Remembering Mama Dip
Many people from all walks of life are mourning the death, on May 20, of Mildred Council, eighty-nine years old and widely known as Mama Dip. Mama Dip was appreciated far and wide, in so many ways, by so many people. I’d like to take the opportunity to offer a remembrance of my own, as the UNC Press editor who acquired Ms. Council’s cookbooks, Mama Dip’s Kitchen —published in 1999 and now the Press’s best-selling title to date–and Mama Dip’s Family Cookbook (2005), also a best-seller.
In my role as editor, I had the opportunity to learn first-hand of Ms. Council’s creativity, entrepreneurship, and concern for people of all types. But one of the most eye-opening things I learned from Mama Dip was something that I came to think of as the nature of fame.
Ms. Council’s first book came to my attention as a manuscript with tons of potential, though no one knew at the time, as is par for the course in publishing, just how much potential. Once published, the book took off quickly. And once QVC, the broadcast television network, started inviting her on set to pitch Mama Dip’s Kitchen, the sales entered the stratosphere, going at 1,000 copies a minute in real time.
That’s when I noticed that, no matter how much success Ms. Council had, she remained her steady self. So far as I ever saw, she was thoroughly even-tempered, highly reserved, and exceedingly observant of others. She expressed herself efficiently and was deeply appreciative of the assistance that so many people wanted to give her as both a long-time community leader and, then, as Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith put it, as a celebrity chef before there were celebrity chefs.
As her steady self, she became a kind of screen, it seemed to me, onto which those who embraced her book could project their favored images of her. For them, she could be, variously, a wise mother, a loving grandmother, a pathbreaking entrepreneur, a tough businesswoman, a civil rights activist, a community leader who could bring all kinds of people together to eat, harmonize, and enjoy themselves. For some, she was a stern chef, cooking teacher, and kitchen boss. All of these appreciators of her food and of her books made her famous, each in their own way.
I myself appreciated how Mama Dip incorporated in her food writing the possibilities for change in American food. Her food was living food, and from within a traditionalist genre her recipes at times reflected changing American foodways. In her first book, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, she has a recipe for Mama Dip’s Chicken and Dumplings. The dumplings are created in traditional manner with flour and butter-rich chicken stock. In the second book, Mama Dip’s Family Cookbook, she writes, “If you are having trouble making homemade chicken and dumplings, this is a good substitute.” The recipe that follows is Chicken Tortilla Stew, a brilliant dish that incorporates a new North Carolina.
For all of us, at center Mama Dip was indeed a wonderful southern cook with all the powers that reside therein. I recall one of our long-time regional sales representatives coming up to me at a huge, crammed, and busy BookExpo (“the end-to-end business solution for the global publishing industry”) to tell me that he had baked Mama Dip’s One-Room School Tea Cookies and, unbidden and suddenly, they had whisked him back in time to his mother’s kitchen. The taste of Mama Dip’s tea cookies, he told me, had completely enveloped him, delivering him as a boy right up against his own mother’s kitchen table and his mother’s “tea cakes.” He said he felt as if he was living out his own version of the passage about tea and madeleines in Marcel Proust’s novel.
Having listened to people over the years talk to me about Mama Dip, I believe that one of the most important reasons for the popularity of Mama Dip’s Kitchen was that readers absolutely loved the book’s introductory essay. Though I’d edited it and knew it, in a sense, clinically, just now reading it again I find myself caught up in the bright, flowing culinary life Ms. Council portrays with her particular verve and insight. In the introduction, Ms. Council herself reflects on how change comes to us over a lifetime: the very first three sentences read, “I was born a colored baby girl in Chatham County, North Carolina, to Ed Cotton and Effie Edwards Cotton; grew up a Negro in my youth; lived my adult life black; and am now a 70-year-old American. I have always known myself as Mildred Edna Cotton Council.”
Here’s that One-Room School Tea Cookies recipe:
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, beaten
5 cups self-rising flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons lemon extract
2 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy with a wooden spoon or a mixer. Beat in the eggs. Sift the flour and baking powder together, then combine with the creamed mixture, lemon extract, and milk. Mix well with your fingers. Roll the dough out ¼-inch thick and cut into individual cookies with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for about 10 minutes, just until firm. Sprinkle with a little sugar. Remove from the cookie sheet and cool on brown paper.
Makes about 3 dozen.
Copyright 1999. Used by permission of UNC Press.
More UNC Press blog posts about Mama Dip through the years can be found here.