Where the heart is: A White Hall kitchen tells the story of a life well-spent

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Leni Sorensen bakes multiple loaves of bread each week in her custom kitchen. Photo: Elli Williams Leni Sorensen bakes multiple loaves of bread each week in her custom kitchen. Photo: Elli Williams

Much like Leni Sorensen herself, the culinary historian’s White Hall kitchen is one of a kind. Designed and built by her husband, Richard Kip Sorensen, the space is the culinary, spiritual, and cultural epicenter of Sorensen’s homestead. It allows her to do what really makes her happy: cook for her family and friends and teach locals the art of food.

Sorensen—formerly an African-American research historian at Monticello, singer in an all-female folk group called Womenfolk, and farmer in South Dakota—is a skilled cook, baker, and butcher—and her kitchen reflects it.

Leni's backyard houses more than 30 chickens, and provides enough edibles for canning and cooking year-round. Photo: Elli Williams
Leni’s backyard houses more than 30 chickens, and provides enough edibles for canning and cooking year-round. Photo: Elli Williams

“This is my kitchen. I use it all the time and that’s why this room was designed the way it is,” she said, removing three loaves of bread from one of two ovens. “It’s all in one space so that I can write, listen to what I need to listen to, feed people, talk, enjoy. I am a one-space kind of person.”

An open floor plan converges at a large island, which functions as a workstation for up to six adult students, as well as Sorensen herself. Soapstone countertops from her son’s company, Alberene Soapstone, provide the perfect surface for kneading bread (which she does about once a week), and big, deep drawers hidden in the body of the island hold up to 250 pounds of cooking tools—lids, pots, kitchen towels, and food items.

Custom cabinetry keeps all of Leni's essentials—everything from knives to cookbooks—easily accessible. Photo: Elli Williams
Custom cabinetry keeps all of Leni’s essentials—everything from knives to cookbooks—easily accessible. Photo: Elli Williams

“I put all the big things in here that you can’t put anywhere else,” she said. “When you do the kind of cooking I do and that I teach, you just have to have things that big.”

Overhead, a pot rack made from a wooden wheel holds a vast collection of pots, pans, and skillets. It hails from Sorensen’s days in South Dakota, and followed her to Albemarle County when she moved in the early 1980s.

Although built by modern standards, Sorensen’s kitchen is filled with plenty of other era pieces that tell the life story of a woman who cooked her first Thanksgiving dinner when she was 10 years old —from salad tongs she’s owned for more than 20 years (her oldest cooking tool, which was once lost during a demonstration before being recovered four years later) to a custom case that holds seed packets sold at a general store in the early 1900s.

But the space is not overdone or supersized. On the contrary, the kitchen and adjoining living space feel cozy and welcoming, just like their host.

The architecture and coziness of today’s kitchen came at a great cost, however, when a fire in December of 2000 destroyed the home. When the mortar on the chimney on the second floor failed, more than 4,000 books and about 40 pieces of cast iron she’d been collecting —“big griddles and older shapes that are not made anymore”—were lost.

The Sorensens rebuilt on the same footprint of the house they lost—a project that took Kip 11 years to complete.

“He did everything—from digging the footings to all the woodwork,” Leni said. “Half the time, I used to come home and stand in the road and clap.”

Now that the project is complete (or, nearly complete—she’s recently decided to heighten the pot rack and add in some more lighting in the kitchen area), she can get back to teaching and other projects, like working her way through Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, à la Julie & Julia. As a self-proclaimed “book person,” it is only appropriate that the kitchen cabinets are as much filled with books as they are with food.

“You build upon both your experience and your enthusiasm,” she said over a homemade chicken paté, hummus, and focaccia lunch. “I just like having a kitchen that I can adapt to doing various things.”

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