Self-styled entrepreneur Diyon Lee of Tha BagLady’s Kitchen, indomitable, resourceful, prevails as a model of what can be accomplished when, despite disadvantage, you refuse to lose. Odds are a fact of life and can stack up against you.
Lack of a college education, the system, and institutionalized racism all exist but nonetheless must be dealt with along with a standby increasingly cited these days: the trauma of historic slavery reaching down over centuries to debilitate and absolve descendants of accountability for their own failure.
Lee let none of this stand in her way. She learned what can’t be taught in school, the determination to persevere and prevail as a single mom providing for herself and son Deri’yon. Where some women wind up career “baby mamas” subsisting on the public dole, she recalls, “I figured that welfare and food stamps weren’t enough to raise a child.”
She escaped society’s sidelines. Instead of fulfilling a stereotype, she took stock of personal resources and acted on them.
After graduating high school in 2007, Lee, at 19, found herself living out a story all too familiar to young African American women, pregnant with Deri’yon and on her own, one more public assistance statistic. “Shortly after having my baby I was short on money…and on welfare. I [had] watched my mom cook all the time. I never cared about cooking until I began to crave things and had nobody to make them for me.”
This would prove fortuitous. First, though, she had to do something about her situation — fast. In the short run, her solution was both practical and productive. She danced well and looked good doing it, so she heeded an older acquaintance’s advice and looked into gentlemen’s club dancing.
This quickly proved sufficiently lucrative to get her off taxpayers’ financing and on her feet to sustain herself and Deri’yon in a lifestyle to which any responsible mother would enjoy being accustomed. After awhile, though, there were drawbacks.
While her professional livelihood was perfectly legal, St. Cloud friends and neighbors took it upon themselves to mind her business and have no shortage of things to say. Instead of offering to babysit, they chose to make her circumstance difficult by being catty.
“When I told my friends, they wanted to dance, too. But, eventually they turned on me and started spreading my business. My son was growing old enough that I didn’t want him to be embarrassed.” Nor did she need to be clairvoyant to foresee her solution turning out to be even more of a problem if Child Protective Services somehow got wind of it.
Hence, between wagging tongues and her protective instinct, she put dancing in her rear view and went back to the proverbial drawing board. Again opting for autonomy, Lee once more relied on her skills to embark on a grassroots, pull oneself up by the bootstraps enterprise.
“I remembered everyone loves my cooking, [and] everyone wants to come over when I cook. I thought, ‘So let me see what I can do.’”
This time, busybodies would be too preoccupied stuffing their faces to run their mouths, other than to pass the word around about her culinary acumen. Putting her cooking talents together with a thrifty capital investment, keeping the overhead down, she had come up with and executed the idea of Tha BagLady’s Kitchen, trying out the market for home-cooked meals.
“When I started selling dinner trays from my apartment, I purchased supplies from Walmart, Sam’s Club, Save A Lot and Hobby Lobby.” She found out there are regulations for that sort of endeavor and adjusted accordingly.
“Business picked up. I realized I would no longer be able to sell food from my home. I began to seek a legal location. I found a commercial kitchen to rent.”
Tha BagLady’s Kitchen menu is tempting. You can order an old-time staple like liver and onions with gravy, smothered chicken or pork chops. If your mama cooked it, odds are Diyon Lee serves it for dinner.
There’s an array of sides: collard greens, pinto or red beans and rice, honey cornbread muffins and turkey. You can get sandwiches: subs, hoagies, heroes. And you can satisfying your sweet tooth with items like banana pudding and strawberry crunch cake for desert.
Just like those food trucks that line up in the downtown Minneapolis business district every morning and lunch hour, she’d prepare meals in a municipally sanctioned facility, in compliance with official standards, then hawk her product.
“It was fun. I liked that people wanted to buy food from me, from strangers to friends.” She also didn’t mind making a living without having to look over her shoulder. Things have turned out well. Indeed, Tha BagLady’s Kitchen is coming to the Twin Cities, where the former St. Paulite grew up.
“I moved to St. Cloud because my mom got a job offer at the St. Cloud Hospital. I’m due to move to St. Paul on March 15 of 2017. I will be living in a St. Paul suburb area, but the commercial kitchen I plan to rent will be on the South Side of Minneapolis, [opening] in May.”
Diyon Lee sums up, “I look forward to coming home.”
During this current period of transition, Tha BagLady’s Kitchen confines operation to catering. Clients can book services via BagLadysKitchen@gmail.com or by telephone at 320-282-2199, allowing 24 hours for response and invoicing. Learn more at www.facebook.com/BagLadysKitchen.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.