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mama dip with grandchildren
Mama Dip with her grandchildren Evan and Tonya Council. Both work at the restaurant full-time, alongside Mama Dip's son Joe and daughters Elaine, Annette and Spring.
Originally published September/October 2013
The white man who poked his head in the door of Dip’s Country Kitchen on a November Sunday morning back in 1976 couldn’t have known he’d be the first of thousands and thousands, the first to discover what Mildred “Mama Dip” Council could do on her own.
Mama Dip and a handful of her eight children had spent the night before cleaning and scrubbing the little place on Rosemary Street, placing the mismatched second-hand tables and chairs just so.
The four-eye stove in the back was hardly commercial grade. And Mama Dip, with only $64 to her name, barely had enough breakfast food to be ready for that Sunday morning, let alone rent money to pay her landlord.
And yet, the answer to the man’s question was, “Yes, come on in. How you doin’?” Just the way folks back in Chatham County, where Dip grew up on a small farm, would have greeted a visitor, with a smile and the spirit of “we’ll feed ya with what we got.”
Mama Dip never strayed far from her farm girl roots, geographically or otherwise.
At 84, she still speaks in that high-pitched country cadence that charms anyone she meets, that has – along with her cooking, of course – made her famous, revered, legendary.
“I don’t even think about it,” Mama Dip deflects during a recent interview. “Not unless someone asks me about it.”
Well, we asked, and found this Chapel Hill icon to be characteristically humble, nostalgic for the ways of the past and, yes, still cooking.
On the Farm
Mama Dip was born in 1929 on a farm near the Baldwin Township, the baby of seven. Her mother, Effie, died in 1931, so her father, Ed, was left to raise the children on his own.
He grew tobacco and cotton on five acres and later erected a chicken coop that would prove the most lucrative.
All the children learned to cook early.
“That was all there was to do: farm work and cook,” she says.
Though Dip’s is lauded for rib-sticking country favorites, the restaurant’s offerings would be considered opulent by the standards of Depression-era rural Chatham County.
Fatback, bacon and molasses for breakfast. Home-grown vegetables – cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, potatoes – for lunch.
Then cornbread, sometimes with a stew or some such, for supper.
On Sundays, the country tradition was to fry a chicken, and Mama Dip learned how to do this right, a skill that would come in handy as she worked her way from modest beginnings to a small culinary empire.
Ed made enough from farming, particularly from those chickens, to move to Sunset, now known as Northside, in Chapel Hill in 1945.
He continued to do a little backyard farming, and he even brought the family mule, Joe, with him to plow the fields of his neighbors.
Ed wanted his daughter to find a trade, so she went to DeShazor’s Beauty College in Durham and got her degree.
She got a job at a salon on Franklin Street, where she met Mrs. Wilson, who offered her a job as a cook and housekeeper that paid better. She took it, but continued a little beauty business out of her home in the evenings for her friends and neighbors.
“I fixed hair for a right good while, ’til I started having my babies,” Mama Dip says.
But cooking was her calling.
Mama Dip worked in the Wilsons’ and other homes, restaurants – including Carolina Coffee Shop – and fraternity houses.
The family of her husband, Joe, ran Bill’s Bar B Q where the Greenbridge condominiums now stand. She helped her mother-in-law open a little take-out “chicken box” in 1957.
“They didn’t know too much about chicken,” she says.
“Fried chicken wasn’t a city thing, but it was a country thing. After you got home from church on Sunday, you cooked chicken. You didn’t hardly cook chicken no other time. So I went there and started frying the chicken, making the barbecue sauce, the kind of things we done in the country.”
Over the years, her marriage began to fall apart. She says her husband was a bit shiftless, something she blames on the fact he was an only child.
She finally divorced him in 1974. So there she was, on her own in her 40s, trying to figure out what to do next.
She took business classes offered at UNC, which got her thinking about opening her own little place.
George Tate had just lost a tenant in one of his properties on Rosemary Street. He was a fan of Bill’s and of Mama Dip, so he offered her the space.
“I argued with Mr. Tate for two weeks: ‘I can’t do it,’” Mama Dip says. “He said, ‘Whenever you have the money to pay some rent, you pay me.’”
Which brings us to that famous moment in 1976, with Mama Dip and the baby of her brood, Spring Council, running the restaurant and hoping enough customers would roll through that they could go to Fowler’s Grocery Store down the block and buy stuff for lunch.
She had a bag of grits, eggs, bacon and toast when that first customer walked in.
