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Mama Dip's Kitchen
Blue Ridge Business Journal
Mama Dip [has the] ability to render great flavors from simple and good ingredients.
Old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking.
Black Issues Book Review
If we ever adopt the Japanese practice of designating and honoring Living National Treasures, Mama Dip will surely be one.
It's almost like standing at Grandma's stove, with her teaching enduring ways of cooking.
Raleigh News and Observer
I've been a fan of Dip's for years. Chapel Hill wouldn't be the Southern Part of Heaven without her.
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Mama Dip's Kitchen
By Mildred Council
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 1999 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionA Life of Cooking, 1938-1999
I was born a colored baby girl in Chatham County, North Carolina, to Ed Cotton and Effie Edwards Cotton; grew up a Negro in my youth; lived my adult life black; and am now a 69-year-old American. I have always known myself as Mildred Edna Cotton Council. The cultural names haven't changed my feelings of being an American citizen. I have experienced the Negro or black American cultural world in a tiny area of the United States of America. I grew up and lived in poverty most of my life without knowing it. My children, too, grew up in poverty never knowing that they were poor. Our house just leaked. No screen doors. An outdoor bathroom and little money.
Our family was happy to sit around the table at dinner time, eating, poking jokes, and having fun. It didn't matter if the dishes and the cups didn't match. (Sometimes just a pie pan would do.) Early childhood experience equipped me to raise my children to accept life by being happy, learning about life and its struggles and disappointments.
I was raised on a farm in Baldwin Township, Chatham County, where I started cooking at an early age. Before that, I could only pretend to cook and feed the dolls that I made out of bottles and wood moss with corn silk for their long hair. I would sing and shout to my dolls and feed them mud pies. Many years later, I changed the mud pie recipe to edible ingredients and created a new dessert for my restaurant. The coconut and nuts always remind me of the small rocks and sticks that would be in the dirt mixed with water that I served to my corn silk dolls. My dolls could never tell me how well I was doing for them, but I felt they were happy because the following year, when the corn came up and made silk, the bottle dolls would be where I had left them.
Then one morning in about 1938, when I would have been around nine, Papa said the words that made me so happy. As our whole family started out to the field that morning after breakfast for the plowing and planting, he looked at me and said, "You stay here and fix a little something to eat."
I was the youngest of seven children. My mother died at the early age of 34, when I was only 23 months old and my oldest sister Bernice was just 11. Papa didn't talk about Mama to us. The few words he said were that she went to God in heaven and that she wanted him to keep all of her children together, the boys too.
Until I started doing the cooking, it had been done by one of my older sisters or by Roland Norwood, a family friend who came to live with us and helped with the washing and chores. We lived in a two-story house with a long porch and a fireplace in the kitchen and a sitting room. The porch had a swing hung from the ceiling, and when we'd swing on it, it made a noise like a crane croaking. The sitting room had a big bed, standing tall with fresh wheat straw that was stuffed into a homemade cover, making a mattress that we called a bed tick. The cover was made from unbleached flour or chicken sacks sewed together with thread that had been carefully taken out of the top of the sacks and wound around a homemade spool to keep it from tangling. The upstairs was more like a loft. You could stand up only in the middle of it. The beds were placed so their heads were under the lowest part of the ceiling. Trunks where we stored the quilts stood in every corner. The dining room had a built-in pantry with a window front and two doors whose knobs for closing the pantry at the bottom had been homemade from thread spools carved into button shapes. The top shelves were filled with pretty glasses and plates and bowls.
We had a well in the yard that would sometimes go dry in the summer. Then we would use water out of the spring down the hill, or Papa would set big tin oil drums, some holding 100 gallons, and potbellied wine barrels on rocks at each corner of the house to catch all the rain possible for washing our clothes. When the water was low in the barrels, I learned how to take the gourd dipper, jump up, hang over with my belly button on the rim of the barrel, and dip out the water.
I was called "Dip" by my brothers and sisters from an early age because I was so tall (today, I'm six feet, one inch) and had such long arms that I could reach way down in the rain barrel to scoop up a big dipperful of water when the level was low. Filling up water buckets for the kitchen had its benefits, though, as it was on my trips in and out of the kitchen with water that I first learned to cook, watching how Roland or my older sisters made things with their "dump cooking" methods and making mental notes about how ingredients went together.
