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Woman cooks her way through 19th century cookbook

ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) — A Virginia woman is taking her love of food and history to a new level by cooking her way through a 19th century cookbook.

“Imagine if you had to do this by hand,” Leni Sorensen asks as she stirs up a four-line recipe for drop biscuits from what is widely regarded as the South’s first regional cookbook.

The simple recipe from the 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, calls for eggs, sugar and flour beaten until they are very light.

“We can do it and just think back on how much it took to do these things,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen discovered Mary Randolph’s cookbook nearly two decades.

“It’s just an astounding output of an array of foods, array of menus, array of dishes,” Sorensen said.

For example, one tip from the book instructs cooks, “to dress turtle: Kill it at night in winter and in the morning in the summer.”

“She knows all the details of how to do it and she tells it so clearly. That’s what is so wonderful,” she said.

This former African-American research historian at Monticello thinks back to the skilled slaves who worked alongside Mary Randolph.

“We can use them as inspiration,” said Sorensen. “So for me they are always, always the inspiration for doing this.”

The flavors from antebellum history will drift from Sorensen’s oven for some time. In fact, she expects it will take about three years to make it through every recipe in the cookbook.

“Food is not just what you put in your mouth,” she said. “It’s cultural. It’s emotional. We all have opinions about it.”