Images by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields, words by Megan Headley.
An advance apology for using foul language isn’t the typical greeting of a 70-year-old mother to four children and countless animals, but Leni Sorensen is far from the typical 70-year-old. In the past 50 years, she’s been a folk singer, an actress, an anti-war activist, a farmer, a wool spinner in Colonial Williamsburg, a demonstrator of fireplace cookery in Southern museums, and a Ph.D. recipient in American studies. For six years, she worked as Monticello’s African American Research Historian and readily admits to loving an audience.
But the day that we meet her at her home in Crozet, Leni’s in a very different place. Having retired in April, she’s been busy reinventing herself where she is the happiest–at home.
The sprawling one-story timber-framed home that she calls the Indigo House was built on the original 1905 footprint by Leni’s husband, Kip, after the previous dwelling burned down in 2000, just five years after they moved in. Thousands of books and memories were lost, but the fire gave them an opportunity to rebuild the house with both history and a personal wish list in mind. They forewent the two-story plan for just one (Leni says, “We plan to grow very old here”) and crafted the kitchen to suit her tall yet elegant frame. The entire east-facing length of the house is a combination kitchen, dining, preparation, and storage area–the main stage on which she’ll perform this latest act as a teacher of rural living.
While some of Leni’s expertise comes from academia, most comes from having done it all through her own patchwork of a life. She cooked her first Thanksgiving meal at age 9, and growing up in southern California, she was greatly influenced by both the Mexican and vegetarian food in the region as well as recipes from her Louisiana-born stepfather. Leni ran a home cooking school centered around baking with sprouted grains while raising her first two sons, Kierk and Nikolas. Then, she and a friend produced a line of tamales and tortillas for the burgeoning health food markets, but Leni wanted to get closer to the start–back to the land. She’d struck up a long-distance romance with Kip, a farmer in South Dakota that she met through a personal ad in Mother Earth News, and in a matter of months was milking cows and pumping water with him every dawn.
Leni and Kip grew their family together, adding a son named Bjorn and a daughter named Winter, and made the most of modest means by cooking from scratch and wasting nothing. It’s a discipline that the family brought with them to Virginia in 1982 after big agriculture trounced on their livelihood and one that Leni refers to more as self-reliance than self-sufficiency. “I’ve made my own bread, mayonnaise, and vinaigrettes for 40 years and we are quite happy eating only our potatoes and canned tomatoes until they’re gone, but we mix it up with takeout from Taiwan Garden now and then.”
It’s precisely these unexpected quips and juxtapositions that make Leni so inspiring–and loveable. The minute you feel like it’s all pie in the sky, she flips the proverbial bird to Molly Homemaker and brings things back down into the realm of plausibility. “Living by a script–whatever script it is–is problematic. If I had a dictum at all, it would be to grow and create as much of your own food as is reasonable, enjoyable, possible over time and then thoughtfully buy things from across the world–like coffee, sugar, chocolate. Be accommodating and not so judgmental.”
Steam is swirling from the slow cooker on the counter and Leni dips a wooden spoon into the crimson liquid. We get a taste of the sopa di frijoles (pinto bean soup) that’s been cooking for a day and it warms us from the inside out. We step outside with Leni as she returns the chicken-shaped red wire egg basket to the shed for the afternoon’s collection, and she reminds us that peasants–people who couldn’t read and often had to walk miles for water or fire–created delicious food, so how hard can it be? “Self-sufficiency isn’t an ‘ism’ or a philosophy. You don’t need gobs of money–just do it. If you make bread and it’s crappy, cut it into cubes and make croutons.” It’s her less peppy (a characteristic that irks her) version of what to do when life hands you lemons and probably the forgiving and guiding light that’s compelled her to try her hand at everything without fear. Because she’s always had chickens or pigs, she’s never seen anything as a failure so long as it nourished a body and didn’t go to waste.
Of the house’s 51 surrounding acres, only about three are usable, and on it they keep two dozen chickens, two pigs (from spring through fall), and several beds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. It’s not manicured or even set back from the main road, but it’s an enlivening and encouraging look at what can be done with a small amount of space. Kip and Kierk are halfway through building an outdoor stone bread oven and a charcoal-fired stew hole that, along with Leni’s 100-year-old comfort cook stove, will allow her to cook (and teach) over four centuries.
