Carving out history: Leni Sorensen bridges the gap between kitchen and table at Monticello

Food historian Leni Sorensen highlights the culinary talent of Monticello’s enslaved chefs in her livestream series “Cooking at Monticello.” Photo courtesy Jefferson’s Monticello. Food historian Leni Sorensen highlights the culinary talent of Monticello’s enslaved chefs in her livestream series “Cooking at Monticello.” Photo courtesy Jefferson’s Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson never wrote about the food at Monticello.

His kitchens were stocked with ingredients from around the world—cinnamon from Asia, lemons from the Caribbean, brandies and fine cheeses from Richmond. But in his writing, Jefferson didn’t remark on the fine food that his enslaved chefs prepared for his table. He simply expected its consistent excellence.

More than 200 years later, food historian Leni Sorensen is working in the Monticello kitchen to make sure viewers of her livestream cooking series know, unlike Jefferson, not to take the efforts of those cooks for granted.

“It’s exhausting,” Sorensen says. “You’re in the smoke, constantly in the smoke. Your clothes smell of smoke, and your hair smells of smoke. You burn the hell out of yourself. And all the pans are heavy, except the copper pots on the stew stove. And you’re bending over all the time. So on a lot of levels, while it’s charming to do, I’m really glad I don’t have to do it.”

Sorensen’s cooking demo and Q&A session is part of a series of videos, broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook and available on the Monticello website (monticello.org), that seek to connect guests with the history of the Monticello estate even as the grounds themselves limit visitors.

As Sorensen peels, spices, and prepares an apple compote like the kind Jefferson would have eaten, she uses skills that were once a source of pride for Monticello’s enslaved workers—as well as, at times, a path to freedom. Cooking gave many workers what they needed to move after emancipation, settling into kitchens across the United States to carve out a new life for themselves.

“It was often done under terrible duress and hideous kinds of racism…but they had this skill that they could do that brought in money for their children’s education, to buy a piece of property, to act within their Black community…,” Sorensen says. “It’s quite a marvelous story, that level of independence that being able to cook [gave them].”

Teaching at Monticello is one of many jobs Sorensen has picked up due to COVID curtailing much of her regular work. She’s now selling bulk orders of homemade tamales, a business she first ran in Los Angeles in the ’70s. And in her free time, she plans and executes elaborately themed, socially distanced dinner parties at her Charlottesville home.

At the most recent dinner, her two guests arrived on their way back from a day at Monticello. Even in the time of the pandemic, people are finding a way to connect with Virginia’s past through the estate. And Sorensen anticipates that with potential future cooking livestreams, historic venues like Monticello and Montpelier can continue to create connections between past and present.

“I’m often trying to draw analogies so that we don’t see the enslaved community…as somehow being necessarily different,” Sorensen says. “We all have these incredible commonalities. Often, it’s wonderful to see places where people have bridged those gaps and eliminated those gaps.”

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