Introduction: A Life of Cooking, 1938-1999
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 69-year-old American. I have always known myself as Mildred Edna Cotton Council. The cultural names haven't changed my feelings of being an American citizen. I have experienced the Negro or black American cultural world in a tiny area of the United States of America. I grew up and lived in poverty most of my life without knowing it. My children, too, grew up in poverty never knowing that they were poor. Our house just leaked. No screen doors. An outdoor bathroom and little money.
Our family was happy to sit around the table at dinner time, eating, poking jokes, and having fun. It didn't matter if the dishes and the cups didn't match. (Sometimes just a pie pan would do.) Early childhood experience equipped me to raise my children to accept life by being happy, learning about life and its struggles and disappointments.
I was raised on a farm in Baldwin Township, Chatham County, where I started cooking at an early age. Before that, I could only pretend to cook and feed the dolls that I made out of bottles and wood moss with corn silk for their long hair. I would sing and shout to my dolls and feed them mud pies. Many years later, I changed the mud pie recipe to edible ingredients and created a new dessert for my restaurant. The coconut and nuts always remind me of the small rocks and sticks that would be in the dirt mixed with water that I served to my corn silk dolls. My dolls could never tell me how well I was doing for them, but I felt they were happy because the following year, when the corn came up and made silk, the bottle dolls would be where I had left them.
Then one morning in about 1938, when I would have been around nine, Papa said the words that made me so happy. As our whole family started out to the field that morning after breakfast for the plowing and planting, he looked at me and said, "You stay here and fix a little something to eat."
I was the youngest of seven children. My mother died at the early age of 34, when I was only 23 months old and my oldest sister Bernice was just 11. Papa didn't talk about Mama to us. The few words he said were that she went to God in heaven and that she wanted him to keep all of her children together, the boys too.
Until I started doing the cooking, it had been done by one of my older sisters or by Roland Norwood, a family friend who came to live with us and helped with the washing and chores. We lived in a two-story house with a long porch and a fireplace in the kitchen and a sitting room. The porch had a swing hung from the ceiling, and when we'd swing on it, it made a noise like a crane croaking. The sitting room had a big bed, standing tall with fresh wheat straw that was stuffed into a homemade cover, making a mattress that we called a bed tick. The cover was made from unbleached flour or chicken sacks sewed together with thread that had been carefully taken out of the top of the sacks and wound around a homemade spool to keep it from tangling. The upstairs was more like a loft. You could stand up only in the middle of it. The beds were placed so their heads were under the lowest part of the ceiling. Trunks where we stored the quilts stood in every corner. The dining room had a built-in pantry with a window front and two doors whose knobs for closing the pantry at the bottom had been homemade from thread spools carved into button shapes. The top shelves were filled with pretty glasses and plates and bowls.
We had a well in the yard that would sometimes go dry in the summer. Then we would use water out of the spring down the hill, or Papa would set big tin oil drums, some holding 100 gallons, and potbellied wine barrels on rocks at each corner of the house to catch all the rain possible for washing our clothes. When the water was low in the barrels, I learned how to take the gourd dipper, jump up, hang over with my belly button on the rim of the barrel, and dip out the water.
I was called "Dip" by my brothers and sisters from an early age because I was so tall (today, I'm six feet, one inch) and had such long arms that I could reach way down in the rain barrel to scoop up a big dipperful of water when the level was low. Filling up water buckets for the kitchen had its benefits, though, as it was on my trips in and out of the kitchen with water that I first learned to cook, watching how Roland or my older sisters made things with their "dump cooking" methods and making mental notes about how ingredients went together.
Dump cooking means no recipes, just measure by eye and feel and taste and testing. Cooking by feel and taste has been a heritage among black American women since slavery, and that's the way I learned to cook. When I talk about dump cooking I am thinking of fresh vegetables (planting and tending a vegetable patch and then cooking and canning its products has also been a tradition for black women), homegrown or from a farmers' market. I think of peeling potatoes, stringing beans, chopping onions, hulling peas, washing greens, and more. Farm fresh is the highlight of country dump cooking. If you buy food too far ahead, it's not fresh when you cook it. Some vegetables keep a long time when refrigerated, but remember, usually they have already been refrigerated before you buy them.
