near a grocery store. To have choices.
Meet Dr. Leni Sorensen, culinary historian, food advocate, and home provisioning expert. She’s lived quite a life – from growing up on the West Coast in a mixed-race family pre-civil rights, to singing in The Womenfolk, to acting as food historian for Monticello, to earning her Ph.D., to answering a personal ad from a farmer in South Dakota then moving there and learning home provisioning from the ground up, including gutting and skinning an antelope.
She and Kip are still married and provisioning to this day on their family farm. The Sorensen household is self-reliance personified, sometimes processing up to 50 chickens in a day when it’s time. Which results in 150 pounds of chicken. Then comes canning the meat and stock. All twenty-eight cans worth. Yes, you CAN put up broth and meat. She explains how. It’s just one reason when the zombie apocalypse happens, I’m walking to Leni’s!
The question of how folks view “good food” is an important one. How do we expand the demographic here in Charlottesville so our ENTIRE community is able to participate in our many festivals, markets, and other food events? Not just the white and affluent? How do these many events affect the people who work here and need to drive roads closed for races? They have to make a living. Our cultural focus is gradually moving away from our residents to fulfilling the needs of students, tourists, and visitors. Sometimes the level of arrogance and entitlement here staggers the both of us and we discuss it at length.
We love our Charlottesville views. But whose view is it? Who does it belong to? It’s a topic which makes a lot of people uncomfortable but one that must be addressed if things are to change.
And what about the Charlottesville City Market? How many meetings do we need to have? It’s been 30 years! When and why did we navigate away from including food producers and start letting in crafts and restaurants? Is the answer decentralization? Having many small markets all over town? Are there other options that can be implemented before another 30 years pass?
Food Provisioning. In the second half of this long conversation we discuss self reliance. Leni teaches courses like canning, growing, and butchering out at the farm because she feels it’s important to make this educational investment so you’re not reliant on big corporations to feed you. But where do you begin if you’re inexperienced? One way is to buy a basil plant. Another is to make most of the bread you eat. She can show you how.
While you’re baking that bread, Leni points out it’s important not to get nostalgic about the old ways. Canning and quilting are methods folks used to eat and stay warm. They are not precious artifacts to put on a shelf and fawn over. A housewife may have created one pretty can of tomatoes for the State Fair, but the rest fed her family. When Leni cooks recipes from The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (e.g., Turtle Soup with real acquired turtle from her land) it is performance and appreciation. Not precious nostalgia.
Leni’s views on organic versus “organic” (note the quotation marks) and GMO seeds are thought-provoking. She is unapologetically pro-GMO and pro-technology, which by turns surprised me and expanded my brain. Why do the privileged arbiters of “good food” treat it like a religion but often have little science to back up their zealotry? Do we research GMOs and possibly feed the world? Or make everything organic and let the poor fend for themselves? Is there an overlap? How can we make “good food” (no matter your definition) available to everyone regardless of class? Fascinating stuff. As she says,
“We need to take care of our own business. And not be telling people in India and Africa that they can’t have golden rice.”
Leni is working on her memoir and continues to cook her way through Mary Randolph’s historical volume. Visit her site for more information on this project, as well as how you can take your own home provisioning course. Gather a group of 6-8 folks and design a class yourself! Leni will also be conducting two classes at The Spice Diva in April and May. Details below.
We covered a LOT of ground. Didn’t solve anything but boy was it fun trying! This conversation has stayed with me and changed the entire focus of Edacious. That’s how good it is. Hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts. Cheers!
DR. LENI SORENSEN AT THE SPICE DIVA COOKING SCHOOL
Two classes on the history of food in Virginia. Leni will be looking at the cooking habits of Virginians from slaves to the gentry. Take one class or both. Tickets and information at the link.
PART ONE – THE VIRGINIA HOUSE-WIFE EXPLORED
Leni’s current long-term project is to cook her way through The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph. She will be talking about the accessibility of spices during the 18th and 19th centuries and cooking a curry recipe from the book.
Class Date and Time – Thursday, April 28, 7:00-8:30 PM
Class size is limited to 12
Class fee is $50 for one class, $90 for two classes
PART TWO – SOUTHERN FOODWAYS
In the late 19th century, several African-American cookbooks reflected the migration of Southern foodways. The pickles and spiced sauces in Mrs. Abby Fisher’s book and the elite dining service detailed in Rufus Estes’s 1911 book will be our inspiration.
Class Date and Time – Thursday, May 5, 7:00-8:30 PM
Class size is limited to 12.
One class $50, two classes $90.
SHOW NOTES – Links to articles I read the same week as my talk with Leni. They changed my world.
- The Problems with Food Media that Nobody Wants to Talk About
- When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food
- How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy
- It’s Okay to Cook “Other People’s Food,” But You Better Be Ready to Talk About It
- Americans ‘need to stop being defensive about their food culture’
- THE STATE OF SOUL FOOD IN AMERICA: EXPLORING THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
- A Laotian Refugee Cooks His Way Home
- The Testosterone Takeover of Southern Food Writing
- Beyond Talk: Searching For Real Solutions to Food Appropriation
- The Sporkful Podcast – Five Part Series: Other People’s Food
This episode is sponsored by In A Flash Laser Engraving.
Thank you to Team Podcast who helped me with my podcast feed. Christy Haussler is a MASTER of the medium and worth every penny. Cheers Christy!
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