City Portrait: Chapel Hill
By Nic Brown
Four Tar Heels who have made the city sing
Shannon Ravenel cofounded Chapel Hill’s Algonquin Books in 1982 (with Louis Rubin, whom she modestly calls “the real hero of this story”) and has built it into one of the most respected literary presses in the country. Publishing a generation of A-list Southern writers (Larry Brown, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, and Daniel Wallace, to name a few), Ravenel has shaped the nation’s literary landscape. And she makes just as big an impact locally; with her help, the annual Writers for Readers gala supports the Orange County Literacy Council by bringing major writers to town to raise money for literacy awareness. Who else could dial up John Grisham, Roy Blount, Jr., or Charlaine Harris (of Sookie Stackhouse fame—coming to next year’s gala) when you need them?
Mac MacCaughan is the guy Chapel Hill wants you to meet when people think it’s full of backwoods hicks. In fact, that’s just what he expected of the place when told at age twelve that he’d be moving here. He says his biggest fear was that there’d be no bands to see. By 1989, he’d half solved that problem himself after forming indie-rock legend Superchunk and cofounding Merge Records, arguably the most critically lauded record label in the country. Still musically prolific (with both Superchunk and his quieter project, Portastatic), MacCaughan has recently also found time to write a book (out from Algonquin in the fall), arrange concerts for the Obama campaign, join the board of the Ackland Art Museum, and—last but not least—raise two children with wife Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern Restaurant.
When Emil Kang said he wanted the arts in Chapel Hill to be “as big as basketball,” everyone laughed. Not now. Former president of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (where he was both the youngest and the first Asian-American to hold that post at any major symphony orchestra), Kang renewed the performing arts in Chapel Hill. As Executive Director for the Arts at UNC, he programs Memorial Hall, a breathtaking venue that was long neglected. With Kang at the helm, it’s attracted the likes of Itzhak Perlman and the Bolshoi Ballet. Born to Korean immigrants in New York City, Kang and his wife, Lisa (who helped found the dance education program North Carolina Arts in Action), have landed in Chapel Hill after what Kang calls “an incredible journey.” Watch out, Roy Williams, this guy’s a slam dunk.
Mildred Edna Cotton Council
By the time she opened Mama Dip’s in 1976, Mildred Edna Cotton Council was already legendary for her fried chicken and barbecue. But Council plays down her extraordinary recipes. “When you come up in the country,” she says, “you just use what you have.” Council has two cookbooks to her name, as well as appearances on Good Morning America and the Food Network. More important, she has nine children, eighteen grandchildren, twenty-three great-grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren, who, she says, “are all cooks.” And if you look into her kitchen today, you’ll see the proof. It’s still bustling with family at the stove.