Fruit for cobblers or pies was picked by all the children. We would just taste the fruit for sweetness and add the amount of sugar that we felt was needed. For more sweet fruit and for country pie taste, a little salt was always added to mellow the sugar with the fruit.
Vegetables were a pan or basket full or a head or two of cabbage, ears of corn, a small bucket of potatoes, with a piece of meat for each person. Measuring cups were not found in our kitchen. I learned to pinch the salt or pour it in the palm of my hand. Then I would taste the juice from the pot like Roland did. Measuring by eye or feel, I still find that my hands serve well for this, and tasting gives your pot that personal touch. After I left home, I had no measuring cups or spoons in my kitchen (salt and pepper were used right out of the container) until my children began to cook. Even then, I encouraged them not to rely on measurements too much. I would tell them to try learning to pour salt or pepper into their hands and then dumping it into the pot.
When Papa said the wonderful words to me at age nine that I could have my "turn in the kitchen," I had already been dreaming about cooking, and I could hardly wait to tell my playmates across the meadow branch that I wouldn't have time to play hopscotch or jump rope anymore because I had to fix dinner. I felt grown. I wanted to tell someone right then, but I knew it would take me an hour to go across the meadow branch, so I just went to the woodpile and got chips and bark to start my fire in the wood cookstove.
The fire was hard to start, and I blew and blew on it until I was dizzy. I wanted to fix a big, good meal, but all we had was whippoorwill peas and ham bone. I took the ham bone out to the woodpile to cut it into pieces with an ax, just like Roland or Papa would do. That's when I heard the guinea hens cackling down behind the house. I was sure I'd be able to get some eggs. I was so excited I even took them out of the nest with my hands, against Papa's rules. He said the guineas would never lay in the nest again if you did that. I didn't care. I just wanted to make an egg custard pie with a crust rolled out with a glass and flavored with the scrapings from the whole nutmeg that the Watkins man sold on his travels from farm to farm. That day even my cornbread turned out good not too much soda, just like Papa had said.
In looking back now, I guess life was not easy for our family. I didn't even realize I'd grown up in a single-parent household for many years. And I know Papa sometimes had a hard time making ends meet. One year right after the Depression, Papa could barely put food on the table after the boll weevils ate up most of his cotton crop. But he always started out each morning at breakfast with the blessing, "Thank you, Father, for the food that we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies. For Christ's sake. Amen."
Our day began as soon as the roosters crowed, about 5:00 a.m. We never needed an alarm clock. At an early age I could tell which rooster was crowing (the guineas would make the most noise in the winter). Papa would call us by name until we stirred. A fire had to be made, breakfast started, and the cows fed and milked while it was still dark. The lantern always hung at the back door for the early morning feedings. The white wash pan with a red rim sat on a little homemade table that Papa made with slabs from the sawmill and then covered with tin. The towel hung on a nail at the back door by the wash pan. It had been bleached almost white and then hemmed, but you could still read the name of what was sold in the sack. Roland or Papa would pour hot water from the kettle and dip cold water from the bucket to make it warm. We all washed our faces and hands in the same water, patting water all over our faces, and then we all dried ourselves with the same towel, picking out a dry spot, which was hard to do if you were the sixth or seventh to use the towel. Then it was breakfast and time to get ready for school or work.
The barn was across the road from the house. A big barn, it had two sections with a covered opening in the middle where the wagon sat and where the mules could be hitched and unhitched. In the winter, Papa would wrap our legs in burlap feed sacks and tie them on with brown twine like a small fuzzy rope that was bought for bundling the wheat, oats, and fodder. Fodder is the leaves and tops of corn plants that were fed to the cows and mules in the winter months when there was no grass or honeysuckle. When you got to the barn, stray cats would come around mousing and the dogs would come looking for a treat. You had to give them a little treat. I would take the cow's tit and squeeze milk into the cat's or dog's mouth. They would catch this good, warm milk. The cats would wipe their mouths with their paws and lick them clean. The dogs would sit and lift their ears and hold their heads to the side looking for more.
