Restaurants come and go in Chapel Hill. Hot dog stands become sandwich shops and then become pizza places, all during the span of a couple of years. Only some local eateries withstand the test of time, surviving the cutthroat competition that a college town presents and winning over the hearts of its patrons.
Mama Dip’s Kitchen stands as proud and true as the woman who founded it. At 85, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council still comes to work every day, cooking family favorites with the same spirited vigor she had four decades ago when she first opened up shop with only 64 dollars to her name.
The menu hasn’t changed much since. It offers Southern-style country cooking in a quaint, home-like family atmosphere. Mama Dip owns the restaurant, along with four of her eight children – Elaine, Spring, Annette, and Joe Council – and some of her 23 grandchildren. Customers come for the barbecue and savory side platters (the restaurant proudly boasts its Macaroni and Cheese as a “vegetable”), and they return – over and over again – for the fried chicken.
“It’s nothing fancy,” Elaine said. “Just like your grandma or your mom’s in the kitchen. It’s just that comfort food that makes you feel good inside. People don’t want to get away from that.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, the restaurant’s matriarch can be found seated in the kitchen. A stack of newspapers rests comfortably on her lap as she dices bananas, layering them neatly over a tray of Nilla Wafers for her signature banana pudding.
She speaks in a lively country accent and laughs heartily at her stories, as if to express how far she’s come and how cheerful she’s always been.
Most days, Mama Dip still eats her own cooking: “I think it’s healthy food,” she said. “One of your meals needs to be a piece of meat and two vegetables.”
Mama Dip maintains a loyal customer base – the same Chapel Hill residents have been eating her food for generations. But she also serves visitors from around the country, college students and young children alike, all having something to gain from sampling her cuisine.
“I don’t think we ever get our older people to stop eating it,” she says. “And a lot of people want their children to grow up knowing that they ate this: mashed potatoes – it’s not French fries; we didn’t have French fries. I think it’s educational.”
The food derives from Mama Dip’s country roots. She was born in 1929 in Chatham County, the youngest of her father Ed’s seven children. She was tall as a child; her long limbs let her hang over the rain barrel and “dip” down to fetch water. Her family made a song out of it: “They’d sing ‘dip, dip, dip!’” she said.
After Mama Dip’s mother, Effie, passed away in 1931, the children had to grow up fast and learn to work on Ed’s farm. Mama Dip remembers picking cotton, making molasses and growing sugar cane. She first learned to cook when she was nine by closely observing her neighbors.
In 1945, Ed earned enough money on his farm to move his family to Chapel Hill. Mama Dip was advised to take up a trade, so she enrolled in DeShazor’s Beauty College in Durham to become a hairdresser. But she never stopped cooking on the side.
She took jobs at restaurants all over downtown Chapel Hill, including Carolina Coffee Shop. She cooked at fraternity and sorority houses, baking cakes, pies and even blintzes. Her ex-husband’s family owned Bill’s Bar B Q, a popular Chapel Hill restaurant at the time, where she became widely adored for her cooking.
One of Mama Dip’s biggest admirers was George Tate, a family friend. He owned a property on West Rosemary Street where one of his tenants, a restaurant owner, went out of business. He ran into Mama Dip at a cabstand on the street one day and asked her to open up her own restaurant in the vacant space.
She pleaded that she didn’t have the funds. Tate told her to open up anyway, and then pay him back whenever she started making money.
So on a Sunday in 1976, Mama Dip went to a local food store to buy bacon, bread and eggs for her restaurant with some of her children. She wasn’t intending to open that morning, but at around 11 a.m., somebody opened the door.
“Y’all open?” the man asked.
“Yeah, come on in,” she responded.
The man was served and satisfied. More and more customers came in to eat that day, and by the end of it she made $135. She couldn’t believe, then, that more would follow.
Since Mama Dip’s cooking was revered around town before she even opened her own restaurant, she had loyal customers from the start. Her following expanded in the ‘80s when Bill Neal, founder of Crook’s Corner, took Craig Claiborne, a New York Times food critic, to eat at Dip’s. Claiborne was enamored – both by Mama Dip and her cooking – and later raved about his soul food experience in one of his articles.
Years later, in 1998, Mama Dip got an unexpected call from “Good Morning America.” The show wanted to fly her up to New York City for a segment on her restaurant. But she was hesitant to leave – “I wasn’t ready for no plane,” she says now – so they agreed to come film in Chapel Hill.
