Down Home and Delicious

The comfort food you love is easy to fix. This inspiring Carolina cook will make a believer out of you.
Kim Sune

Mama Dip's Recipes:


Mildred Council settles down into a rocking chair next to mine and takes a deep breath. Mama Dip, as she is known, is more than 6 feet tall, and her long legs stretch out into the late morning sun. The owner of Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is without pretension. You would never guess that she's a best-selling cookbook author and a community role model. As a child, Mama Dip was so tall, she had to dip over to get water from the water barrel--hence, her nickname. Today, she expends considerable energy nurturing those around her and supporting the community. As she talks about her causes, Mama rocks slower or faster depending on her mood. "Mama's a real activist," explains Spring, her youngest daughter. "She even started her own version of Meals-On-Wheels in the 1970s--delivering hot packaged dinners around the neighborhood to the housebound, to those who couldn't afford electricity, and to kids who had no adult supervision."

 

Mama Dip's Philosophy
The idea of the restaurant or table as the new community center is definitely evident here. This is a place where you talk about things--life, love, forgiveness, and family--and this is what Mama wants to talk about. "People come to my restaurant," she says, "to fight loneliness." Mama makes it a point to talk with her 40 employees and her customers, even about the most mundane things. "The restaurant pays my bills," she says, "but more importantly, gives the comfort of human relationships."

Feel-Good Food
Mama's customers are loyal and many. They come for her trademark comfort cooking. One regular, Miss Edith, often orders the same thing four or five times a week. The menu, which includes fried chicken livers, corn pudding, stewed tomatoes, and chicken and dumplings, hasn't changed much in years. It doesn't really differ from what Mama Dip liked as a child. "Nobody taught me to cook," she says. "I just wanted to do it. And that's all it takes." Mama emphasizes the importance of listening to our children. "Not everyone can cook or be a doctor. There are wonderful jobs in between these two extremes. We need to ask children what they want and let them find the unique aspect of his or her talent. A child can feel inside what he wants to be. When I was 3, I knew I wanted to cook."

 

About Happiness
"We were dirt poor but didn't know it. Poor meant skinny in size, not economic. It was about survival--growing up, we had no notion of poverty. That's modern. We had pretty dresses when we went to church," she says. "I feel rich today, and when I hear people come to me and complain about their life or so and so who makes their life miserable, I say to them, ?You got shoes on your feet? You got food to eat? Then what are you complaining about?' " Mama sits back and rocks, full sunlight warming her skin and brightening her eyes. It's almost lunchtime, and the dining room has filled with regular customers waiting for a kind word from Mama, a nod of complicity, and reassurance that home will always be here, at her table.

Associate Foods Editor Mary Allen Perry has always loved Mama Dip's ability to render great flavors from simple and good ingredients. For this story, Mary Allen tested and adapted some of Mama's favorites from her book, Mama Dip's Kitchen (UNC Press). Visit her Web site at www.mamadips.com.

"Down Home and Delicious" is from the January 2005 issue of Southern Living.