I first came to know of Leni Sorensen and her work through a network of people here in Central Virginia who research the lives and experiences of enslaved people.  She is a culinary historian, and she’s amazing.  One of my hopes for 2015 is that I get to attend one of her classes.  Plus, she’s also talented writer and social critic.  Enjoy her work today.

1. Tell me about your latest project.  The Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Hipster Guide: 6 Basic Things to Know about Sharing a Kitchen with Housemates

The Hipster Guidebook came out of discussions about moving away from home with a college age grandchild and lots of family input over many of the issues involved. The decision to self-publish was as much to explore that world as to see how much I could learn about promoting my own work online. It is a short volume and will be followed soon by an equally short collection of recipes for that same audience. Cooking my way through Mary Randolph’s 1824 The Virginia House-Wife is taking my hands-on attention right now as I have to choreograph doing the cookery process while documenting the cookery process (via photos and videos) while juggling blog entries with an eventual book project at the same time. So far it has been slower than I would like, even at the same time that I have been giving well received Mary Randolph lectures/ hearth demonstrations/classes around the Mid-Atlantic.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

Simply put, books (and libraries) saved my life as a child. My otherwise deeply dysfunctional mother did read aloud to me much longer than was usual for most kids, a fact I only later realized. Of course she read what she wanted to read so it was a pretty eclectic mixture of everything from Punch magazine articles to Simone de Beauvoir to Mark Twain. However, I was an early and voracious reader on my own. Primarily, I read to ‘go somewhere else’ and only slowly came to understand that books were actually written by real people. The idea that writing was a career that was learnable or pursuable didn’t come clear till I was a young adult and already making my living as a singer.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

God, I wish I had a ‘practice’ or a ‘routine’! I can sit to throw together a lecture, and in college, papers were not difficult to produce on time and in the format required. But for fiction or more personal essays those have been the hardest for me, putting my thoughts on the page rather than sharing through talking, lecturing, or demonstrating. Direct eye-to-eye has been my medium of intellectual/emotional exchange for so many of the years I have worked as an historian. So put simply, now that I am most often home I try to write every morning.

4. Who are you reading now?

I listen to a lot of books on tape; I can do that while gardening, cooking, and sewing; currently The Accidental Species: Misunderstanding Human Evolution by Henry Gee. I do get most of my fiction ‘fix’ via audible books – I love gory police procedurals. In book form right now, I’m reading two (which one I pick up depends on my mood) The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Cohen Ferris and Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by Thomas Brothers. I read a good deal on bio-ecology, food justice issues, cultural history, and biography, among other topics.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

At age 72, I’ve read so many books in my life that it’s hard to choose three! There is a short section in John Barth’s Giles Goat Boy that still, after fifty years of reading and rereading it, can put me in hysterical laughter. I’ve read Lord of the Rings many times – the sheer sweep of the story always captivates me – and I even read it aloud to my children. BTW it takes about four months of every night reading to get through the whole series including The Hobbit! Many years ago Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans (1974) gave words to a conundrum I had always faced; how to be a mixed-race person in a country that rejected the very concept. I was born in 1942 when it was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in California; my parents had to marry in Mexico. I often return to Murray for prescient writing on race.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

By this do you mean the place where the spark of a concept meets the sitting and doing? Perhaps that comes with doing the research for the writing. For example, I stay away from reading contemporary fiction writing (or movies) on slavery themes because I am working on a long time fiction project on slavery, but I still need to read documentary material to make the story as detailed and accurate as possible. For The Virginia House-Wife project, I need to read on food history both American and international so I can place my narrative in the proper historical/cultural context. Doing more and more research is certainly an easy crutch to use in order not to write.

7.What is a typical day like for you?

Like most folks I have a lot of daily humdrum tasks: cooking and cleaning, bringing in firewood, tending livestock, sometimes baby sitting the newest grandchild; but there are also many days in which I am preparing for a lecture or cookery demo that I will drive to sometimes hundreds of miles away so there are the lists and the lecture notes and the Power Point slides to review and update. I might be away from home for a long day or overnight or even several days in a row. Living 16 miles from town, I try not to go often, and if I can go a whole week without getting in my car, I usually get a lot done. My writing to-do list is long and whittling down the list by completing and submitting manuscripts in some orderly fashion is a piecemeal thing.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

Virginia Wolfe be damned – she did have a personal space for herself and in any case didn’t need the money her writing might generate. I have a much more pragmatic (some might characterize a cynical) attitude. My ideal writing space is in my head when I have a project contracted for so I know it isn’t just a fantasy and I can expect to see my name in print or payment or both. I have a feeling that many writers write because they can’t help themselves (or at least they say they do), and while I share a bit of that, mostly I am impelled by a specific project for a specific audience that I want to see in print. I see writing as part of earning my living – not as recreation.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

Oh boy. At least writing critique is not face to face! In contrast, I’ve done a lot of theater where a director has torn my performance apart in front of a whole cast or had to sing take after take of the same song till I finally got it right – at least with writing one can ask for help if there is something you just can’t get right – another reader, a friend who is a grammarian, someone who knows the source of some obscure reference you just couldn’t find. I usually just sigh, write back to ask the editor how I might fix it, and get back to work.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Hang in there.

Author and Culinary Historian Leni Sorenson

Leni Sorensen earned her doctorate in American Studies at the College of William and Mary.  She has worked as a university professor, museum consultant, hands-on presenter, and researcher with a focus on African American slavery, American agriculture, and women’s work in colonial and post-colonial America.  Recently retired from Monticello, she now lectures and writes on culinary history and teaches rural life skills from her home in Central Virginia. Find out more about Leni and her work on her website – The View from Indigo House.