Chapel Hill Magazine
"[A] charming Tar Heel treasure."
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Mama Dip's Family Cookbook
"[A] charming Tar Heel treasure."
In my first book, Mama Dip's Kitchen, I talked about growing up on a farm in Chatham County, North Carolina, with my brothers and sisters. Farming wasn't called a career then, but we learned how to prepare the fields, plant, chop, pick, harvest, and cook the food that we grew. We milked the cows, fed the pigs and the chickens, and churned our own butter. We used a mule for help on the farm. Papa wouldn't let us have a horse because he said horses were too frisky for us.
After moving to Chapel Hill, I went to a beauty school in Durham. I never wanted to go to beauty school, but after my Papa begged me to go, I went. I lived with my grandmother while I was in school. What I really wanted to do was to cook because I loved to cook. My brother and sister were both cooking at the time, and I wanted to, also. So, my first job after I got out of beauty school was cooking for the Patterson family over on Wilson Court in Chapel Hill. Later, I cooked at the Carolina Coffee Shop and at various places around the University of North Carolina, including fraternity houses, and then I worked at Bill's Barbeque for 18 years.
I gave birth to my first child in 1949 and my last in 1957. I had become the mother of eight-five girls and three boys. (In the fifties, it wasn't unusual for people to have big families.) We had a hard time finding a house with three bedrooms. We finally moved into a house in the Northside community of Chapel Hill and lived there for nine years. We had a wood cookstove and wood heater. My house was no different from those of most of the other families we knew. The children took turns sleeping on the couch and floor. In the winter months, it was a struggle to put food on the table and buy wood and coal for the stove to keep warm.
I was always the main breadwinner. When my husband got out of the army after World War II, the only job he could find was in the sawmill. When it rained or snowed, he couldn't work. So I worked two jobs and ironed clothes for students on campus. I also washed and curled hair for neighbors and friends (using what I learned at the beauty school).
Despite our struggles, there have been so many things to laugh about-like when a card table suddenly collapsed and spilled all of the food on the floor. One year my oldest daughter, Norma, collected money from everyone and bought my first watch from the pawnshop at Five Points in Durham. Later, the children began giving me different kinds of salt and pepper shakers. Another year I said I knew what gifts would be good for my birthday and Christmas gifts, and I picked a china pattern at the Belks department store and asked for pieces. After I got so many nice pieces, my granddaughter Stephanie and I decided to start a china club for those in the family with homes of their own. After Norma got her china I don't know what happened, but our china club was sort of forgotten. Maybe it was Mama Dip's that we all got wrapped up in.
In 1976 I was walking down the street when George Tate, who was the first black realtor in town, stopped me and asked me to take over a failing restaurant that was leasing some space in one of his buildings. My first reaction was "What? I have no money!" Well, I did have $64, so I thought it over and then used that money to buy the food for the first meal. I bought Pine Sol and wax to clean the old restaurant; bacon, eggs, grits, flour, bread, instant coffee, and Pet milk to cook breakfast; and Joy detergent to wash the dishes. After I made money from that first meal, I went right out and bought the ingredients for the second one, and we served dinner that evening. We've been open ever since.
In the beginning we had 18 seats, and then after nine months we moved things around to make room for 22 seats. After taking down a wall, we grew to 38 seats. Later we were able to rent the other side of the building, and we grew to 94 seats. The seating grew but the kitchen did not, which caused us to have a slowdown in service. We wrote out a different, new menu every day, and I realized that it was difficult to keep that up. I began to wonder about myself. The hours at the beginning were from seven A.M. to one A.M. At first, I did not realize how many hours I was working, but then I had never worked only one job at a time. Later, we changed the hours to eight A.M. to ten P.M. and also fixed a standard menu. Life settled down, and in 1997, I began to think about building a new, bigger building across the way at 408 West Rosemary Street. I started the process of buying the land and building a new restaurant with a parking lot. Around the same time, many of my customers and my friends, including Alice Welch and Bill Neal, were encouraging me to publish my recipes. So I began to write a cookbook.
