Celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, Mama Dip’s Kitchen is a Chapel Hill institution and so is its founder, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, 87.
The granddaughter of a slave, Council cooked for others – in the Carolina dining hall, in fraternities, in the homes of faculty members, in the hospital and in restaurants – for decades before getting the opportunity to open her own place.
George Tate, the town’s first black real estate agent, approached her in 1976 to see if she would like to take over a failing restaurant on Rosemary Street, and she took the plunge. With only $40 for food and $24 for change, she bought food for breakfast, turned the morning’s profits into lunch and lunch into dinner. She made $135 that first day and hasn’t looked back since then.
Council has expanded from that small diner to a larger restaurant just down the street from her original location. She has written two cookbooks, appeared several times on national television, and sells her cooking mixes, sauces and salad dressing at retailers like Whole Foods and Weaver Street Market.
Council’s adult children manage the daily operations of the restaurant these days, but the elderly founder drops in from time to time. On one of those times late this summer, she rolled her wheelchair into the sunny dining room, her head a living replica of her product logo, but without the white chef’s toque. Instead, she sported a short gray cut, square glasses and a colorful cardigan to keep warm in the air-conditioned restaurant as she began to talk about her life.
Beauty shop dropout
Mildred Cotton Council grew up the baby in a Chatham County farm family of seven children, reared by her father after her mother passed away when Council was only 2. Her father taught all the children a valuable skill – how to cook.
One of her specialties was fried chicken, a Sunday dinner treat. “We’d chase down the chickens in the morning, pick them and put them in a bucket down in the well to keep them cold while we were at church. Then we’d cook them when we got home,” she said.
As she grew, she acquired the nickname Dip. She was tall with long arms, the family member always asked to lean into the rain barrel and dip the water up when it was too low for the others to reach.
Her first career choice was cosmetology, and she attended beauty school in Durham after completing the 10th grade. But only six months into her job at a Franklin Street beauty parlor, she knew it wasn’t for her. “Cooking was in my blood,” she said.
At one point, she said, she and all her siblings were working in restaurants in the block of Franklin Street between Columbia and Henderson streets.
“Where did I cook?” she repeats with a merry laugh. “If I was to count them, I would need y’all’s fingers and toes.”
One of those jobs was as the cook for the St. Anthony Hall fraternity in the 1950s. A frequent visitor to her kitchen was fraternity member and Wilmington native Charles Kuralt, who would go on to become an Emmy-award-winning television journalist.
“Charles Kuralt was my favorite,” Council recalled. He loved to ask her questions about Southern food in his already sonorous tones. “He had that deep voice. He was my afternoon person.”
Another was Bill’s Bar-B-Q, a restaurant operated by her in-laws. Every weekend, Council’s then-husband, Joe, would roast a pig for barbecue and Council would make fried chicken. She also worked at the Kappa Sigma fraternity, the Carolina Coffee Shop and the Carolina Inn.
As she worked, she also became a mother to eight children. Because of the customs of the times, Council had to leave her job each time a pregnancy began to show. But since she could cook, she always was able to get another job.
She was working at UNC Memorial Hospital when she got the chance to start her own restaurant.
Country cooking before it was cool
Her concept was simple – home cooking. Her fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread comforted working-class families and homesick college students alike.
“I fix things the way that they’re used to it,” she said. “I fix it the way their mama made or their grandmama made it.”
Long before the current farm-to-table trend, Council was buying her fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs from farmers in Chatham and Orange counties, peeling the potatoes and stringing the beans in her kitchen.
In addition to providing jobs for all her children and countless college students as wait staff, Council has given steady employment – and a second chance – to prison inmates through work release, to former prisoners and to substance abusers in recovery.
Her restaurant has also been a valuable part of Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood, historically home to many of the University’s black employees, and a favorite place to eat for many Tar Heel students.
Two of the most famous of those, 1980s basketball greats Michael Jordan and James Worthy, get the credit for the name “Mama Dip.” According to daughter Spring Council, the two players heard the Council children working in Dip’s Country Kitchen calling the head cook “Mama,” so they started to call her “Mama Dip.” The name stuck.
The most recent of the many honors Council has received for public service and entrepreneurship is the inaugural POWER award from EmPOWERment Inc., a group promoting affordable housing and economic development in Chapel Hill’s most needy neighborhoods.
Council has served on the board of Head Start and other service organizations, and her restaurant has participated in an annual community dinner to share food, music and dance from many cultures.
Although no one knows better than Council the importance of food, she also has the utmost respect for education, especially as a longtime citizen of this college town.
“Food is for the body. It doesn’t help the mind,” she said in a 1994 interview done for the University’s Southern Oral History Program. “You need words for the mind.”