People most often think of amazing food when they think about Mildred “Mama Dip” Council — that succulent fried chicken and those tender biscuits.
Council’s skills as a business person have been less recognized, and how she passed down that drive to succeed to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — especially to the women of her family.
A number of Council’s descendants have chosen to pursue their own careers in the food world, despite the knowledge of how difficult it is to make it in the food business, the long hours and hard work involved.
But that's how Mildred Council would want it. Council, the founder and cook of Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, died May 20 at the age of 89.
Her legacy extends beyond the meals she created in the West Rosemary Street restaurant that, for so many people, is the mother church of Southern food. Current and future generations of relatives are doing their part to carry on the Council name in the culinary world.
Council had eight children: five daughters and three sons. Spring Council, one of her daughters, has helped run the restaurant, along with her sisters Sandra and Annette. Joe, one of the sons, does meat prep, Spring Council says. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren spend time serving and prepping.
They say they learned everything they need to know from Council.
They spoke to The News & Observer this spring, before their matriarch's unexpected death, but their pride in inheriting Mama Dip's gifts was clear.
"We learned commitment from Mama," Spring Council says. “For one thing, you don’t quit on what you’re doing. The motivation to help someone in need, we’ve been taught that since we were kids. She had eight kids and would take care of other people having a hard time.”
As for running a successful business, Spring Council learned that treating people right and giving them a chance were most important.
To express herself outside of the restaurant, she has a blog on entertaining, Collards and Caviar. She’s not the only blogger in the family. Mama Dip’s granddaughter Erika Council (William Council’s daughter) writes the Southern Souffle blog and cooks biscuits at dinners around Atlanta.
Spring’s daughter Tonya Council first experimented with baking cookies in the kitchen of Mama Dip’s and was inspired by Mama Dip’s dessert recipes. The first product in her Tonya’s Cookies line, Pecan Crisps, was her attempt to reproduce Mama Dip’s pecan pie in cookie form.
“I learned from her, always use the best ingredients you can get. Pay top dollar for your ingredients if you want it to be good,” Tonya Council says. “And don’t be afraid to go outside the box.”
In 2017, Tonya Council started a pop-up holiday store at Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall named Sweet Tea & Cornbread that focuses on food products made in North Carolina. The store signed a permanent lease this year.
In 2009, Annette Council started her own business: Sweet Neecy cake mixes. Like Mama Dip's, the business is named for her family nickname. She started out making old-fashioned Southern cakes at home and selling them, but as that workload increased, she decided to develop the mixes instead. Sweet Neecy offers four flavors: red velvet, chocolate, spice and original.
Mildred Council was an entrepreneur who opened her restaurant with $64. And she knew what she was doing when she brought her children and grandchildren into the kitchen of her restaurant and home.
"To my children: thank you for knowing that work is part of life's struggles," she wrote in the 2005 cookbook, "Mama Dip's Family Cookbook." "Thank you for teaching your children important life skills.
"To my grandchildren: remember all of the life and cooking skills that you learned and pass them on to my great-grandchildren."
Although Spring Council doesn’t believe her family is unusual, it’s hard to think of a situation where so many African-American women from one family have spread out into the food world. But her attitude may have come from her mother as well.
“It’s something we’ve grown up in and love to do. That’s what we do,” Spring Council says. “I can’t imagine ever closing Mama Dip’s. The thought just does not reach my mind.”
And as Mildred Council wrote in her book 13 years ago, that's how she always imagined it, too.
"The old people dream dreams and the young people see visions," she wrote. "I have lived the dream of building up Mama Dip's and I hope my children will find the vision of how to carry it on."