Mildred "Mama Dip" Council passed away on May 20, 2018, at the age of 89. This is a condensed and edited excerpt from her oral history with the Southern Oral History Program, conducted by Donna Clark in 1994. Listen to the full interview at sohp.org.
When a great oak falls to the earth, we feel a sense of a deep reverberation echo across the landscape. This is what many of us—across North Carolina, the American South, and the nation—felt when Mildred Council passed away this week in Chapel Hill.
Mildred “Mama Dip” Council created a sacred space in Chapel Hill where black and white families gathered to enjoy a breakfast of grits, eggs, and fried green tomatoes with hot biscuits and coffee, and lunches and dinners of fried chicken livers, baked sweet potatoes, and sweet tea. She was not only a beloved restaurateur and talented cook who honored the home cooking and voices of generations of African American cooks, caterers, street vendors, domestic workers, and café owners whose culinary creativity was at the heart of southern foodways; but also a transformative figure in the food movement we know today. Decades before the buzz words of food justice, food access, and food activism became part of our lexicon, this is who Mrs. Council was every day and every hour—a woman who cared deeply about equity, feeding all in need, and serving her community. She was a compass of love, philanthropy, and benevolence, but had high expectations not only for her family, but the extended “family” who worked in Mama Dip’s, and in the many community projects in which she was involved.
Sitting in her favorite booth near the entrance of the restaurant, Mrs. Council greeted her visitors and shared stories to accompany her food—and those stories came in abundance. She was also a great writer. Each semester, students in our courses at UNC-Chapel Hill read her poignant introduction in her best-selling book, Mama Dip’s Kitchen (UNC Press, 1999). “Sometimes I think my life is a lot like a pumpkin seed,” she wrote. “Many years ago I took a pumpkin seed—one of God’s ugliest seeds—and planted it in the earth . . . When I plant my garden in the spring, I do it with the thought that one single bean can create so many new beans—half a pound or more. How many plants will come from one bean if you chop it, feed it, and water it?”
The seeds Mama Dip planted and sowed grew roots that extend across Chapel Hill, a city where food and story will forever be associated with her powerful culinary voice. And we are so very grateful. —Marcie and William Ferris
I was born in Chatham County in Baldwin Township in April of 1929. I don’t remember my mother. My mother died in 1931 and I was not quite two [years old]. She had cancer. The people [whose farm Grandma Martha stayed on] out in Wake County, they sent her to school at Bennett [College]. Bennett is in Greensboro. She was a school teacher. She taught a lot of the old eighty—maybe seventy and eighty—year-old people here in town and in Chatham County. She taught them all.
My father raised seven children; there were seven of us. He raised us all by himself. He farmed. Tenant farming. We raised cotton, corn, wheat, oats, and stuff like that. That was the first part when we were staying on the Rigbys’ property. Then when we went down to the property we still raised corn and cotton. Then we moved back home. Then we started to raise some tobacco. Tobacco was allowed to you causing to the acreage you had. That’s how much you could raise. He moved back there and started raising tobacco. The money was in tobacco at that time.
My whole childhood I worked on the farm. When I was a child, as young as I can remember, I felt good about it. It was a seasonal thing. At the end of the year you’d get tired of it, like in August and the last of July when it got really hot. Never the kind of heat we had now. All the cement and things—you would get tired. Then you’d spring back up again in the spring, ready to go at it again. You’d be ready to go at it again.
I’ve seen better days on the farm.
I disliked the cotton more than I did anything else. My back is always—I’ve always been tall, I’ve been tall. But I could pick a lot of cotton and bending over, I think cotton was the worst thing for me. In the winter I always say, “I’ve seen better days on the farm.” We didn’t work on Sunday [laughs]. You’d have cotton this time, and the wheat—they’d come at different times. You’d be taking up the things you want, you love. Peanuts—you’d be harvesting the peanuts. You’d be shucking the corn—we’d have a big corn shucking. Then you’d take the popcorn, shell it, and put it away. These are the kinds of things that we know that we would be sitting around the fire and enjoying so we didn’t mind doing it at all. We didn’t mind. Those were happy times. This time of year was a happy time on the farm because tobacco would be in, and you’d be getting new things and new clothes, and new different types of food.
Papa had a man named Mister Roland. My father was a gentle man, a very gentle man. An honorable man. He was a love man. He was stern, yet he had the love that everybody loved him [for]. He showed the love. His sternness brought back love. He took in a lot of boys, runaway boys. Like a child starts to drinking and drinks too much, and maybe their father would put them out—beat them or something like that. So my dad would take them in.
So Roland come to our house and he could cook. All of us were cooking at an early age. I guess we ate just as well [as] anybody that’s got two children—two parents, I mean. [I’m] pretty sure we did. Most of the time when we had things, we shared them. Children would come by to play because the school was here, and they’d come by our house mostly to go home. The house is right before the park. We’d pop corn and do these kinds of things.
I went to school probably every day while we were at the one-room school. That was the fourth grade—the one-room school, Baldwin School. It had the first through eighth grades to it. I’ll never forget it. You couldn’t ride the bus then. The black children couldn’t ride the bus with the white kids. So [my sister] Bernice come to town and stayed a lot over here on Franklin Street. And [my sister Marie] came to town, and she lived out with Miss Annie Burnett. She went to Northside Elementary School for a while. She went there for a while. I think she was there until she got to be about sixteen. Bernice stayed a lot on Franklin Street. I think she was fourteen years old. She was cooking for a family at that time. She lived there. A lot of the richer people—wealthier, or rich—they would build a little cottage out back and the maid would stay in that. If they had a husband it was for the husband and the wife. She was making two dollars and fifty cents a week.