It was fun how they could really catch the string of milk. But Papa knew how much milk the cow would give, so you couldn't have too much fun. He would ask, "Did you drain that cow's tits?" (The cream seems to be at the end of the milking.) The answer would be "Yessir, Papa," and then Papa would say, "Now y'all know you gonna want to make snow cream and milk shakes."
Saturdays were always the day for cleaning house with homemade equipment, like a mop made of burlap sacks tied around a hoe, or washing and boiling clothes in a big black pot with homemade lye soap. Weekdays were the time for outdoor work on a big farm in Chatham County or for heading for school, all depending on what time of year it was. In the early spring, our work might be planting Irish potatoes. We would bring the potatoes saved from the year before out from under a pile of sawdust, tow sacks, and scrap tin, sprouting them in the light before cutting out the "eyes" and then planting them in a corner of the garden.
The walnut and hickory trees were part of the shade trees in the backyard. We would gather the smaller nuts from these trees and store them in the smokehouse. In the winter we would crack them and pick out the meat with a safety pin or small nail. When we sat by the fire or when the weather was bad, we would eat the nuts, and it was like eating hard candy.
In late summer the dog days, we called them our work might be thinning the long vines off the sweet potatoes. We thinned out the vines because Papa said "we would only have little, stringy potatoes" if we didn't. We fed the vines to the hogs. Spring and summer were canning and preserving time for the fruits and vegetables we grew, as well as for wild things like strawberries, dewberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and muscadine grapes.
Strawberries were the first fruit to come along in the spring. My Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim were the only people I knew who had a cultivated strawberry patch. We always just found them in the pine thickets and straw fields that were untended or unplowed. We would pinch off the whole stem and take them home and make jam or strawberry butter rolls (they would be called crepes now).
The dewberry was also an early berry that we picked in some areas every year. Papa said that the dew where they grew made them sweeter, and they were sweeter still since they were always picked in the morning. We got only one or two dewberry pies or cobblers every year.
Blackberries grew most everywhere, but the biggest and best were down in the meadow edge of the pasture where it stayed damp all the time, where the cows stood and chewed their cud under the trees. We picked pecks and pecks of berries, canning cases of them for winter pies and making jam and that famous blackberry wine that we all got a little sip of on Christmas morning at the breakfast table.
Asparagus also came in the early spring. The asparagus was reserved for the men who were the head of the household, as there were only a few of those funny looking sticks that grew together. Aunt Laura would mix them with garden peas and put in milk and butter and thicken them with flour paste. We could never have any. When we visited Aunt Laura and that dish was on the table, it would smell so good. I would pretend that I had a stomachache until everyone had finished eating so I could get the leftovers in that bowl.
In the fall, we would comb the woods for muscadine grapes, which grew wild on vines up in the trees. They too were preserved for the winter. We always cut off some of the vines to make jump ropes. Fall was also the time when there were field peas. No one was ever too young to pick cotton or dried peas. We put them in burlap sacks, then emptied them onto sheets and beat them with a wooden mallet until they were to be hulled. One of us would hold the peas up high and let them fall to another sheet, while the other one fanned them to blow out the small pieces of hull. The faster you fanned, the cleaner they got.
In August and September, apples had to be canned or else sliced and dried in the sun for making pies in the winter. Later, the corn had to be shelled and cut off the cob and measured in bushels to be ground at the mill for cornmeal. We grew a type of corn that we called Trucker's Flavor (though some people called it Trucker's Favorite), and if the season was right, we could have fresh corn on the cob by the Fourth of July. Cornbread was on the table at each meal, but it was cooked in different ways: dog bread, milk bread, pone bread, fried bread, molasses bread, and clabber bread, which has a sour taste. The dog bread was put on the table each morning six days a week, cooked in a round cast-iron pan and cut like a pie to serve each person at the table. It was the bread of family ties. It was made with meal and water, and the pan was sprinkled with cornmeal to brown the bread and keep it from sticking. Each person had a choice of molasses, honey, jelly, milk, or brown gravy to help carry it down before the biscuits. Our hound dogs, Leed and Raddler, would sometimes help out eating some of the dog bread when they wandered into the kitchen at breakfast time. You had to feed them carefully, though, or you would be told on by your brothers or sisters or threatened with having to do their every command.