In the early part of 1998, the magazine Southern Living wrote an article about my restaurant and me. It was published on Memorial Day weekend, May 31, 1998, and it drew a huge crowd to the restaurant. We could barely feed all the people who came to Mama Dip's Kitchen that weekend. We closed at 11 P.M. and got most people served by 1 A.M. People also tasted the Mama Dip's prepared food we had for sale, and they wanted to know all about my jellies and about my garden too, which was mentioned in Southern Living.
Around Thanksgiving time of that same year, ABC's Good Morning America called and talked to my daughter Elaine about my appearing on their show. She was so excited that she told one of my other daughters, Annette, who suggested that she tell them yes for me. However, when I heard about all this, I said I didn't really want to go to New York for Thanksgiving. My kids said, "Mama, you have to do it!" but I told ABC I didn't want to come. So ABC said they would come to Chapel Hill instead and set up a feature on my cooking right on the UNC campus.
When word got out about this, a chef at a local Chapel Hill restaurant called to ask me if I was looking for a food stylist. I answered, "No, I have never heard of a 'food stylist.'" He was pleased to let me know that he was one. I really didn't know what to say but told him, "Maybe Good Morning America is looking for someone, but not me, sir." After I hung up the phone, I was so puzzled. I began to think, "What would they do to style collards, potatoes, cornbread and other country food?" Maybe he was kidding me. I thought that hair and clothes probably needed a stylist, but not food. I later learned that there really is such a person as a food stylist.
The news got around somehow that I needed a food stylist. A woman called from Raleigh, introduced herself as a food stylist, and said she would like to come to Chapel Hill to meet me. I said OK and waited to see what she wanted from me.
When the food stylist arrived at Mama Dip's, she said she would be happy to work with me and with the food for ABC's show. We talked about the food that I would prepare and about exactly where and when the taping would take place on the UNC campus. She had some pretty bowls and baking dishes for us to use. Along with the pecan pie, I was to have some fried chicken, ham, collards, yams, cornbread, and coconut cake already made. ABC asked me to make a pecan pie during the taping of the show with Spencer Christian. It was truly an experience having Mr. Christian help me stir! It was also great fun to be on TV so early in the morning.
We all had a good time on UNC's campus with Spencer Christian and the ABC Good Morning America staff, as well as the students on campus who got up early in the morning to be part of the show. We could feel the dew on our feet as we walked on the grass, and my whole body got chilled, but the thrill of being there with Spencer Christian and ABC kept me warm. The food stylist made the food look like a picture in a book. I loved it. I was really worried about how my pecan pie would come out. It turned out to be really great.
On February 1, 1999, we moved into our new location across West Rosemary Street from the old restaurant, where we had been for 23 years, and then in the fall of that year Mama Dip's Kitchen was published. The past five years since then have been more than I could ever have imagined. Now, looking back, I wonder how I made it through the first years, and I realize that Mama Dip's Kitchen and Mildred "Mama Dip" Council grew up together. Now I am in my seventies, have my restaurant in a new building, am still making jellies, pickles, and chow-chow, and have written a second cookbook. I have never looked back until now.
I had never imagined that I would publish a book or that a national TV network would call and invite me on their show. I had always thought of myself as a simple country girl. What did I have? I was born on a farm in Chatham County and raised there by my Papa with my four sisters and two brothers. My Mama had passed on in 1931. She wanted her children to grow up together. So, with the oldest child about 12 and me about 2, Papa took on the challenge of raising us all together when the economy was at its lowest point-the Great Depression. He was a great Papa-a steward, cook, teacher, farmer, and motivator for all of us! He taught us life skills.
Growing up on the farm, we learned to plant, chop, pick, shell, can, fish, and hunt-and to cook all of the things we grew and caught. My sisters and brothers and I found joy in so many things. For fun we jumped rope and played jack rocks, baseball, and learning games. We also always challenged each other-who could jump rope the longest or hit the ball the farthest or pick more cotton. We always wanted to talk about what we accomplished at the supper table.
