March 18, 2014 • 11:34:01 a.m.

Food enthusiast brings taste of history to Opera House

By LINDSAY WEBER editorial@shawmedia.com

Leni Sorensen (Photo provided)

In a society on the go, a stop at the local drive-thru is a weeknight norm for most. Buying flour by the 50-pound bag to bake bread, growing your own chickens to yield 30 quarts of stock is more than most can fathom doing in a year. For Leni Sorensen, these are typical activities she would do in a week.

With a doctorate in American Studies and as a food enthusiast, for lack of a better term, Sorensen has dedicated the better part of 45 years to farming, cooking and teaching.

In that, all roads have led back to the function and influence of food in American culture.

“Everyone eats. How do we find a history of the past, while moving away from certain mythologies?” Sorensen said.

“The past wasn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t be working on how we get back to it. We should determine what the past was unable to resolve, and how do we work to fix that?”

Sorensen said the use of food and dining can be used as a way of getting into larger topics.

She will present “Chefs and Slaves: The Black Cook in Jeffersonian America – The culinary skills that produced elite dining in the early 19th century” at 10 a.m. March 20 at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.

She will replace Chef Walter Staib, who was scheduled to speak as part of Woodstock Fine Arts Association’s Creative Living Series.

When we think of the food cooked for the elite in the past, we don’t think of the world of French-trained professionals, who weren’t celebrated, but made beautiful food under hideous circumstances. This is to honor them, Sorensen said.

Sorensen is not a restauranteur or a name brand. A woman of a less traditional path, her resume boasts having raised four children, tended to a 160-acre mixed farm in South Dakota, ran a catering business, worked as Monticello’s African American research historian and acted as a costume presenter at historical fairs and festivals.

“I’m not what I think people these days would call a chef. I’m a teacher of real life skills. I’m a cook. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I’m a food historian,” she said.

The retired seventy-something now lives in Virginia along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains on a small acreage 8 miles away from her post office address of Crozet, Virginia where she grows much of what she eats.

Sorensen continues to teach out of her home, write essays, give lectures and is cooking her way through Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia House-wife” cookbook. Sorensen connects with the book as a Virginia resident, and said it serves as a good reference to understand the complexities of cooking in that era, which spans from the late 18th to early 19th century.

Sorensen said it will take her about three years to finish the project because the recipes are based on seasonal ingredients and availability. One of her upcoming tasks will be to dress a turtle, which involves catching and killing the animal in preparation for cooking. Sorensen captures her journey in her blog, www.indigohouse.us.

This act of taking to the land for food instead of running to the chain grocer is a lifestyle as opposed to a simple choice for Sorensen, who was a full adult before even tasting a Pop-Tart.

“People don’t realize how powerful their consumer dollar is,” said Sorensen. “Buying local and realizing how much they can do themselves is so important. We need to take the chance to become part of it instead of just being consumers.”

Tickets for the 10 a.m. March 20 presentation at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St, cost $24. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.woodstockfineartsassociation.org, www.woodstockoperahouse.com or 815-338-5300.


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