In the winter, it was hog killing time. This was an occasion all by itself, but it was also the way we put food on the table for all three meals all through the year. Nothing was wasted. The hams went to the landlord, but the streaky meat and the bacon were cured and hung in the smokehouse. There was also tenderloin, back bones and spare ribs, chitlins, sausage, and souse meat (pickled parts of the pig).
We used the whole hog. Lard was made from the fat of the pigs. The fat would be cut into small pieces and cooked in a big black pot outside until it was brown and crispy and then strained with a homemade strainer made of screen wire on a pole. After they cooled, those pieces we called "cracklings" could be added to cornmeal. Even the hog's head was cut and salted down to be cured and cut into small pieces with the ax at the wood pile. The hog jowl was kept until New Year's Day for the special meal always prepared that day hog jowl, greens, black-eyed peas, baked sweet potatoes, and crackling cornbread. The hog jowl was eaten to ward off evil spirits; the greens represented dollar bills for the New Year; and the black-eyed peas represented silver coins.
Always the cows had to be fed and milked and the milk churned. Churning the milk to make butter had to be done twice a week and sometimes three in the spring. When the grass grew faster, there were more honeysuckles there for the cows, and therefore we had more milk. We poured the milk through a strainer into a stone three-gallon jar that was covered and left alone for two or three days. The milk would be curdled. We called it clabber. The yellow part would come to the top, and then it would be ready to be churned to make butter.
Our first churn was a wood box that sat on an X-shaped cradle that hung on flat pieces of iron that swung back and forth with a handle on both ends so that two people could either push or pull on the top. It had a square hole, cut with a lid, where you poured the milk in. After pushing and pulling for 30 minutes or more you could open up the lid and see butter forming on the top. You would take off the butter in a bowl, paddle all of the milk out, and drain the churn. The milk would be called buttermilk. Then we would "work" or knead the liquid out of the butter, put it into a wooden mold, and, when it cooled, press it to make a pound of butter with a star on top.
In the summer, when the butter had cooled and we pressed it into the mold, we had to take the pats outside and put them down the well, wrapped in flour sacks to keep them cool and fresh, since we didn't have an icebox. If we made lemonade or ice cream for special occasions, Papa hitched the mule and rode about eight miles on the wagon to buy big hunks of ice, which he'd bring home wrapped in a burlap sack under a sawdust heap. In the early 1940s margarine came to the grocery stores in pound blocks of white, lard-looking stuff with no smell. In each block was a small package of deep orange coloring that needed to be mixed into the margarine to make it look like butter.
Of course the chickens had to be fed and the eggs gathered every day from the nests built along the side of the corn crib. Nowadays, most people don't even know about different kinds of chickens, but on our farm we raised Dominickers, Rhode Island Reds, and White Leghorns. Each had its own color of eggs and its own size. The Leghorns grew faster, so we ate more of them, but the Rhode Island Reds, with their shiny maroon and black feathers, were the prettiest. The guineas were pretty and were used kind of like watchdogs on every farm, but they were also particular about their eggs and were almost never eaten. We had bantam chickens too, but just for their beauty.
The work was hard, but we were always a happy family. I don't think Papa wanted us to see the pain that people talked about later in growing up. He was our assurance, and he dedicated his life to his seven children, as well as several other children, during and after the Depression. I guess he didn't want to think about how much better life would have been if Mama had lived. She had gone to Bennett College and was a teacher at Baldwin School, a one-room school that I later attended.
Papa himself had lived in New York City in the early 1900s, working during the day and learning notes and music at night to become a voice teacher. Many nights he told us stories about how he made money hand clapping music for the "buck dancing" that was held in basements of buildings in New York. He always cherished the gold pocket watch he bought when he was there and the tuning fork he used to start a song. Papa was well known around Baldwin Township. He was a steward in the church and led the choir. If someone stuttered, Papa would train him not to do it. He had everybody in Baldwin Township singing, and some of the people he taught to sing are still singing today in their eighties.