Farm life was all about community. Farming friends and relatives shared the same concerns and values-working hard together, going to school and to church, and helping each other when needed. We shared each other's struggles and were told stories about challenges and how to overcome them. We went to school, but college was never mentioned as an option for us at that time. However, people would tell me how my mother had gone away to college to learn to be a teacher and that when she came back she wore these pretty blouses and skirts. That was quite unusual in those days!
Every year for many years, Papa planted nine acres of cotton in long rows up and down hills on a tenant farm. When I was young I was given a short-handled hoe and shorter rows to work on at chopping time in the late spring. Late August, September, and October were cotton-picking time. The younger children would get a feed sack to fill with the cotton. Once we were eight years old, our sacks got bigger. At the beginning of picking season it was a lot of fun, but as the season wore on our backs became so tired. Papa kept our spirits up by bringing special goodies from town. When he sold some cotton, he would bring back cocoa for hot chocolate, peppermint and horehound sticks, and Coca-Cola for us to share.
I loved to plow the fields with our mule, Joe, who was very gentle. All we had to say was "giddiup Joe" and he would go. We would say "har" and Joe would go right and then "gee" to have him go left, and we said "woo" to make him stop. At the end of the day after plowing, I would look back at the field and think it really looked pretty. Plowing was much easier than chopping.
I plowed until the warplanes started zooming overhead during World War II. Strange trucks started passing by, too. Some people said that soldiers dressed in funny-looking uniforms were camping down on the nearby Haw River. One Sunday, Papa stood up in church and told the ladies of the congregation that they should be like "mother birds" and get up early to help boys who were going off to war. We knew little about the war-only that the authorities drafted men from ages 18 to 45. When our family's turn came, my brothers left home for the army and the navy, and they didn't come back home to the farm before Papa and I moved to Chapel Hill.
When the war was going on Uncle Sam took all our men. It seemed that no men were left, just snotty-nosed boys who wore "turn-over" shoes (shoes that were worn down on one side) and faded overalls that were patched on the butt and knees. Papa would go to other farms to get boys to help us on our farm. When they would come to our farm, they would just stare at me as if they were saying, "What are you doing out here?" I challenged all of them. "Are you going to work or just stand there and look at me, you lazy things?" I said.
I always had to stop playing and tie the mule to a tree or bush at the spring to get fresh water for the lazy boys. We didn't have a well and used a spring to get our water. I wanted to take the boys with me so I could push them onto the snake that always hung around the spring. When I saw the snake, I would chunk rocks and sticks until it slid away. The spring was down a little hill, and I would kneel on a piece of plank placed next to it to dip the water out into a bucket. Most of the time the bucket would be a gallon Jewell lard bucket. The dipper was a big gourd that Papa cut the top out of and then cleaned out the seeds. Later, Papa could afford a galvanized dipper.
Sometimes when we were in the fields, the galvanized dipper would spring a leak, and it would be a long time before Papa could get another one. We would just drink from the broken one, with water coming out of the hole. When aluminum dippers came into the store, Papa bought one, but the handle didn't stay on it long, and then we just started using a blue and white pot. I liked to drink the water and let it run down from my mouth onto my dress or onto the ground when it was hot in the field.
We planted cotton, corn, wheat, oats, rye, and sugarcane. We also had a garden in a special place near the house. We planted our early vegetables there-onions, cabbage, and English peas in January and February, Irish potatoes in late March, and string beans and field peas around Good Friday, the week before Easter. Sweet potatoes were the last thing that we planted in the spring. Papa and most all the farmers had a cedar post hanging high with gourds to scare the crows away from the gardens. Sometimes smaller birds would lay their eggs in the gourds in the springtime.
