Virginia Willis never met Mildred "Mama Dip" Council, but like others in the culinary world, deeply mourns the loss of the Chapel Hill icon.
Council, the owner of Mama Dip's Kitchen, author of two cookbooks and community leader, died May 20 at the age of 89.
Willis is the author of several cookbooks, including the new "Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South," and will be in the Triangle soon for book-related events.
Willis made an unexpected connection to the towering cook — a legend in country-style Southern cooking — a few years ago. She bumped into one of Council's granddaughters, Erika Council, at a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Birmingham, Ala.
"We literally met in the bathroom," Willis says. "She came up to me and said, 'My grandma told me, 'Virginia Willis knows what she's talking about.' I was blown away. I was star struck that she even knew who I was."
Willis and Erika Council have since become close friends and professional colleagues; Willis' partner, culinary talent agent Lisa Ekus, represents Council.
Willis describes herself as "a huge supporter" of the work Council is trying to do as an African-American woman advocating for racial justice while bringing together diverse people who share a love of Southern comfort food. It's a mission clearly inspired by her grandmother's lifelong commitment to offering kindness and meals to sustain her own community.
"Erika is quite talented as a cook and an entrepreneur," Willis says. "She channels Mama Dip in many ways."
Erika Council was among the many family members who gathered Sunday afternoon for an inspiring celebration of her grandmother's life at Bible Church in Chapel Hill. Like her, many have put in time serving guests, wiping down tables and prepping food at the 42-year-old institution on Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill.
"A lot of restaurants don't last three years, but they are on their third generation of family working there," says Willis, who hopes to enjoy a meal at Mama Dip's and meet other members of the family when she is in the Triangle. "I have nothing but respect for Mrs. Council and all she accomplished. I'll be forever awed that she knew who I was and thought I was doing food right."
Virginia Willis will be at the following events to talk about her new book, "Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South."
▪ June 9, 4 p.m.: Class at Southern Season Cooking School ($55, registration required), Chapel Hill
▪ June 10, 2 p.m.: Free reading and book signing event at McIntyre's Books at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
▪ June 11, noon to 1 p.m.: Flyleaf Books will present a free book signing and recipe sampling next door at Root Cellar Cafe, Chapel Hill
▪ June 11, 4:30 p.m.: Live stream cook-along via Facebook's Cook the Book with Denise and Jenni, led by Garner recipe developer and teacher Jenni Field (follow the page in advance to watch and comment)
▪ June 12, 6:15 to 8 p.m.: Free meet-and-greet with recipe demo and book signing at Whisk, Cary
▪ June 13, 7 p.m.: Free reading, recipe demo and book signing event at Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh