Front row: Stephanie (granddaughter), Sandra (daughter), Mama Dip, Joe (son), Annette (daughter) Back row: Tonya (granddaughter), Spring (daughter) Photo courtesy of Spring Council.
By Kathy Atwater, Mae McLendon, and Kathryn Wall
Spring and Neecy Council have been working in the family business since their youth. Their grandfather, Bill Council , ran Bill’s Bar-b-que where the grandkids were paid 1 cent per box to prepare chicken boxes that were sold out of their grandfather’s truck at UNC football games. After the restaurant closed, their mother, Mildred Cotton Council cooked food for their father’s food truck every morning before going to her job at the hospital, and the couple used the money from the food truck to reopen Bill’s Bar-b-que.
In 1976, Mama Dip branched out on her own and opened Dip’s Country Kitchen. Mildred Council got the nickname “Dip” because she was tall enough to dip water out of the bottom of the barrel in her Chatham County childhood home. Spring remembers, “I was working [at Bill’s Bar-b-que] one day and I just thought about Mama down the street, and so the next day I went there where she was and started working with her. So she was the cook and I was the waitress when we first started off.” Other family members, including Neecy who transferred from Elizabeth City State to NC Central University, soon joined her in the new restaurant. As customers heard her children calling her “Mama” at work, they started calling Mrs. Council “Mama Dip” as well, and soon everybody knew that the best place in town to get good country cooking was “Mama Dip’s.” Running the restaurant wasn’t always easy. When a recession hit, the family had to work for nothing but tips, but as her daughters remembered, “Mama always – no matter what was going on – she kept going, and you never heard her complain about money or business or anything. She just kept going until we worked it out.”
In 1985, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne wrote a review of Mama Dip’s proclaiming praising “deep-fried chicken livers as crisp and tasty as any I have ever had.” Her fame spread, and soon Mama Dip had appeared in Southern Living and numerous other publications on food and Southern life, on QVC and Food Network, on Good Morning America, and in bookstores nationwide with two books, Mama Dip’s Kitchen and Mama Dip’s Family Cook Book. But the fame never went to her head. Spring remembered, “People called her a celebrity …and she would tell you she ain’t no celebrity.” “She didn’t care,” Neecy added, “she was just the same.”
In 1999, the restaurant moved to its current location on Rosemary Street, changing the name to simply “Mama Dip’s Kitchen.” Whatever the location, the food at Mama Dip’s has always been fresh and seasonal. Neecy recalled, “Mama didn’t call her food soul food. [She called it] traditional country cooking because we all ate the same thing, basically. Everybody ate meats and vegetables back then.” The comfort foods on the menu have brought customers to tears recalling the foods they grew up with. As their mother’s popularity grew, Spring said that she “realized that connection between food and memories and emotions, and how people feel about what their grandmother cooked – and when you get to the table, how that brings that closeness and love and nurturing.”
Mama Dip died in 2018, but her legacy lives on. Neecy remembered: “When Mama passed away it was no problem for us going on with the business because we know every aspect of it. Even down to the money – the book-keeping. We know everything.” But even a time-tested local institution like Mama Dip’s has faced challenges during the pandemic. At first the family had to let their staff take unemployment while they kept curbside pickup going with a shoestring crew of Spring , Neecy and other family members taking turns cooking and running meals out to cars awaiting curbside pickup. With the support of PPP funding and restaurant revitalization funds, the family persevered. Some days they only brought in $100 for the whole day, but as Spring Council said, “we kept going.” They brought back their staff and added hand-held credit card readers for easy curbside pickups, and the fact that the building is paid for and they have available outdoor seating has helped Mama Dip’s continue serving customers, with the family following Mama Dip’s example to just “do what you need to get done” to keep on giving and nurturing in the community.
Mama Dip’s Chicken and Dumplings
Around corn-shucking time, an old rooster or hen would be put in a coop to fatten for this old-time favorite.
1 stewing chicken (about 5 pounds)
1 can (10 ½ ounces) chicken broth
½ stick butter, cut into pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup warm stock
1 bay leaf
Rinse the chicken under cold running water. Put it into a large pot with the bay leaf and cover with water. Let cook over medium heat until tender, about 40 minutes. Remove the chicken and set aside. When it cools, remove the meat from the bones and chop. Skim the fat off the chicken stock, straining the stock, and return it to the pot, adding water to make 10 cups. Add the broth and the butter to the stock and heat until the butter melts. Stir to mix.
Take ½ cup of the stock from the pot and add 2 ice cubes to it so that it cools. Put the flour in a bowl and pour in the cooled stock. Mix well with a fork or your fingertips to form a dough. Add a little more flour if the dough is too wet.
Roll out the dough, on a floured board, thinner than pie crust (not more than ⅛ inch thick). Cut into strips, and then into 1-inch pieces. Let the stock come to a boil, and then drop in pieces of dough. The dumplings will stir themselves in the boiling liquid. When you’re finished putting the dumplings in the liquid, shake the pot.
Stir the chopped chicken into the pot, reducing the heat to low. Let cook slowly for 10 minutes.
Serves 8 to 10.
From Mama Dip’s Kitchen. © 1999 by Mildred Council. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.