“If they had given me a $5 bill that day I couldn’t have changed it,” Mama Dip says.
“But it just went from there.”
The breakfast haul was enough to go pick up pork chops, a couple of chickens, vegetables and other lunch staples.
By the end of the day, there was $135 in the till.
“Coming up on the farm, you just don’t expect too much,” Mama Dip says. “What happens when you think that you’re going to make some money is it rains or whatever, something comes up like that. I saw [that first day’s take] and I said, ‘Oh my gracious.’”
Spring adds, “We didn’t have a business plan or expectations. We just came in to make food, because my mama loved to cook.”
Mama Dip has never had a down year in her nearly four decades in business. It helped that all those years toiling away in supposed anonymity actually had given her a built-in customer base.
“She was famous as being a great cook because she had cooked around town for people, at people’s houses,” says Moreton Neal, the co-founder of La Residence who is now an accomplished food writer. “People were really happy for her. They really liked her. And they flocked to her restaurant.”
Things rolled along nicely from there. But it cranked up a notch in the early ‘80s thanks to Bill Neal, founder of Crook’s Corner and Moreton’s former husband, and The New York Times.
Craig Claiborne, the famous Times food critic, was in town, getting Bill to show him around for a piece about barbecue places.
Moreton says the Mississippi native asked Bill for other Southern cooking places to try. They went to Dip’s.
“He tried everything, and he loved everything,” Moreton says. “Then he ordered chitlins. Mama Dip came from the back and said, ‘Mr. Claiborne, are you sure you want chitlins?’ He told her he was from Mississippi and that, yes, he did want chitlins. He said hers were the best he’d ever had. He wrote her up and mentioned the chitlins. So now people from New York and everywhere knew about Mama Dip’s chitlins.”
Calls from other media started to trickle in, then turned into a stream.
Good Morning America wanted to fly her up to do a live segment.
“I had heard so much talk about New York, and how fast they walk and how tall the buildings were and I said, ‘I ain’t going to no New York,’” Mama Dip says.
So they came to her and did a spot on campus. More press followed.
When her first cookbook, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, came out in 1999, she was coaxed into appearing on the Home Shopping Network to promote it. The entire edition sold out almost immediately.
Moreton credits Mama Dip’s appeal to her lack of pretension, either in person or in her cooking.
“She’s the real thing,” Moreton says. “She’s an authentic, old-timey Southern cook who makes the traditional kind of country food that most people grew up on, or at least their grandmothers cooked. She’s not trying to be anything she isn’t. She’s not trying to reinvent recipes. It just makes people of a certain age remember what they ate growing up. I mean, some of her recipes use Campbell’s soup as the sauce base.”
Mama Dip sits at a table in the back of the large restaurant she moved into across the street from the original place in 1999, her walker at her side.
She still comes in most days from her home in Chatham County, to work some in the kitchen and check on her staff.
It’s a family affair, with daughters Elaine, Annette and Spring and son Joe working full-time, along with granddaughter Tonya Council and grandnephew Evan.
Mama Dip also has tried to provide employment over the years to young people who may need a steer in the right direction. She worries about this generation, bemoaning the lack of family structure, the breakdown of community support systems and what she sees as a waning work ethic.
“One of the things that bothers me the most, and I wrote President Obama in ‘08 and ‘09 about this, is the single parents,” she says. “I think it has done a lot of damage. It doesn’t make the children feel like everybody’s blood is red.”
I point out that she was raised by a single parent. She counters that there was an entire community network that supported her dad in raising her and her siblings. That seems to be lacking now. “They haven’t experienced love, you know?”
Spring says her mom has always had a big heart, regularly cooking meals for neighbors in need – even taking into account whether or not they had a stove or refrigerator – and pushing her children to visit folks in the nursing home.
It’s why Tonya, Spring’s daughter, says, “You learn something every day from her. People ask me what college I went to. I always say, the University of Mama Dip.”
Perhaps the answer to Mama Dip’s worries is for other young people to enroll, to think about the motherless girl on the farm, with arms long enough to “dip” to the bottom of the cauldron used to wash clothes. Think about the value of hard work, the importance of caring about other people.
You do that, though, and you might wind up in the spotlight like Mama Dip, who never in a million years thought she’d be a celebrity.
“Maybe if I had finished school and went to college, I would look for [fame],” she says. “But I haven’t really paid much attention to it. Sometimes I fear it. Sometimes I really fear it. I wasn’t raised like this.” CHM