Dump cooking means no recipes, just measure by eye and feel and taste and testing. Cooking by feel and taste has been a heritage among black American women since slavery, and that's the way I learned to cook. When I talk about dump cooking I am thinking of fresh vegetables (planting and tending a vegetable patch and then cooking and canning its products has also been a tradition for black women), homegrown or from a farmers' market. I think of peeling potatoes, stringing beans, chopping onions, hulling peas, washing greens, and more. Farm fresh is the highlight of country dump cooking. If you buy food too far ahead, it's not fresh when you cook it. Some vegetables keep a long time when refrigerated, but remember, usually they have already been refrigerated before you buy them.
Fruit for cobblers or pies was picked by all the children. We would just taste the fruit for sweetness and add the amount of sugar that we felt was needed. For more sweet fruit and for country pie taste, a little salt was always added to mellow the sugar with the fruit.
Vegetables were a pan or basket full or a head or two of cabbage, ears of corn, a small bucket of potatoes, with a piece of meat for each person. Measuring cups were not found in our kitchen. I learned to pinch the salt or pour it in the palm of my hand. Then I would taste the juice from the pot like Roland did. Measuring by eye or feel, I still find that my hands serve well for this, and tasting gives your pot that personal touch. After I left home, I had no measuring cups or spoons in my kitchen (salt and pepper were used right out of the container) until my children began to cook. Even then, I encouraged them not to rely on measurements too much. I would tell them to try learning to pour salt or pepper into their hands and then dumping it into the pot.
When Papa said the wonderful words to me at age nine that I could have my "turn in the kitchen," I had already been dreaming about cooking, and I could hardly wait to tell my playmates across the meadow branch that I wouldn't have time to play hopscotch or jump rope anymore because I had to fix dinner. I felt grown. I wanted to tell someone right then, but I knew it would take me an hour to go across the meadow branch, so I just went to the woodpile and got chips and bark to start my fire in the wood cookstove.
The fire was hard to start, and I blew and blew on it until I was dizzy. I wanted to fix a big, good meal, but all we had was whippoorwill peas and ham bone. I took the ham bone out to the woodpile to cut it into pieces with an ax, just like Roland or Papa would do. That's when I heard the guinea hens cackling down behind the house. I was sure I'd be able to get some eggs. I was so excited I even took them out of the nest with my hands, against Papa's rules. He said the guineas would never lay in the nest again if you did that. I didn't care. I just wanted to make an egg custard pie with a crust rolled out with a glass and flavored with the scrapings from the whole nutmeg that the Watkins man sold on his travels from farm to farm. That day even my cornbread turned out good - not too much soda, just like Papa had said.
In looking back now, I guess life was not easy for our family. I didn't even realize I'd grown up in a single-parent household for many years. And I know Papa sometimes had a hard time making ends meet. One year right after the Depression, Papa could barely put food on the table after the boll weevils ate up most of his cotton crop. But he always started out each morning at breakfast with the blessing, "Thank you, Father, for the food that we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies. For Christ's sake. Amen."
Our day began as soon as the roosters crowed, about 5:00 a.m. We never needed an alarm clock. At an early age I could tell which rooster was crowing (the guineas would make the most noise in the winter). Papa would call us by name until we stirred. A fire had to be made, breakfast started, and the cows fed and milked while it was still dark. The lantern always hung at the back door for the early morning feedings. The white wash pan with a red rim sat on a little homemade table that Papa made with slabs from the sawmill and then covered with tin. The towel hung on a nail at the back door by the wash pan. It had been bleached almost white and then hemmed, but you could still read the name of what was sold in the sack. Roland or Papa would pour hot water from the kettle and dip cold water from the bucket to make it warm. We all washed our faces and hands in the same water, patting water all over our faces, and then we all dried ourselves with the same towel, picking out a dry spot, which was hard to do if you were the sixth or seventh to use the towel. Then it was breakfast and time to get ready for school or work.
