By Stephen Satterfield | Original photograph Chuck Liddy for The News & Observer, via Associated Press/ChefsFeed

Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, one of the South’s greatest keepers and ambassadors of Southern cuisine, died on May 20th in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the age of 89.

For more than 40 years, Council’s nickname has adorned a cauldron-shaped sign on the front lawn of an 18-seat temple of Southern home cooking. Her legacy extended to multiple cookbooks, lines of homemade barbecue sauces, and cornbread mixes, and for modern cooks, she was synonymous with a quality and heart increasingly lost to the past.

The sign may read “Traditional Country Cooking” in neat white lettering, but Mama Dip's is much more than that. It represents one woman’s determination to elevate her family’s and her community’s existence, and the physical manifestation of the beliefs of a woman who passed out hot meals to protestors during the Civil Rights movement. It remains a revered staple of the Chapel Hill community, especially loved by students at the University of North Carolina, where she cooked in the dining halls prior to opening her restaurant. Michael Jordan and James Worthy helped spread the word about Mama Dip’s as basketball stars at the school in the 80s—their adoration of her biscuits, hush puppies, and fried tomatoes helping create a buzz that eventually garnered the attention of President George W. Bush, who invited her to the White House, and President Barack Obama, with whom she became pen pals.

She was born in rural North Carolina’s Chatham County in 1929, and became known as “Dip” as a child. By the age of six, her long arms, already stretching into what became a 6’2” frame, could fetch water from a deep well on sharecropper land for her family to cook and wash with. 

Her world was deeply-segregated, the nation battered by the second World War and bedeviled by the unending remnants of slavery, which her grandfather had been born into. Council has long provided comfort and hope by way of food: at the age of nine, she began cooking for her family after the death of her mother. Her gifts in the kitchen would later extend to feeding an overlooked community, and evolve into a distinctive sort of Carolina plains cuisine, with everything fresh and in season.

“She was one of greatest culinary representatives North Carolina ever produced and one of the finest women in business the New South has ever known,” says culinary historian and James Beard Award-winning author Michael Twitty. “She was larger than life, beautiful, and incredibly brave. Meeting her was one of the joys of my life. One taste of her food and one kiss on my cheek and I felt like family.”

Nancie McDermott, prolific cookbook author, North Carolina native and UNC alumni, remembers her first encounter at Mama Dip’s. “I remember having a bite of the mashed potatoes and thinking it was just like my grandmother’s,” she says. “It was lumpy, creamy and just enough butter, salt and pepper. It tasted in the best possible way like home food.”

For centuries, women like Council honed the taste of the South, cooking for affluent white families. Prospects for a black woman in the South at that time were limited, with cooking being the option with the longest precedence. And for years, this was the work of Mrs. Council: cooking in countless cafes, for UNC fraternities, sororities, and private homes in Chapel Hill until one fortuitous day, George Tate, Chapel Hill’s only black real estate agent at the time, urged her to take over a failing diner.  

She was skeptical, but he insisted. At the end of the first day of service in November of 1976, her daughter Norma, who ran the till that day, counted a final tally of $135. Just like that, she’d gone from making $75 every two weeks to owning her own business.

Adjacent to Mama Dip’s was Cat’s Cradle, a legendary music venue co-founded in the 70s by Bill Smith—now a beloved Chapel Hill chef and proprietor of Crook’s Corner. Smith spent many nights hunched over plates of food at Mama Dip’s: fried chicken and chicken and dumplings and collards and pinto beans and cornbread. “It was familiar food in a cordial place to go and affordable,” he says. “People were glad she was there.”

Joe Randall, longtime chef and culinary educator in Savannah, Georgia, has a history of kinship with Council’s fellow black Southern food luminaries like Edna Lewis and Leah Chase. “Dip’s legacy was about helping people understand that while soul food is Southern food, it wasn’t the totality of it,” he explains. “She was a remarkable woman who did what black people do, which is: take a little and turn it into something.”

Council was a chosen star among a constellation of countless anonymous black women who did not have the same opportunities as she, and she did not squander that privilege. Many of Council’s eight children and 18 grandchildren still work in the food business: her granddaughter Erika Council is an acclaimed cook who runs a popular biscuit pop-up and writes the blog Southern Souffle, and some still oversee the day-to-day of Mama Dip’s. The Councils serve as a pillar in the larger community, organizing dinners for local kids facing food insecurity and employing formerly incarcerated people.

About the latter, Smith says he once asked Mama Dip if that always worked out. “A lot of times it doesn’t,” she admitted. “But we should do it anyway.”

It was that quiet, unwavering commitment to her community that fueled her lifelong civic involvement—and made her food an instrumental piece in creating prosperity for generations.

Rest in power, Mama Dip.

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