When food was short, we had fun just seeing each other spread food all over the plate so it looked like a lot and counting how many biscuits each of us ate. If the butter gave out before it got to you, you had to sop your biscuits with side meat or put shoulder grease in your molasses and sop your biscuits in that.
Breakfast was a hearty meal on the farm. All kinds of meat were eaten mostly rabbit, squirrel, chicken, side meat, shoulders, or fish served with milk gravy and flour jacks (pancakes). Stewed corn was a summer breakfast dish, and we also ate rice and oatmeal.
Dinner was the 12 o'clock meal. If we were working in the fields or on another farm, we would pack a dinner which might be side meat, yams, fried Irish potatoes with onions, and canned sausage or tenderloin stuffed in biscuits that had been cooked while fixing breakfast and put in a basket to sit in the front of the wagon away from the dogs.
If we were working near the house, a bone or ham hock would be put on the stove to cook along with breakfast. Someone would leave the field about 11:00 to go and fix dinner fresh vegetables or dried beans and cornbread with buttermilk. Sweet milk was drunk only on Saturday and Sunday. The dinner bell in the yard would announce that the meal was ready. It was rung at the noon meal and at no other time unless there was something wrong.
Supper was the night meal, the smallest of the day. Leftovers from dinner were always kept under the sack cover on the table to be eaten with fresh cornbread and biscuits. Middling side meat, which is meat with a streak of lean and a streak of fat, might be fried, and fresh or home-canned peaches or apples might be added, along with scrambled eggs if the hens had been laying a lot of eggs. Sweet potatoes and ash cake made from flour, cornmeal and milk were often cooked in the fireplace in winter. Ash cake was especially good with blackbirds that we trapped at the corn crib and roasted on wire clothes hangers in the hot fireplace ashes.
We still had plenty of fun even after our hard work. In the summer, there was fishing in the daytime and "frog gigging" at night, where you shine a light on the frogs and grab them with your hands for eating frog legs. We fished with fishhooks we made from safety pins or barbed wire and poles we cut from willow trees near the branch. Because I couldn't swim, I could fish only in the meadow branch sitting on a flat rock. But I caught little horny heads and perch there, and when we put all our fish together, we would have a "mess" of them enough to make a meal.
In the winter, we made molasses taffy and popped corn from our own fields, or we made milk shakes from the icicles that froze from rain running off the edge of the roof. In the corner of the house there would be long icicles. We would put them in milk with vanilla and sugar and drink the mixture with a spoon. Each spoonful would have a piece of ice, and we would let the ice roll around in our mouths and then let it fall back into the jar or glass until it was all gone.
We even made our own sleds, wagons, and scooters, as well as our own dolls, popguns, and beanshooters. To make a popgun, we would cut a piece of a bush near the creek that had a soft, pithy center. We would take the soft part out with a nail and wire and make a peg from the dogwood tree that would fit in the hole. We stuffed cedar bobs in the hole; then we stuck the peg in, and the bobs would pop out 10 to 12 feet. We also made slingshots from dogwood limbs and old car inner tubes cut into strips. Beanshooters were a lot like slingshots. We made them by cutting the tongue out of an old shoe and attaching it, by means of strips cut from an old inner tube, to a piece of dogwood limb in the shape of a Y. We played music with harps that we made with a piece of paper over a comb. One year Papa bought a Victrola, and we would play blues, sad songs, and gospel quartets.
When I was little, Papa would put me on his knee as if his knee was a horse and bump me up and down, and sometimes he would make such music with his mouth that it made me curious to pull his mouth open to see what was making that pretty sound. Like all children, we did things we never told about when we were by ourselves smoking rabbit tobacco, a wild herb that we found in the straw field, until it made our heads swim, or sneaking eggs to school to trade for cookies and soda at the store on our way home.
