by Joyce Yao
Ms. Lane Council is the daughter of Mama Dip, the beloved community figure who opened the iconic Chapel Hill restaurant, Mama Dip’s. She shared with me how her love of food and empowerment as a woman comes from a life nurtured by Mama Dip, as demonstrated in all the kitchens she frequents.
Ms. Lane Council so palpably embodies the vibrant spirit of a Southern Black chef and business woman. This was clear in the way that she so fluently moved between and wove together the energy required to be the head of a successful restaurant and the natural disposition of the daughter of a Southern Black woman who taught her how to love food and feeding people. I got ahold of Ms. Council in the hour before the restaurant opened, leaving me in the unfortunate position of being an imposition to a very busy head of a kitchen. The interview began with her asking how long this interview would take, because she didn’t have more than 15 minutes before the kitchen needed her back. However, in the first minutes of our conversation, her business woman identity quickly melted away as I asked her to begin by sharing memorable childhood meals.
She described her favorite meal, which turned into her listing off the whole gamut of a beloved country cooking feast. Ms. Council painted a picture of all the ways that Mama Dip showed her love with food.
“My mama cooked us 3 meals a day. Most families growing up didn’t have that… we had breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s why I didn’t learn to cook until I was 25!” Furthermore, Mama Dip was the level of talented home chef that she initially didn’t have any written recipes to teach Ms. Council with. “She came up with dump cooking as a young girl. When she first opened the business across the street, she didn’t use measuring. She said one of the hardest things of her life she did was having to take the recipes from her head and put it on the paper for the cookbook.” Nevertheless, after her early 20s in Atlanta eating meals of spaghetti and frozen vegetables, she came back home to the restaurant and quickly became an active catalyst of its mission, predisposed to a knack for cooking and a prevailing belief in food as a love language.
“I just had that passion because I love the outcome of food. I waited tables and worked in the kitchen, working side by side with my mother, and it just picked up. It’s something that I think was a God-given talent for me, and I love what I do. It was so natural. I was shocked, myself. Sometimes I’m so good at what I do — I don’t like being all cocky and stuff— but some of the recipes here are mine. I can take something that someone did and put my own twist to it and make it mine.”
Being a woman in a business as rigorous and personal as a generational restaurant has certainly put Ms. Council to the test. She is still figuring out how to navigate the fine line between self care and being the boss of a bustling restaurant.
“I’m pretty much a workaholic. They tell me I need to go home but I don’t know. Because she loved it, I loved it. Being a business woman isn’t always easy. I just work through it and keep going.” She frequently emphasized how the hard work was rewarding, especially in regards to being a successful black chef of a restaurant whose mission was so personal to her.
“Doing this is so rewarding to me. There’s not a lot of women chefs, but now they’re up and coming. Cooking and being a chef is very rewarding, and it’s just a rewarding feeling to actually have someone tell you how good your food is. It makes you feel good and warm and fuzzy inside, just like comfort food.”
It’s an apt metaphor for an establishment where you walk in and feel instantly awash in the distillation of a distant Southern lifestyle centered on family, and when you leave, you may feel so full that you’ll be “asking for a cart,” as Ms. Council puts it fondly.
Halfway through the interview at the end of an answer, she stopped and asked, “Do you have any other questions? Ain’t nobody come to say anything to me yet …” So we continued our interview, moving into the kitchen that was gearing up for opening. Ms. Council walked like the head of operations, confident and with a sharp eye taking in the organized bustle around us, so she could tell people what they needed to be doing as needed. “I gotta make sure all the people are doing the right thing,” she whispered to me.
We ran into Ms. Council’s brother prepping beans in the kitchen. He shared with me his story of the Jacksons. “Ms. Jackson [namesake of the Jackson Center] used to feed me breakfast in the morning. I went to school with her son Boyd. Every morning I would walk across the street, and she’d have the biggest bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich waiting for me. Every morning. She’s a good woman.”
A love for Chapel Hill and the community has always motivated the business. This meant locating the restaurant in downtown Chapel Hill and garnering a diverse set of regulars, but also employing community members who were formerly incarcerated. Ms. Council highlighted that her mother inspired values in her children that were centered on compassion and family. “As long as I’m here and in charge, I will make sure I’m here to help people who want to start their life over.” Ms. Council also shared what she hoped Mama Dip and the restaurant meant to the Black community in the area. “The people in this community love Mama Dip so much — everyone knew her. In the Black community I think people are proud of the accomplishment she made in this community.”
