There are a few people in the world who make everyone around them better. Mildred Council, affectionately called Mama Dip, was such a person.
If you are a child, grandchild, great-grandchild, great-great-grandchild, niece, nephew, or neighbor of hers, you know that.
If you’ve eaten at Mama Dip’s, you know that because you can taste the love and care that went into every bite.
If you’re one of the thousands of travelers who were drawn to Chapel Hill to have a meal at Mama Dip’s, you know that.
If you have benefited from her outspoken support of affordable housing and economic development in needy neighborhoods, you know that.
If you are a food critic whose rave review of Mama Dip’s cooking was easier to write than your name, you know that.
If you are one of the many that had a brush with the law who Mama Dip hired for a chance at a new start, you know that.
If you were a student at UNC whose school years were elevated by food like you grew up on, you know that.
If you are a person of modest means who found success emulating the example of a 60-ish African American who became a self-made, world-famous food luminary, you know that.
If you’re a timid cook who discovered the joy of creative cooking through one of her cookbooks, you know that.
Mama Dip always had a smile and a plate of love.
Mama Dip was a role model and a joyous force who changed lives for the better.
One who made food that made people smile.
Because that is what made her smile.
Mama Dip’s Kitchen is a Chapel Hill institution, and so is its founder, Mildred Cotton Council.
The granddaughter of a slave, Council, cooking for others – in the Carolina dining hall, in fraternities, in the homes of faculty members, in the hospital, and in restaurants – for decades before getting the opportunity to open her place.
Because she was tall with long arms, Council was always the one to dip the water from the water barrel; that’s how she got half her nickname, Dip. Customers, hearing her children call her mama, started calling her Mama Dip.
George Tate, the town’s first black real estate agent, approached her in 1976 to see if she would like to take over a failing restaurant on Rosemary Street. In November of that year, Mildred Council (Mama Dip) opened her restaurant with $64 and a determination to succeed. With only $40 for food and $24 for change, she sent her children to the grocery store to purchase enough supplies to serve lunch and dinner. She made $135 that first day, then used those funds to purchase food for the next day’s groceries. Please, with her first day of success, Mildred Council was excited about moving forward with her new business venture.
The seating capacity in her start-up location was only 18 seats. Through the years, she expanded in the same building to 94 seats.
Mama Dip worked hard to realize her dream, to build her restaurant. In February 1999, Mama Dip’s Kitchen moved to its current location. The move to the brand new building expanded her seating capacity to 169 inside and an additional 40 seats on the porch during the spring and summer seasons.
In addition to her successful restaurant business, Mildred Council created her cookbooks–Mama Dip’s Kitchen Cookbook and Mama Dip’s Family Cookbook, which were featured on QVC in 1999 and 2004. Her cookbooks sold out in only minutes on the air. Today her cookbooks are still in print and sold at national and local book outlets and on this website.
Mama Dip has appeared on Good Morning America, The Food Network, Public Television, QVC, and many local and national magazines and newspapers.
In 2001 she represented the State of North Carolina for Small Business Person of the Year and went on to receive a reward for the third runner-up at the national level.
Mama Dip created her product line in 1998. Mama Dip’s Original Products are a reflection of the same quality down-home cooking the restaurant is known for.
Her concept was simple—home cooking. Her fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread comforted working-class families and homesick college students. “I fix things the way they’re used to it,” she said. “I fix it the way their mama made it or their grandmama made it.”
Before the current farm-to-table trend, Council was buying her fresh vegetables, fruit, and eggs from farmers in Chatham and Orange counties, peeling the potatoes and stringing the beans in her kitchen.
In addition to providing jobs for all her children and countless college students as wait staff, Council has given steady employment – and a second chance – to prison inmates through work release and former prisoners. One has been working in her kitchen for 30 years.
Her restaurant has also been a valuable part of Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood, historically home to many of the University’s black employees.
Council has served on the board of Head Start and other service organizations, and her restaurant has participated in an annual community dinner to share food, music, and dance from many cultures.
Although no one knows better than Council the importance of food, she also has the utmost respect for education, especially as a longtime citizen of this college town.
“Food is for the body. It doesn’t help the mind,” she said in a 1994 interview for the University’s Southern Oral History Program. “You need words for the mind.”