When it was time to go upstairs to bed, my brothers and sisters would take turns carrying the lamp, often playing scary jokes on each other when the lamp had been blown out by the last person. The screech owl and hoot owl would sometimes let out their cries, and then we'd really fight for cover. Being the youngest and just a baby when Mama died, I slept at the bottom of Papa's bed. Every night we had to say our prayers, and I'd finish my "Now I lay me down to sleep" long before Papa, down on his knees at the foot of the bed, would finish his. Sometimes I'd scoot over to the side of the bed to see if I could hear what he was saying. At times he was praying it wouldn't start raining because the roof leaked so bad and we'd have to move our bed to keep from getting wet. When I was young I remember wanting to ask him if I could help because it took him so long to say his prayers.
Sundays were special at our house. Even the blessing Papa said was special: "I want to thank You for watching over us while we slumbered and slept." And breakfast on Sunday was flapjacks with chicken and gravy.
On the second and fourth Sundays of warm months, we'd go to Uncle Jim's and Aunt Laura's after church. Uncle Jim was Papa's brother, and he and Aunt Laura lived six miles from us. They lived better than most people I knew then, because Uncle Jim lived at my grandfather's homeplace. Therefore, Uncle Jim did not have to share his crops with a landlord the way Papa and most black people did at that time. Uncle Jim and Aunt Laura never had children, but Aunt Laura loved us as her own. Aunt Laura always let everybody know that "These is Papa Buddy's children, and he's raising all them young'uns by himself, so make sure they get something to eat" whenever there was homecoming dinner at church.
Aunt Laura was a queen to all the children at church, but she was really special to us. She always made our three Christmas cakes molasses, raisin, and butterscotch. When we were at her house, we were always happy to fill up the cookstove wood box because she'd give us a ham biscuit that had been mellowed in the redeye gravy left over from breakfast. We never had to eat out of pie pans at her house as we often did at home. Aunt Laura would let me set the table with bone-handle knives, forks, and spoons, and she even had a pretty tablecloth made from big spools of twine that was like the thread they used for quilting sometimes (this would be called crochet nowadays). We had to help her pick the seeds out of the cotton to spread in the quilts. Sometimes she would use cut-up overalls for the padding.
I always hated it when summer was over because we didn't go to Uncle Jim and Aunt Laura's much in the winter. But they would come to visit us and bring outing slips and bloomers, quilts, sheets and pillow cases, all made from feed sacks, to help Papa in providing for his seven children, since they didn't have any children of their own.
The second Sunday in August was the time for one of my favorite occasions the homecoming feast at Hamlet Chapel Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (after the civil rights movement, its name was changed to Hamlet Chapel Methodist Episcopal Christian Church). The women dressed so gracefully with their handmade broomstick shirtwaist dresses covered by starched and ironed feed sack aprons to keep their dresses clean. Their hair would be shining with grease and rolled up with hair pins, with a straw hat pressing on their forehead. They served dinner on a long wooden table nailed between two cedar trees near the church well and laughed and chattered as they spread fried chicken and vegetables of every kind on the table, cutting up pies and cakes to feed an army of hungry men, women and children. This was a great time in between plowing, hoeing, and picking, and I longed to be able to cook good things for people to eat from my earliest memories.
One special Sunday, when I was supposed to give a recitation in church, I had my hair straightened, and everyone wanted to touch it. My dress was pink dotted swiss, with sashes tied into a bow in the back. My new shoes were black patent leather ones that my sister had bought from Berman's store on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. When I put the shoes on that morning, I knew that they were too little, but my heart would not let me admit that they were not big enough. By the time we got to church, when I put my feet on the ground, I had to walk on the side of my pretty shoes.
Uncle Abe Burnette not our real uncle but a neighbor who lived across the meadow branch made corn hominy, fireplace chairs and benches, rocking chairs, and molasses. His molasses mill was one of my favorite things. He made a big vat that was on an axle and wheel. He would hook a mule to a long wooden tongue sticking out from the vat. We would cut the cane from our patch and take it over to his mill. The mule would go round and round, mashing the juice from the cane that we had cut. The cane juice would be stirred and cooked in large flat pans, sometimes way into the night, so it wouldn't stick. Then it would be put in jugs, and Uncle Abe would take a share for grinding and making it.