Mama Dip also inspired her because she was a Black woman without a college degree who made it at 60 years old with $60. “When she started this business, she was 60 years old and to go to a bank and try to find money and build this building is phenomenal— it’s unheard of. So this building has been around for almost 20 years and now look at it! It’s known all over the U.S. and other countries. So this is big. I’m so proud to say that I’m her daughter.”
Mama Dip’s mission was instilled in Ms. Council through her time working alongside her mother in the kitchen as she learned the ways of scaling home cooking to a restaurant level. A distinct moment of pride for Ms. Council was when Mama Dip symbolically crowned her in the kitchen. “So now I remember one time she told me, I was baking and making cakes— that’s one of the things I do here, I make all the cakes. She said, ‘Lane, I think you make a cake better than I do.’ That warmed my heart. It was big hearing it from my mother because she was known for her cooking.”
The restaurant she inherited was directly passed down to her by her mother, making every big and little moment of running the business steeped in the legacy of Mama Dip. “I feel like my mama trusted me with her business. Before she passed, she always told me ‘do the best you can with the business.’ She trusted me, and I was there for her because she knew I was dedicated and committed to this business. She made me proud, so I want her to be proud of me too. I love this business because she loved it so much.”
It’s a big mantle to take up, and it’s a responsibility that is still new to Ms. Council. “It’s kind of hard to talk about it because her death is still kind of new to us. She was here every day. She even had a special chair and a special booth.”
The legacy of Mama Dip is strongly championed by Ms. Council. “I have to do what she did. I feel like she’s in me so I have to carry on her legacy.” Even her preparation of the cornbread is defended as a deeply-held belief by Ms. Council. When I asked her about corn kernels in cornbread, she gave me a look and said, “Corn in cornbread — nuh uh. We ain’t doing that. No no no no, my mama never did that. My sister likes her muffins with corn in it. But me, I like the way my mama did it. That’s why they call me Lil’ Dip! And I talk with a Southern accent just like her. I don’t use ‘proper English.’”
In regards to the future, she is intent on the legacy of Mama Dip’s continuing to the next generation of Council’s. “We’re going to carry on, because we have the next generation coming. My siblings— we’re all in their 60s. Now my daughter has moved back here from Louisiana and then my son and my sister’s daughter, so we feel like we’ll keep carrying on.”
In true Southern fashion, she couldn’t send me home with my hands empty. She pulled a Mama Dip’s cookbook from the shelf and told me: “Take this, read the first part about my mama growing up and cook you sumn’ good.”
Transitioning to the mindset for a serious day’s work but with a sense of light-heartedness, she asked, “Are we done?” I said yes, sharing my gratitude for her time and the fun interview.
“It was.” She agreed, laughing, “I like you.”
Recipe: Fresh Apple Cake
This is from the family cookbook. Here’s something that’s easy, and you can get everything at the store: an apple cake. This is a great recipe. I make this sometimes and put it out there [in the dessert case]. It’s absolutely delicious. Margarine is more oil (“ole”) than butter, which you see if you look at the ingredients. People don’t know that— maybe for the better. You can use butter too, whichever one. I use butter.
Mama Dips note: This cake needs to be made ahead of time. It’s best after three days, when it has had time to mellow.
2 cups peeled and diced apples
1 cup raising, chopped
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 ½ cups vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
3 ½ cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk
½ stick margarine, cut into pieces
½ cup brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon allspice
Preheat oven to 325°. Dust the apples, raisins, and walnuts with a little flour and set aside. Combine the oil, sugar, and eggs, blending well. Sift together the flour, allspice, baking powder, and baking soda and add to the wet ingredients, stirring gently just until well combined. Stir in the vanilla. Fold in the apples, raisins, and walnuts. Bake in a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
To make the sauce, combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan. Stirring constantly, heat to boiling and let boil rapidly for 2 minutes. Let the sauce cool and then pour it over the cake while the cake is still hot in the pan. Leave the cake in the pan for 1 hour before removing. Wrap the cake in foil or store it in a cake box. Do not refrigerate. The flavor will ripen and the cake will be ready to serve in three days.