The barn was across the road from the house. A big barn, it had two sections with a covered opening in the middle where the wagon sat and where the mules could be hitched and unhitched. In the winter, Papa would wrap our legs in burlap feed sacks and tie them on with brown twine like a small fuzzy rope that was bought for bundling the wheat, oats, and fodder. Fodder is the leaves and tops of corn plants that were fed to the cows and mules in the winter months when there was no grass or honeysuckle. When you got to the barn, stray cats would come around mousing and the dogs would come looking for a treat. You had to give them a little treat. I would take the cow's tit and squeeze milk into the cat's or dog's mouth. They would catch this good, warm milk. The cats would wipe their mouths with their paws and lick them clean. The dogs would sit and lift their ears and hold their heads to the side looking for more.
It was fun how they could really catch the string of milk. But Papa knew how much milk the cow would give, so you couldn't have too much fun. He would ask, "Did you drain that cow's tits?" (The cream seems to be at the end of the milking.) The answer would be "Yessir, Papa," and then Papa would say, "Now y'all know you gonna want to make snow cream and milk shakes."
Saturdays were always the day for cleaning house with homemade equipment, like a mop made of burlap sacks tied around a hoe, or washing and boiling clothes in a big black pot with homemade lye soap. Weekdays were the time for outdoor work on a big farm in Chatham County or for heading for school, all depending on what time of year it was. In the early spring, our work might be planting Irish potatoes. We would bring the potatoes saved from the year before out from under a pile of sawdust, tow sacks, and scrap tin, sprouting them in the light before cutting out the "eyes" and then planting them in a corner of the garden.
The walnut and hickory trees were part of the shade trees in the backyard. We would gather the smaller nuts from these trees and store them in the smokehouse. In the winter we would crack them and pick out the meat with a safety pin or small nail. When we sat by the fire or when the weather was bad, we would eat the nuts, and it was like eating hard candy.
In late summer - the dog days, we called them - our work might be thinning the long vines off the sweet potatoes. We thinned out the vines because Papa said "we would only have little, stringy potatoes" if we didn't. We fed the vines to the hogs. Spring and summer were canning and preserving time for the fruits and vegetables we grew, as well as for wild things like strawberries, dewberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and muscadine grapes.
Strawberries were the first fruit to come along in the spring. My Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim were the only people I knew who had a cultivated strawberry patch. We always just found them in the pine thickets and straw fields that were untended or unplowed. We would pinch off the whole stem and take them home and make jam or strawberry butter rolls (they would be called crepes now).
The dewberry was also an early berry that we picked in some areas every year. Papa said that the dew where they grew made them sweeter, and they were sweeter still since they were always picked in the morning. We got only one or two dewberry pies or cobblers every year.
Blackberries grew most everywhere, but the biggest and best were down in the meadow edge of the pasture where it stayed damp all the time, where the cows stood and chewed their cud under the trees. We picked pecks and pecks of berries, canning cases of them for winter pies and making jam and that famous blackberry wine that we all got a little sip of on Christmas morning at the breakfast table.
Asparagus also came in the early spring. The asparagus was reserved for the men who were the head of the household, as there were only a few of those funny looking sticks that grew together. Aunt Laura would mix them with garden peas and put in milk and butter and thicken them with flour paste. We could never have any. When we visited Aunt Laura and that dish was on the table, it would smell so good. I would pretend that I had a stomachache until everyone had finished eating so I could get the leftovers in that bowl.
In the fall, we would comb the woods for muscadine grapes, which grew wild on vines up in the trees. They too were preserved for the winter. We always cut off some of the vines to make jump ropes. Fall was also the time when there were field peas. No one was ever too young to pick cotton or dried peas. We put them in burlap sacks, then emptied them onto sheets and beat them with a wooden mallet until they were to be hulled. One of us would hold the peas up high and let them fall to another sheet, while the other one fanned them to blow out the small pieces of hull. The faster you fanned, the cleaner they got.
