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Restaurateur Mildred 'Mama Dip' Council Dies At 89


There will likely be a very well-attended funeral this Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C., for 89-year-old Mildred Council. She was better known as Mama Dip. That's the childhood nickname she used for the restaurant she opened there in 1976. Mildred Council called herself a dump cook, someone who cooked by eye and feel, not by recipes. Whatever she called herself, people traveled from all over the country to eat at Mama Dip's. Kathleen Purvis is a food journalist at the Charlotte Observer. She interviewed Mama Dip several times over the years. We saw her remembrance in Garden & Gun magazine and asked her to join us now. Welcome to the program.

KATHLEEN PURVIS: Thank you so much. It's an honor to speak about her.

CORNISH: So first, I got to ask about the nickname. Where does Mama Dip come from?

PURVIS: (Laughter) She told that story many times. Mildred Council was very tall. She was over 6 feet tall. And when she was a child, you know, in those days, they would get their water from a water barrel and use a dipper to get the water out. And when the water level was low, as it sometimes is in the summer in the South when it gets dry, she was so tall she could reach all the way down to the bottom to get the dip of water. And so they started calling her Dip.

CORNISH: And she was also a great cook. And I understand as an adult she used to cook for university students and fraternity students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, right? How did she come to open a restaurant?

PURVIS: She was someone who had worked all over Chapel Hill cooking in different places, you know, working smaller jobs. She had a lot of kids. She had eight children to feed. And in 1976, the story she's always told is that she decided she wanted to open a little restaurant. She found a little building. I think it might have even been an old house. She took her paycheck from her work at a local hospital. And we're talking a small paycheck, like, $65 every two weeks. So - what? - it would have been - like, 32.50 a week was her pay.

She bought some food. She cooked - opened a little place to start cooking for people not knowing what would happen. And it was such a hit that she ran out of food the first day and had to run to the grocery store with the food - with the money she'd made from selling the food to buy more food. But she apparently made $135 in less time than it would take her to make $32 in her old job. And she was off and running from there.

CORNISH: And she became a kind of celebrity chef - right? - before that was cool.

PURVIS: Yes. It was - Craig Claiborne, who was the restaurant critic for The New York Times, made a pretty eventful trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., sometime in the '80s and apparently found his way to her restaurant, Dip's Kitchen, and loved the food so much he started encouraging her to write down her recipes. And she ended up doing a book. And it put her on the map.

CORNISH: So help us understand. What was on a typical menu at Mama Dip's? I mean, describe the kind of food she made because lots of people in the South - right? - like there's a lot of southern cooking going on in restaurants in the South.

PURVIS: You know, Mama Dip's was a place - a friend of mine who lives in Chapel Hill had called it the sweet spot between a meat and three and your grandmother's Sunday dinner. You would have found really, really good fried chicken. They were known for great, well-crusted fried chicken. They were known for this pecan pie that was - it was always served warm. And it was a really nice balance between the crunchy nuts and the gushy inside. She had wonderful biscuits. And, you know, the thing about biscuits down here is if you don't make biscuits every day, you can't make biscuits. You know, when you find somebody who can make really good biscuits, when they have that light feel for it, it's a thing to treasure. We are a gravy people down here in the South. We do love our milk gravies poured over everything. And so you would've seen smothered pork chops, gravy biscuits, things like that.

CORNISH: I think it's easy to take for granted the fact that she was an older woman, the fact that it was a very traditional Southern menu. What is it that she did that you think set her apart?

PURVIS: You know, I have to say that if you look at an African-American woman who was born in 1929 in rural North Carolina, she wouldn't have been expected to have a whole lot of opportunities. But she took the small opportunity she had, and she opened a restaurant that is now going into the third generation working in there. That's unusual and a very, very special thing. And I think it says a lot for how determined she was.

CORNISH: That's Kathleen Purvis of Garden & Gun magazine remembering Mildred Council, also known as Mama Dip. Council died earlier this week at the age of 89. Kathleen Purvis, thanks so much.

PURVIS: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES' "HUNG UP ON MY BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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