Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mama Dip remains a towering presence

Mildred Council will be the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. 

Mildred Council no longer messes with the heavy cast iron skillets at Mama Dip's, the Chapel Hill landmark she opened in 1976 with just $64 in her apron pocket. But she remains a towering figure in the cozy dining room, where she signals dawdling young servers with a glance and attracts excited whispers from diners.

"What are they doing out there," she said, gazing at a gaggle of her wait staff that, like startled geese, suddenly retreated from the door to her wraparound porch. "Move that table," she said quietly to another waiter, gesturing at one that had strayed from alignment. "Someone will trip over that."

Council, who turned 83 last week, is painfully aware of such potential hazards. She tripped last May and steps, slowly but confidently, with the aid of a wheeled walker.  

Not everything in the restaurant, which on Saturday morning was filled with families and regulars, draws the boss's scrutiny. Out of the corner of her eye she spied 5-year-old Brendan Engler-DeSpain of Raleigh tip-toeing toward her.  She beckoned him closer.

"I love Mama Dip's," he finally said, his face shining with joy. "Hmm," said the great-great-grandmother, sizing him up as his dad proudly filmed the encounter on his phone. "You look like you'd be good to hug. Come on over here."

Whether it's a pancake-loving child or a seeker of true Southern country fare, Council greets everyone with the same warmth. It's been like this since she charmed her father by taking over household cooking at age 9. After turning away from the cosmetology career he envisioned for her, she got her first paying job as a cook working as a household maid. She later cooked at a UNC dining hall and several Chapel Hill eateries - including Bill's Bar-B-Q, which was owned by her in-laws - before taking a chance on transforming a failed restaurant into the first Mama Dip's location 36 years ago.

Council's fame spread after UNC Press published her two cookbooks. The first, Mama Dip's Kitchen, was inspired by New York Times legend Craig Claiborne - and fostered by the late Bill Neal, who co-founded La Residence and Crook's Corner and dined at Mama Dip's nearly every Thursday.

"I didn't know who Craig Claiborne was. I thought he was a troublemaker, ordering everything on the menu - even chitlins - and making us all nervous in the kitchen," Council recalled with a laugh. "Why would the New York Times care about me? I was just somebody who grew up on a little farm in Chatham County. I never imagined someone so important would be interested in my food."

Council recalled that Claiborne wanted a little taste of everything and was especially keen on her black-eyed peas.

"We were still over there," she said, pointing across the street to her original site on West Rosemary Street. "We only had about 16-17 seats in the place and I didn't have enough of those little bowls to keep up with him. It wasn't like restaurants today. I only had so many dishes."

Claiborne wrote a glowing review of the restaurant a few weeks later and called to get some of her recipes, a few of which he included in his best-selling books. He pushed her to write down her own recipes - a daunting challenge given she never used measuring cups or spoons. It took nearly 10 years to draft her first book, and several more passed before it was published to acclaim in 1999.

"I learned how to cook in the dump style," Council said, instinctively cupping her large hands as if scooping flour for biscuits. "It was the same way in school. We never had a lot of books. You just had to pay attention and learn. That's just how it is when you don't have a lot."

Council is not surprised by the farm-to-fork movement that is influencing major culinary names and home cooks alike. After all, cooking with locally-grown, seasonal ingredients is both smart and frugal.

"I don't look at is as a health trend. It's more about the beauty of food at its best," said Council, noting, for example, that she never uses canned sweet potatoes for her famous pie. "I think we all should eat more vegetables and less meat. I still enjoy some chicken, but this time of year I start thinking about tomatoes and squash.

"Oh," she exclaimed suddenly, her eyes twinkling behind large glasses. "Next month we should have string beans. Yes."

Mama Dip's menu does feature its share of meat, and plenty of fried food, but for Council that has more to do with hospitality than trendiness. When you eat from her kitchen, you should enjoy yourself. And honey, that means putting down your knife and fork and eating fried chicken with your hands.

"When I traveled to promote the books, I was just amazed by how focused some chefs are about food looking pretty," she said, recalling a meal so artfully prepared that she relied on her publicist for clues how to eat it. "I had no idea where to start. I'd rather people relax and just dig in."

Council has no plans to write any more cookbooks but she does occasionally tweak her menu to include items that tug at memories.

"I've been thinking about adding bread pudding for breakfast," she said, picking a classic that similarly stretches ordinary kitchen staples. "It's the same idea as pancakes, really, but you add raisins and custard and bake it up in big pans. It's just so creamy and good."

The recipe for Council's Rum Raisin Bread Pudding is featured in Mama Dip's Kitchen, and more can be found in Mama Dips's Family Cookbook (2005). A few of her recipes are posted on her author page at UNC Press and others, like her sumptuous sweet potato pie, can be found online.

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