In August and September, apples had to be canned or else sliced and dried in the sun for making pies in the winter. Later, the corn had to be shelled and cut off the cob and measured in bushels to be ground at the mill for cornmeal. We grew a type of corn that we called Trucker's Flavor (though some people called it Trucker's Favorite), and if the season was right, we could have fresh corn on the cob by the Fourth of July. Cornbread was on the table at each meal, but it was cooked in different ways: dog bread, milk bread, pone bread, fried bread, molasses bread, and clabber bread, which has a sour taste. The dog bread was put on the table each morning six days a week, cooked in a round cast-iron pan and cut like a pie to serve each person at the table. It was the bread of family ties. It was made with meal and water, and the pan was sprinkled with cornmeal to brown the bread and keep it from sticking. Each person had a choice of molasses, honey, jelly, milk, or brown gravy to help carry it down before the biscuits. Our hound dogs, Leed and Raddler, would sometimes help out eating some of the dog bread when they wandered into the kitchen at breakfast time. You had to feed them carefully, though, or you would be told on by your brothers or sisters or threatened with having to do their every command.
In the winter, it was hog killing time. This was an occasion all by itself, but it was also the way we put food on the table for all three meals all through the year. Nothing was wasted. The hams went to the landlord, but the streaky meat and the bacon were cured and hung in the smokehouse. There was also tenderloin, back bones and spare ribs, chitlins, sausage, and souse meat (pickled parts of the pig).
We used the whole hog. Lard was made from the fat of the pigs. The fat would be cut into small pieces and cooked in a big black pot outside until it was brown and crispy and then strained with a homemade strainer made of screen wire on a pole. After they cooled, those pieces we called "cracklings" could be added to cornmeal. Even the hog's head was cut and salted down to be cured and cut into small pieces with the ax at the wood pile. The hog jowl was kept until New Year's Day for the special meal always prepared that day - hog jowl, greens, black-eyed peas, baked sweet potatoes, and crackling cornbread. The hog jowl was eaten to ward off evil spirits; the greens represented dollar bills for the New Year; and the black-eyed peas represented silver coins.
Excerpted from Mama Dip's Kitchen by Mildred Council Copyright © 1999 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
The recipes, honed by time, are simple and tasty. It's almost like standing at Grandma's stove, with her teaching enduring ways of cooking.Raleigh News & Observer
If we ever adopt the Japanese practice of designating and honoring Living National Treasures, Mama Dip will surely be one.MetroMagazine
I've never met Mama Dip, and I've never eaten her food, but I know I'd love her just from reading her book. Her chicken liver omelette and molasses bread make my mouth water, and her grape-lemon Kool-Aid is just like my Grandma's. Her reminiscences are as savory as her cooking. Next time I get to Chapel Hill, I'll try Mama Dip's restaurant. For now, I'll have to read and reread her book; it's living food history and a testimonial to the culinary ingenuity of African Americans. Don't miss Mama Dipshe spreads joy around like pumpkin seeds.Jessica B. Harris, author of The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent and The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking
Her cookbook would be prized by any of the thousands of people whose mouths water at the mention of her name.Taste-Full
Old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking. More than 250 recipes from chicken pie, country style pork chops, to fresh corn casserole.Black Issues Book Review
Mama Dip [has the] ability to render great flavors from simple and good ingredients.Southern Living
The legendary founder of Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, Mildred Council, is back with yet another of her anticipated written seminars on the fine art of Southern cooking: Mama Dip's Family Cookbook, a book so full of yummy that you're in danger of adding inches and pounds just holding it.Blue Ridge Business Journal
I've been a fan of Dip's for years. Chapel Hill wouldn't be the Southern Part of Heaven without her.Dean Smith
I'm a huge fan of Mama Dip's southern country cooking, and I'm thrilled that she's written a cookbook. She not only includes all her restaurant's signature dishes (not least of which is the world's best fried chicken) but also reminisces about her childhood. This warm and wonderful cookbook is bound to win Mama Dip thousands of new fans.Jean Anderson, author of The American Century Cookbook
Meet the Author
Mildred Council, founder and cook of Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is well known and widely respected for her cooking, her charisma, and her longtime community service.
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This book was a Christmas gift. I have prepared something out of the book almost everyday since then. My family has loved every recipe. The most requested repeats are Hobo Bread, Oven BBQ Chicken and Meatloaf.