I went to tenth grade. In 1945—1944—what they did [was] they cut my daddy’s—in 1944 they cut down some of my daddy’s tobacco. They were strict! He planted what he thought was the allotment that he was supposed to have but he planted too much. They come and cut it down, they chopped it down. The Agriculture Department. They cut it out of the prettiest tobacco there was. They had said they wanted him to start raising more peas and soybeans. My daddy didn’t know anything about soybeans. I think this was the time soybeans were beginning to get popular. People started doing things with soybeans. Papa decided there wasn’t enough there for him to stay there. He pulled up and come to Chapel Hill. I had a sick sister, too—one of the reasons why he come to Chapel Hill, too, I think. My sister had been sick for a long time. Then Roland had been sick; he had gotten burnt and he was sick. They had to go to the hospital, Duke Hospital. That was the third reason why he come then. I felt he could have made a living down there because we always brought wagon-loads of wood to Chapel Hill to sell in the wintertime. We sold turkeys. We’ve sold turkeys to the Carolina Inn. I remember picking turkeys as a little girl and selling them to the Carolina Inn.
I didn’t go back to school over here. My grandmother and aunts come to visit us. They told us about the Cosmetology School in Durham. So Papa gave me the money and I went over there. I stayed with my grandmother. This was on Fayetteville Street. Then I walked up there and went to nine months of beauty school.
It wasn’t for me because I’ve always loved cooking.
I started working in a beauty shop on Franklin Street. I worked there for about six months. I couldn’t take that. It wasn’t for me because I’ve always loved cooking. I had worked over on Wilson Court with Doctor Patterson. I’d go over and cook their supper. So [then] I left there and started going out to different fraternities when people were out sick. Then I took in ironing. I began to have my children then, and I began to take ironings from the students on the campus.
I was eighteen years old [when I married my husband, Joe]. I was eighteen because we were to get married on a Friday, and I was seventeen. We couldn’t get married. We went to Durham . . . so we had to wait until Monday. I come eighteen on Sunday, I think it was, and we went back on Monday and got married.
I worked at the [UNC] dining hall until I found I was pregnant. I worked at the Carolina Inn until I found out I was pregnant. I can remember at the Carolina Inn, Mr. Rogerson—the head of Carolina Inn was Mr. Rogerson—and I made coffee. He always complained about my coffee. I said, “Mr. Rogerson, you know what? We got 1,000 people coming down this line today and you’re complain[ing] about the coffee. Why don’t you just make you a pot of coffee in the kitchen?” . . . I thought I was going to get fired at that time, but I didn’t. He just told me it was a good idea [laughs].
I worked a lot of places. You just didn’t work if you were pregnant. Our hospital is probably about forty years old. Before then, nobody could work when they were pregnant, white or black. You stay out of work six weeks and you go back to work. What happened is that we were more neighborly then than we are now. I’d see somebody’s child—I always liked that four-to-eleven [or] four-to-twelve shift. I was home when my children went to school in the morning and I was there when they got back home and had their dinner ready. That’s the shift I liked. I worked two jobs, sometimes three jobs.
I think the biggest turning point in my life was when I left my husband [of thirty-two years]. I stayed for my children. Things hadn’t changed all along. He would just go away and leave us. I didn’t fear, but I don’t know why I didn’t, being as scared as I had been. But I didn’t fear that day and I haven’t feared since. One of the things about it is, he loves me now. I never taught my children against him. I don’t welcome him here, but when we have dinner, he’s the first thing here. Thanksgiving, he’d be the first thing sitting in the den. He don’t ask us if he can come; he come and sit and eat with us. Christmas, he does. A birthday. I don’t care what it is that we’re having, dinner, he’s here.
I left him [and] I went to the hospital. I was working for his parents; they had Bill’s Barbecue. I was working for his parents and I had to leave. It was probably ’65, ’66, somewhere around there. I worked there two years. What I did [was] I opened my restaurant. It was just my luck, just like something going into a socket and fitting. This man was going out of business and [said], “Why don’t you take it over?” We was just riding along in the car and I said, “Okay, I’ll be down there tomorrow.” Wasn’t no problem for me getting a job cooking. Not at all. Because I had worked. A lot of the fraternities and sororities had house mothers. If a cook quit or if they fired them, and [they] got somebody in there that couldn’t cook, they would call me to come over and show them how to cook, tell them how to fix things, and how much to fix.
He wanted me to come in and buy the restaurant from him—rent it from him. I had two checks. You got paid every two weeks. That was sixty-four dollars. That’s what I started out with. I’ve been there now—November 16 I [will] be there for eighteen years—’76.
It wasn’t scary for me. My children—we went there on Saturday night and cleaned it up. It was messy. We went in there and really cleaned it—me and my children, the ones that was big enough, old enough, and wanted to do it. We went in there and cleaned it up and opened up the next day. We opened up Sunday morning. I guess Spring was something like fourteen. Somewhere about that age.
My children don’t feel poor like my daddy didn’t let us feel poor. I refuse to let them feel poor. I’m a motivator. I know a lot of young mothers, young parents. I like to show them—I don’t care how poor you are, you still treat a child the same. I love my children dearly. I don’t think there would be anything that I would’ve done differently. I really don’t. No, I really don’t think there’s anything I would’ve done differently if I had to do it over again.
Listen to Mildred Council’s full interview with the Southern Oral History Program.