Mama Dip's KitchenBy Mildred Council
Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 22-24
For nearly twenty-five years, Mildred Council-better known as Mama Dip--has nourished folks in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her restaurant, Mama Dip's Kitchen, is a much-loved community institution that has gained loyal fans and customers from all walks of life, from New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne to former Tar Heel basketball player Michael Jordan. Her much anticipated cookbook, Mama Dip's Kitchen showcases the down-home, wholesome, everyday Southern cooking for which its namesake restaurant is celebrated. Southern Changes is pleased to offer the following excerpt from this new book.
I was born a colored 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 seventy 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.
I was called "Dip" by my brothers and sisters 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 [a family friend] 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, huffing peas, washing greens, and more. Farm fresh is the highlight of country dump cooking. If you buy food too far ahead, its 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. 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.
In 1945, when Papa made up his mind that we would move to Chapel Hill, I was really upset. When I had been to town with him before, I'd seen girls in bobby socks, pleated skirts, and sweaters with shiny combs and magnolias in their hair, and I just couldn't see myself sitting in a classroom with them. My Grandmother Martha, a midwife in Durham, came to visit us, and I cried about what was going to happen to us. She told Pap about a beauty school on Fayetteville Street in Durham that was good training work for girls. They accepted students with an eighth grade education, but I was already in the tenth grade. Nevertheless, Pap agreed it was a good idea, and I went to live with Grandmother Martha until Pap moved us into town in a one-horse wagon. When I saw the movie The Color Purple, it reminded me of our move from Chatham County into Chapel Hill.
I never wanted to go to beauty school. I wanted to cook and hear people talk about how good my food was, like they did at church when we had homecoming in August. Still, I went to beauty school and then to work at Friendly Beauty Parlor on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I worked there for a few months, though I never really liked it.
Times were very hard after the war for everyone. My husband Joe worked at the sawmill, like a lot of other men, but when it rained there was no work and no money. I began work in the dining hall on the University of North Carolina campus, preparing vegetables for the cooks and as a short order cook at the Carolina Coffee Shop, which is now one of the few restaurants in Chapel Hill that is older than mine.
When I began having my babies--our first child, Norma, was born in 1949--I could work only until they found out I was pregnant. Between then and 1957, all my other seven children (including twins in 1953) were born in between different jobs. The hardest time in my life was after the twins' birth, because both of them--and I--became sick. For almost a year, my right eye would not close, and people began to call me Mrs. Boe, for the man with a patch over his eye on the
Page 23Bohemian Beer label.
My cooking continued--at Kappa Sigma fraternity and at St. Anthony Hall, when Charles Kuralt was a student there, and for Professor Hugo Giduz and later his son Roland and his family. Joe's parents opened Bill's BarB-Q on Graham Street in Chapel Hill. It was a landmark during the integration era because it served lunches for jailed demonstrators. I worked there, too.
In 1957,1 began working with my mother-in-law in a tiny take-out restaurant business. Through this experience, I began sharpening my business skills.
In 1976, I was working at UNC Memorial Hospital when George Tate, who was the first black realtor in town, offered me the opportunity to take over a failing restaurant on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. I didn't even have the money to put anything down on the deal until my next paycheck. I had only $64 to buy enough food from a local grocer to make breakfast the first day that my restaurant opened. On a Saturday evening, around seven o'clock, some of my children and I went in and cleaned nearly all night getting ready for our first day.
Sunday morning I stopped by Fowler's Food Store on Franklin Street to shop for breakfast. I purchased bacon, sausage, eggs, grits, flour, coffee, sugar, salt, catsup, chickens, Crisco, cheese, cornmeal, and trash bags, spending almost all of my money and not realizing that I could not have changed a ten dollar bill if someone had given me one first thing that morning. I don't know how many times we ran out of eggs and bacon. The breakfast trade was good enough that I left for the grocery store to buy food to make lunch, and then I used the money from lunch to buy food for the evening dinner. At the end of the day, my profit counted out to $135, and I was in business! I named my restaurant Dip's Country Kitchen.
Since then, I have not looked back.
Preparing and eating different foods has been a mind and soul experience for me. Over the years I have observed that many important discussions take place and many important decisions get made at a table over a plate of food. All over the world, each country has its own cuisine, and whatever the agenda, food is always important. Whether it's at a picnic or a fancy dinner, food always brings joy to family, friends, and strangers. The best is sometimes the easiest to make. Southern cooking seems the simplest.
Mama Dip's Kitchen is published by the University of North Carolina Press and is available in bookstores; via the publisher's website at http://www.uncpress.unc.edu; or by calling 800848-6224. This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1999 by the University of North Carolina Press.