At the house, our inside broom was made of wild straw that grew three feet tall in the fields. We had to wring off the roots. This means we would twist the straw from the roots, turning it until the roots broke off and we were left with a handful of straw. In the fall, after the frost, we would clean off the leaves left on the straw and wrap a twine string around the top of the broom to make a handle. It would be bushy, and we would cut off the tip to even it across. The brooms always stood beside the wood box or the fireplace. The yard broom was made of dogwood limbs or branches. The limbs would have to be cut off the tree and pulled straight. Four to five limbs would be tied together. One person would hold them together while the other would tie them. Sometimes we used corn shucks stuck in a piece of oak wood for our outside broom. Using a bracing bit, we made holes in the wood and pushed in the corn shucks. Our mop was made of burlap sacks tied around a hoe.
We had lye soap for washing, and we had something called "bluing" for rinsing our clothes. It made the water a pretty blue color. The biggest washtub was used for bathing on Saturday nights. We used sweet or Octagon soap for bathing, and we took turns in the washtub. After we were age ten or so we had to put the middle part of our body into the washtub first when getting in, then the rest would follow. For some reason the tub seemed smaller!
Papa built what was called a hothouse for raising chickens. Back then, many farmers talked about how much money they made raising and selling fryers. Our hothouse could hold 500 chicks. Papa would go somewhere in nearby Pittsboro and order baby chicks that were all the same color and size. When they came in, they were so pretty, chirping and eating. A lantern had to be put in the hothouse so that the chicks could eat any time during the day or night. We had to keep food and water in their trays all the time. The chickens grew fast. In three or four months they would weigh up to three pounds. Someone would come in a big truck with coops to take them away. We had to catch them by their legs and count them while we put them in the coop. Then the hothouse was cleaned out, new sawdust was added, and then here came more baby chicks. I liked it when we got food in exchange for the chickens. Other times we would exchange them for pretty socks printed with checks or flowers.
Excerpted from Mama Dip's Family Cookbook by Mildred Council Copyright © 2005 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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The recipes [in Mama Dip's Family Cookbook] trace the amazing arc of [Mildred Council's] life, from the Souse Meat of her farm childhood, the Fruit Jell-O Salad she cooked for the University of North Carolina fraternities, to the Family Christmas Greeting Tray made by her daughter Annette, and the Sweet Potato Biscuits she cooked with Sara Moulton on the Food Network. . . . Mama Dip's short lists of ingredients and straightforward directions make satisfying meals come together. . . . [Her] party foods, casseroles and baking are really extraordinary. . . . These recipes deserve to be cooked and enjoyed in all their glory.--Appetite for Books
[In Mama Dip's Family Cookbook] Council's wit and wisdom continue to shine through as she shares memories of her own life.--MetroMagazine
[A] charming Tar Heel treasure.--Our State
Celebrating the importance of family and community, Mama Dip's Family Cookbook puts the spirit of the holidays into words and on the table.--Chapel Hill Magazine
The recipes in Council's book are the kind that make [one] want to go straight to the kitchen and start cooking. . . . Mama Dip's Family Cookbook is . . . packed with wonderful recipes. [It is recommended] highly for that reason, as well as the story of Mildred Council's life and fame as a Southern cook.--Wilson Daily Times
A book so full of yummy that you're in danger of adding inches and pounds just holding it.--Blue Ridge Business Journal
Council is old school South, the way your grandma used to cook--fried chicken or pork chops and pots bubbling with pork-seasoned vegetables. She calls it 'country cooking.'--Raleigh News & Observer
Mildred Council is founder and cook of Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is well known and widely respected for her cooking, her charisma, and her longtime community service. In 2004, she was given the North Carolina Restaurant Association Neighbor Award for her involvement with Chapel Hill's annual Community Dinner. Her first book, Mama Dip's Kitchen, earned her thousands of new fans all over the country.
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So disappointed in Mama's second book. It seemed to be nothing but borrowed recipes, that weren't tested. If we want to eat junk food there is enough of that on the store shelves. She even repeated the history part from her first book. She's a great lady, but she should have stopped after her first book.