Mildred Council, the Chapel Hill culinary matriarch known by her nickname Mama Dip, died Sunday, leaving a legacy that extends well beyond her food.
Council was the founder and cook of Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, building up a restaurant that during four decades became known for its traditional Southern cooking, its owner's charm as well as service to the community.
Council died Sunday night at UNC Hospitals, her family said. She had dealt with health problems in recent months, but her death was unexpected, her family said. She was 89, having just celebrated her birthday last month.
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She became an icon of Southern cooking, attracting regional and national attention to her restaurant on West Rosemary Street, and authored two cookbooks filled with stories of her humble beginnings and classic recipes.
"My mama cooked really traditional Southern food that really connected with people," Spring Council, one of her daughters, said Monday. "It took them back to their mother's and grandmother's kitchens. She wanted to open a restaurant because she loved to cook. The emotion and memory that food sends out to people is a big deal. Her food stirred up memories."
She was invited to the White House by President George W. Bush, exchanged letters with President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, appeared on national television and in numerous national publications that brought more visitors to her restaurant. She received numerous state and local honors, including the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina's highest civilian award, in 2000.
Council was born April 11, 1929 and learned to cook on her family's Chatham County farm, starting when she was 9. There, she earned her nickname, "Dip," which was coined by her six siblings due to her tall figure and long arms dipping water from rain barrels when the family's well ran low.
Before opening Mama Dip's, Mildred Council fried chicken at Bill's Bar-B-Q in Chapel Hill, a restaurant owned by her father-in-law. She also spent time working at the Carolina Coffee Shop and the Carolina Inn.
She opened Mama Dip's in 1976 at 405 W. Rosemary St., in a much smaller and quieter Chapel Hill, knowing she'd cook breakfast. But dinner was no guarantee. With $64, she bought ingredients and cleaning supplies to make breakfast, according to her second book, "Mama Dip's Family Cookbook." By lunchtime she had enough money to buy ingredients for dinner, so she cooked her second meal and never looked back.
From the start, her food resonated with diners, bringing back memories of the Southern kitchens they knew growing up. It stands today as one of the landmarks of the Triangle dining community and continues to attract national attention while still resonating with local diners and tourists alike.
Former New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne visited Chapel Hill in 1985, writing about other classic Chapel Hill dining spots Crook's Corner, Fearrington House and La Residence, but most intimately about Council's cooking. At what was then called Dip's, Claiborne dined on chitterlings, black-eyed peas and chicken livers, which he called among the tastiest he'd ever had.
Lane Council, another daughter, waited on him and questioned his order, seeing a white man who she thought didn't know he had ordered boiled and fried pig intestines, Claiborne wrote.
"Then I asked for vinegar and Tabasco on the side, proof of my origins," Claiborne, a native Mississippian, wrote.
Among those who called her Mama Dip were Carolina basketball greats Michael Jordan, who preferred the barbecue, and James Worthy, who preferred the fried chicken, Spring Council said.
Feeding a community
Two decades ago, she helped start the Community Dinner in Chapel Hill, a large annual gathering that brings together people from all incomes, ethnic backgrounds and abilities to share a meal. The first Community Dinner was organized to celebrate Black History Month, Nerys Levy said. Later, Mildred Council pushed for the dinner to celebrate Orange County's cultural diversity.
"She said, 'Why celebrate just Black History Month? Our community is much more culturally diverse,'" Levy said Monday.
The next 20 dinners featured foods from many different cultures, all prepared in the Mama Dip's kitchen.
Spring Council said her mother's community activism came from her father, who raised seven kids as a single parent in the Great Depression when his wife – Mama Dip's mother – died.
"It took a community to come together for them," Spring Council said. "She saw what the community did for her family and always taught us, when you see someone down, don't talk about them, don't look the other way, make sure you help them out and give them a hand."
Even before running a restaurant, Mildred Council used food to help others. Spring Council said when she was a kid, she remembered her mother making meals and taking them to the homes of poorer families who didn't have stoves.
Later when Mama Dip's was established and successful, Council served on the Orange County Prison Board, her daughter said, and hired prisoners and those struggling with substance abuse once they got out of jail.
"Her main thing was helping people who were down," Spring Council said.
A pillar of tradition
Council, 6-foot-1, is a pillar within the Southern tradition of African-American home cooks whose food defines the regional cuisine, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American Studies at UNC, author and former board president of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
She calls Council a visionary. Southern food has gained recognition and respect in recent years, and Ferris puts Council at the forefront of that movement.
"She's an early part of that 'rise movement,'" Ferris said, referencing the theme at this year's James Beard Foundation Awards. "There's been an explosion of recognition and elevation of African-American voices, creativity and intellect."
Council was modest when she said she wasn't a chef, just a cook, she often said. But through her work giving former inmates jobs when they left prison and the Community Dinner, Ferris said Mama Dip used food to help ease injustice.
"She was a food activist," Ferris said. "She cared about food justice. She didn't use terms like that, she just talked about feeding people and loving people and doing the right thing."
Council raised eight children, who all worked in Mama Dip's at some point and now run it as their own.
When Mama Dip's moved across the street in 1999 from its original location to 408 W. Rosemary St., Levy helped the Councils decorate the new dining room with family photographs. During the work, she found cardboard boxes filled with honors from local governments and organizations that were kept in a room rather than out on display.
"She's a role model," Levy said. "She's been celebrated so many times with so many accolades. This kind of fame never got to her. The most important thing to her were the local kids. Fame was the last thing she sought, and she got it. The most important thing we still haven't got, which is equality for every individual under the law. We'll work to achieve this in her memory. It was an honor knowing her."
Arrangements are being handled by Knotts Funeral Home. Visitation will be May 26 from 1 to 7 p.m. at Knotts Funeral Home, 113 N. Graham St., Chapel Hill. A funeral service will be 3 p.m. Sunday at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, 260 Erwin Road, Chapel Hill.
In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to the Triangle Community Foundation's Mama Dip Share the Love Fund. Donations can be made online or to Mama Dip's Share The Love Fund c/o Triangle Community Foundation, P.O. Box 12729, Durham, NC 27709.