Afterwards, in 1999, Mama Dip published the first of her two cookbooks, which sold out after she promoted it on the Home Shopping Network.
Mama Dip’s celebrity is apparent not just through her prolific history, but also through her day-to-day interactions with satisfied customers. Moments into our conversation, a burly caterer from Massachusetts named Chef Roland entered the kitchen to praise his meal.
“I wanted to meet you because that’s some of the best food I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “I asked everybody in town where I should go eat. I wanted some good authentic collards and they said I should go here. And I’m going to tell you something: I bought a T-shirt and I’m going to wear that everywhere I go. That was really seriously good.”
I asked if that type of thing happens to her a lot.
“A lot, a lot, a lot,” she said.
Ten minutes later, Helen Giduz, a friend of Mama Dip’s for over 50 years, came into the kitchen to swap stories of friends and family.
“She’s one of the smartest ladies I’ve ever met,” Giduz said. “She could do anything she set her mind to. Bless her heart, she taught me a lot. She remembers too much about me.”
Mama Dip’s authentic affability is just as admirable as her cooking. She’s a people’s person, cultivating friendships with anyone who meets her, always committed to finding the good in people.
“I guess it’s the spirit in me,” she explains. “I started cooking when I was nine, before I ever went to beauty school. It’s something that I like to do, and I like to be around people. My granddaddy and my daddy were a head of a church in Chatham. They were happy people and they taught us.”
In 2000, Mama Dip was granted the “Order of the Long Leaf Pine” award by then-N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt for her distinguished community service. She routinely cooks food for the homeless and offers many ex-convicts jobs at her restaurant. She’ll give anyone the chance to cook, so long as they’re willing to learn.
“I raised my eight children, but I ain’t never had just my eight children in the house,” she said. “Always somebody else would crawl in the window and sleep there, and I didn’t know who they were until the next day. They were welcome to my table.”
The restaurant’s family vibe shines through in more than just the dining room’s atmosphere. he Councils work closely together on every decision to ensure the business is running smoothly. Evan and Tonya, two of Mama Dip’s grandchildren, both say their job changes day by day depending on what’s most needed from them.
“This is like a baseball team,” Mama Dip said. “If you see somebody else working, you know it’s your time to throw the bat too.”
Evan and Tonya have both worked at Dip’s since they were teenagers. Their roles at the restaurant expanded as they got older, but they continue to show profound admiration for the woman who first put cooking utensils in their hands.
Evan is a spry 28 year old with clear traces of his grandmother’s charismatic influence. “I’m the future face of Mama Dip,” he claimed, half-joking, as he saw me talking to his grandmother.
His mother, Elaine, overheard. “I had wine when I was pregnant,” she joked back.
When Evan was younger, his grandmother kept him in the house and served as his mentor for the majority of the day. When the basketball career he wanted didn’t pan out, Mama Dip helped him hone his cooking skills and turn them into a viable career at the restaurant.
“She was always doing something with food, so I always had that insight around her and tried to pick up everything,” he said.
Tonya, 41, was born when her mother, Spring, was young. Mama Dip became one of her caregivers and biggest role models, instilling in her a strong work ethic and zest for cooking. She opened up her own bakery, Tonya’s Cookies, which sits across the street from Dip’s’ current location. Her signature cookie tastes like pecan pie.
“The bloodline, as far as cooking –she’s given all of us that,” Tonya said. “She’s always taught us to go after your dream.”
While Mama Dip will always be one of the restaurant’s most ardent workers, she doesn’t come in to her restaurant as early as she used to. She’s fallen twice over the last year, most recently as she was getting out of her car – which, she admits, has slowed her down. Her movement and hearing are impaired, and she sports a Pacemaker to monitor her heart rhythms.
But she still shows up every day. As industrious as she is and has always been, it would be hard to break the routine she’s had for 40 years and counting. She hated being cooped up in her home, watching TV all day, while recovering from her fall. Cooking is her livelihood, a talent she loves sharing with her community. Taking her away from the kitchen would be like “taking a swimmer out of water,” Tonya says.
As Mama Dip ages, her vivacious charm continues to light up her restaurant. She acknowledges her serendipity but also proudly revels in her deserved success. Her soul remains as ageless as her food.
“I do a lot,” she said. “I can do anything in here. I just can’t stand up and do it.”
This post is sponsored by Mama Dip’s Restaurant