Behind their electric fencing, the chickens follow Leni’s every move, warbling a pleasant little tune, until they find a sunny patch to lounge. She lifts the plastic covers off rows of chard, collards, napa cabbage, bok choy, and spinach–just enough greens to get them through the winter–and then excitedly points out the large mound of horse manure that a neighbor recently delivered. There’s a new garlic bed marked with an Italian-esque archway and Japanese persimmon, fig, and damson plum trees. The garden’s centerpiece is a large pin oak that the children planted one Arbor Day. Muscadine grapes are on Leni’s planting list for the spring. “You can’t grow everything. You can’t do everything.”
She’s managed to grow and do quite a bit, of course, and looks forward to making her home life–no matter how prosaic–her work life. “Some people quilt. Some people inject heroin. This is what I enjoy doing and I’d do it all anyway for my own satisfaction.”
And there’s no doubt that Leni, even living 16 miles from town, will continue to gather that audience she loves. For three years now, every second Wednesday of the month, she bakes bread and heads out to her porch around 5pm. It’s an open house, come one, come all, bring cheese, bring whatever, kind of standing invitation. Everyone from fledgling gardeners to bread baking enthusiasts come to sit, chat, and listen to life according to Leni. “I love to connect people. It’s nice to be that person.”
Inside, Leni’s setting up her space with filmed tutorials in mind, for when she butchers her next pigs or makes a big batch of jam in the copper pot she randomly found at a Tuesday Morning. She’s got five freezers, including a 19 cubic foot one, in which to keep all of her edible efforts. Relics like an old-fashioned lard press mingle with a shiny new meat grinder that recently got a workout with bear meat when she hosted a gathering to make the mincemeat out of Mary Randolph’s 1824 recipe book The Virginia House-wife.
We’re here for a lesson in cornbread though. And as luck would have it, because the two pigs that Leni butchered this fall gave up 3 pints of lard and one quart of cracklins (fried pieces of pork fat with a small amount of skin attached), we get both in our cornbread. Leni’s been making her stepfather’s recipe in his cast iron skillet since the 50s. She spoons a generous scoop of creamy white lard into the skillet, sprinkles in a bunch of cracklins, and then puts it in the hot oven. The idea is to render the fat before pouring it into the batter. She doesn’t know why it works (though she guesses it might activate the baking powder), but it does, so she keeps doing it. The eggs she’s using are from pullets, the young hens just beginning to lay, so she adds a few extras, eyeballing the consistency until it looks right. The shells get saved for compost.
Once the fat is clear and bubbly, Leni adds it to the batter and then pours the batter back into the skillet where it bakes for 40 minutes. Kip and Kierk come in from working on a project together in the garden (three of Leni’s four children live in the area) and brew a pot of coffee. Kip, who restored log cabins for decades, and Kierk, who makes sinks, furniture, sculptures, and utensils out of alberene soapstone, are kindred spirits, and the family, which now includes several grandchildren, probably has enough handiness and talent among them to make anything under the sun.
The smell of the cooking cornbread is growing more and more tortuous by the minute, but the guys need to get back to work, so they grab their coffee and go. Kierk, 52, yells, “Bye bye, Momma!” on his way out the door, to which Leni replies, “See ya, baby.”
When the buzzer sounds and the cornbread–puffed, golden, and cracked on top emerges–we know our patience is about to be rewarded. Leni ladles bowls of sopa and cuts a large wedge of cornbread for each of us to take to the table. She uses a long wooden handled jar opener to pop the lid off a small ball jar of last spring’s strawberry jam and then we follow her lead by splitting our cornbread in half, slathering both sides in butter, and then spooning jam onto one side. She shares a prayer before we eat: “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”
The beans, which Leni likes to make with more soup than beans, taste creamy, buttery, and remarkably flavorful with nothing but the addition of garlic powder, salt, chili powder, and lots and lots of time. She says that you can stir beans too much, but that you can never cook them too much. The sweet, fragrant jam offsets the rich savoriness of the pork fat and we can completely understand why Kip and Leni are happy to eat this meal for nights on end until it’s gone. The woman makes magic from the mundane.
Any last crumbs and drips we couldn’t finish, we scrape into the scrap bucket for some very lucky chickens. We leave out the side door and Leni invites us back anytime we want. Her grandmother lived to be 104, so with longevity, a wholesome diet, a loving family, and plenty of spunk on her side, we look forward to a long friendship with invaluable and delicious lessons learned along the way.