Remembering Mama Dip
Born and raised in Chatham, she became one of the South’s culinary icons
By Matt White | Photo by briana brough
Mildred Council, known to generations who ate her cooking as Mama Dip, died in late May in Chapel Hill. She was among the most celebrated chefs of traditional Southern cooking, which she practiced for six decades, including in the restaurant that still bares her name. She mixed traditional African-American cooking traditions – she rarely called it “soul food,” preferring “country” or “dump cooking” – with a dedication to local ingredients long before the arrival of modern farm-to-table culture.
But throughout her life, she credited her love for food and her cooking skills to her upbringing in Chatham. In her books and in stories handed down to her family, Mama Dip proudly talked of her childhood in Baldwin Township, a now rarely cited demarcation between the Orange County line and the Haw River. Ed and Effie Cotton‘s farm sat just off Hamlets Chapel Road, not far from the current site of Perry Harrison Elementary School.
“They had the family garden, and they raised their own animals, and that’s how she learned,” says Mama Dip’s daughter Spring Council, one of her eight children. “She learned to cook watching her cousin and her sister Bernice. They cooked whatever they grew.”
Mama Dip raised her own children in Chapel Hill, and her restaurant on Rosemary Street remains a family business. But they all recall stories told by and about Mama Dip of her early days off Hamlets Chapel Road, and her books are full of stories about cooking whatever could be grown or caught.
“They cooked game – squirrels and wild stuff,” says her daughter Annette Council, known in the family as Neecy.
Breakfast, Mama Dip wrote, was “a hearty meal on the farm,” of rabbit, squirrel, chicken, side meat or shoulders, or fish. Then, at 11 o’clock, she would stop work in the fields to prepare “dinner,” the largest meal of the day, served at noon – vegetables, beans, cornbread or potatoes and more meat, if they had it. Supper was at night, a light meal of the day’s leftovers, though perhaps with a treat, like sweet potatoes or ash cake, named for the method of baking in the coals of
a fire, often next to blackbirds, caught in farm buildings and roasted on a
“She learned to fry chicken by wringing the chickens’ necks,” Neecy says. “I remember one day we saw her doing that, and my dad was like, ‘What in the world?’ but with ‘fresh chicken,’ you know, [that means] you’re killing them.”
Mama Dip was the youngest of her parents’ seven children. Her kitchen career began, she wrote, in 1938, when she was nine. After Effie passed away just before Dip’s second birthday, all seven Cotton children faced more chores than a typical farm kid. Without a mother in the kitchen, Mama Dip wrote, Ed one day told her to not join the rest of the family in the fields, but to “stay here and fix a little something to eat.”
“She was happy to do that,” Spring says. So happy, in fact, that she immediately rushed to the hen house to grab eggs to make a special treat – ignoring Ed’s rules about collecting eggs during the day. “He said, ‘Don’t go messing with that hen house or they won’t lay anymore,’” Spring says. “She didn’t care. She went and got them to make a custard pie.”
“It was primitive, and they knew it,” Neecy says. “But Mom said they never thought of it as being poor because their dad never said that they didn’t have enough. Nobody went hungry, nobody was without clothes and shoes. It’s what her daddy taught her, and she passed that along to us.”
Mama Dip’s nickname also dates to her childhood in Chatham. The farm had a well, but it ran dry in summer, leaving only rain barrels for water. Mildred was a tall girl – she grew to be 6-foot-2 – with long arms and could balance on the barrels as she reached down with a scoop to dip out water. She could dip lower in the barrel than anyone, and that became her nickname: “Dip.” She added Mama when she opened the restaurant, Neecy says, when her original idea – “Country Kitchen” – turned out to be taken. “It’s a better name anyway,” she says.
Even in Chapel Hill, Neecy says, the family still returned to Chatham for worship at the Hamlet Chapel C.M.E. Church.
“Mom had to take a whole bus to get the entire neighborhood of kids down there,” Neecy says.
The “C.M.E.” today is short for “Christian Methodist Episcopal,” the “C” altered from “Colored,” as it was known when Ed sang in the choir and Mama Dip cooked for the annual homecoming feast every August. Local black families dressed in their best clothes, and long, wood tables were set up between two cedar trees, Mama Dip remembered in her books. Churchgoers, she wrote, “laughed and chattered as they spread fried chicken and vegetables of every kind on the table, cutting up pies and cakes to feed an army of hungry men, women and children. This was a great time in between plowing, hoeing and picking, and I longed to be able to cook good things for people to eat from my earliest memories.”
And so she did. CM
Read the original article from the August/September 2018 Issue:
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