Mildred Council may have been known to the world by her childhood nickname, Dip (inspired by her long arms), but her reach has been so much longer.
A year after her death at age 89, her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren still work at the restaurant she built, Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And the Council family food businesses, all started with her encouragement and passion, are likely to continue on for years to come.
One granddaughter sells biscuits that are so good she named her business Bomb Biscuits. Another granddaughter makes crispy baked meringue cookies that shatter on your tongue with a lingering sweetness. One daughter creates cake mixes that bake into red velvet or pound cake. More daughters and two sons run the restaurant and sell the Mama Dip’s product line—salad dressing, barbecue sauces, and cornbread mix.
“It’s a lot of history there, right?” says Erika Council, one of Mildred’s granddaughters, who works in software engineering in Atlanta and serves her Bomb Biscuits at pop-ups at restaurants like B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and at special events. “One thing we all say on the Council side is that it’s definitely in our blood,” she adds.
The popular story of Mildred Council and her renowned restaurant, Mama Dip’s, is that she started it on a meager $64 set aside from what she earned as a cook and maid at Chapel Hill’s wealthy homes and fraternity houses—and that’s true. The food story goes back a lot further, though. The youngest daughter of seven children, Mildred “Dip” Cotton was such a good cook that her father let her take over the role at age 9, after her mother died. Then in 1947, she married Joe Council, whose family started a small restaurant, Bill’s Bar-B-Que.
Mildred quickly found a place in the Council family restaurant, developing her recipe for fried chicken and working alongside Joe. Before they divorced in the 1970s, they had eight children: Norma, Geary (called Yea-Yea), Joe, Julia (Bon), William, Sandra (Lane), Annette (Neecy), and Anita (Spring). Yes, nicknames are a tradition in this family.
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Food was at the center of their childhood: helping at Bill’s, driving their father’s food truck around to construction sites, and hanging out in the kitchen (elbows on the table) while their mother worked and talked. “People cooked back then,” says her youngest daughter, Anita Council, who runs the restaurant with her sisters Annette and Sandra and her brothers Geary and Joe. “That’s where the food really started for us.”
Anita was 12 when she began helping behind the counter at Bill’s Bar-B-Que, cooking burgers and hot dogs and learning to add figures in her head quickly. As a girl, she always had pocket money, but it didn’t mean she got to spend her time having fun with it. Work always came first in the Council family. All of the children and grandchildren have memories of Mildred keeping busy. Anita’s daughter, Tonya Council, remembers that even sitting in front of the TV at night, her grandmother would shell pecans for the next day’s pies.
Tonya began waitressing at her grandmother’s original restaurant, Dip’s Country Kitchen, when she was 15 or 16, but her time there started a lot earlier. “I know I was in the way when I was 4, 5, 6,” she says. “People ask where I grew up, and I say, ‘405 West Rosemary Street,’ ” the location of the original restaurant, an 18-seat diner. Tonya’s side business, Tonya’s Cookies, started out as a kitchen project when she got annoyed seeing an empty bakery case at the front of the restaurant. She decided to create a cookie that was as good as her grandmother’s pecan pie. She tried and tried, getting on everyone’s nerves in the kitchen while she made batch after batch. Finally, she experimented with a fateful new recipe. She was going to throw the cookies out when her grandmother tried one and told her she’d done it.
Mildred gave Tonya permission to use the kitchen at the old location, a pink building across the street from the expanded restaurant the family built in 1999. She also offered her advice on packaging and suggested she take samples to the local gourmet store, Southern Season, which became her first customer. Tonya still works at the restaurant nine months of the year, stepping out to run her cookie company from October (when the N.C. State Fair opens) through Christmas.
Tonya’s aunt Annette is called Neecy, from an old Southern phrase, “knee baby,” for the next-to-youngest child. She launched her cake-mix business, Sweet Neecy, after customers at the restaurant told her they couldn’t bake good cakes. At first, she made them for people, but it took a lot of time. So she came up with easy mixes they could use instead. Whenever her mother was baking, the children were always in the kitchen. “We were waiting to lick the bowls,” she says, laughing.
Tonya calls her cousin Erika Council “the biscuit whisperer.” Erika says her influence in cooking came from both sides of her family: Her other grandmother, Geraldine Dortch, made food to raise money to support the Civil Rights Movement. “That story was super impactful for me,” she adds.
While the Council daughters and granddaughters are resourceful about their businesses, they also inherited a creative streak. Besides Mildred’s two cookbooks, both Erika and Anita have blogs, and Annette wrote a book about her family’s history, The Recipe: Have a Seat at Our Table, in 2006.
They all credit Mildred for that trait. While she called herself a “dump cook” who kept her dishes simple and traditional, she always had magazines around the house. When she hosted parties for her friends, the table was decorated just so. Annette says her younger sister, Anita, has the same touch. “Spring gets the classy in Southern food,” she teases her.
Mildred always let the kids stay in the kitchen with her, Erika recalls. And she believed in the principle of “pull as you climb,” helping others to be successful. “She was the embodiment of that,” Erika says. “If you have the ability to
let someone in and help them, use what you have to do that.” She and her husband donate some of the proceeds from their biscuit sales to help underprivileged kids in Atlanta learn about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
In this family, everything has come back to the business. Mildred was there every day until the last two years of her life. Tonya says she still expects to see her in the kitchen, in the chair where she would always sit, watching everything and talking to each friend who walked through the door. “The wisdom and advice is what I miss,” she adds.
Now that Mildred is gone, her children and grandchildren have no doubt that the restaurant and the family food businesses will continue. That was what she wanted—a legacy that would go on long after she was gone. Tonya points out the Old Well, the most beloved landmark on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a few blocks from the restaurant. “My dream is to keep this place going as long as the Old Well stands on campus,” she says.