The molasses would be stored in the loft over the kitchen. We kept things like the molasses as well as some vegetables, fruits, and wine there so they wouldn't freeze. The loft was just three or four planks left unnailed in the ceiling so you could reach in if you stood on a chair and get what you wanted. By spring, all the canned goods would be gone, but there was always plenty of molasses, and sometimes honey that had been gathered by Papa and other men from trees after they smoked the bees away in the dark of night.
To make hominy, Uncle Abe placed corn kernels in wooden tubs and covered them with hay and ashes from the fireplace. He added a little water every day for nine days. The ash water took the husks off the corn, and then the corn was washed over and over again until it was clean and white.
We had all started to school at Baldwin School, a one-room school built of planks that had never been painted. The potbellied stove, with its long pipe through the ceiling and roof, stood almost in the middle of the room, near the teacher's desk. One teacher taught all grades. We all studied, ate lunch, and got out of school at the same time. There were four windows and a front and back door. The back door was used only by the boys bringing in wood for the stove or water from the spring.
When my sister Myrtle we always called her "Big Baby" or just "Big" got very sick and was put in a plaster body cast after an 18-month stay at Duke Hospital, we all had to take turns going to school so somebody could stay with her. Infantile paralysis, or polio as it was later called, kept her in a cast for two years until it was removed and she could learn to walk again. Whoever went to school brought the lessons home for the others, so we all kept learning, including Big. The same thing would happen when harvest time came and family members or neighbors had to stay out of school to help with the crops. Someone would let them know what we had in school, and we would all get together and play "teacher" or make up learning games. We would rake the yard real clean and work out arithmetic problems with a dried dogwood limb or choose sides and call out spelling words. Even if you missed days in school, you didn't miss learning. On the weekend, sometimes Papa would bring back candy sticks or cheese and crackers from the store for treats because we helped one another. We all learned to read and spell, and my brothers could work any kind of math.
When Baldwin School closed, my family moved about four miles down the road to be on the bus route to Pittsboro's Horton High School. The farm was much smaller, but Papa said the soil was better, and, most important, the landlord wanted only a quarter of the harvest. Our old landlord had gotten half the harvest. Things were hard there. Papa even accepted some of Roosevelt's WPA food one time. But when it was delivered to us, they brought so much that it took up half the front porch where they stacked it, and some of it was so strange brown flour (whole wheat, I guess now, but we'd never seen it before), canned meat, and yellow cornmeal (we'd always had white meal) that Papa said, "Thank you but don't bring any more; it'll take me a long time to use all this."
On the new farm we grew watermelons, cantaloupes, peas, and lima beans, which we sold to the Creel Store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I started washing and ironing for the new landlord, though I was still cooking and canning for the family, as well as helping with the plowing and the planting. I loved to plow the field until the planes started zooming so low overhead after World War II started. Times were really hard then. My oldest sister Bernice, who had a job in Chapel Hill, helped us some, but she wanted to get married and would need her money for herself.
We worked the new farm for two years, but after Papa sold the timber on his family's homeplace, we moved back to Papa's home farm near Uncle Jim and built a new log cabin to live in. World War II took two of my older brothers into the service. By then, tobacco had become the crop to grow. But the first year we planted tobacco the government came and cut down two long rows because Papa had gone over his allotment.
Soon after that harvest, in 1945, Papa bought a house in Chapel Hill. Big Myrtle and her son, Roy, lived with us for some years, and Roy had become sick and needed care. We didn't have a car, so we moved to town where he could get the help he needed. When Big died in 1948, Roy became like my own child, and he lived wherever I lived until his death.
When Papa made up his mind that we would move to Chapel Hill, I was really upset. When I had been to town with him before, I'd seen girls in bobby socks, pleated skirts, and sweaters, with shiny combs and magnolias in their hair, and I just couldn't see myself sitting in a classroom with them. My grandmother Martha, a midwife in Durham, came to visit us, and I cried about what was going to happen to us. She told Papa about a beauty school on Fayetteville Street in Durham that was good training work for girls. They accepted students with an eighth grade education, but I was already in the tenth grade. Nevertheless, Papa agreed it was a good idea, and I went to live with Grandmother Martha until Papa moved us into town in a one-horse wagon. When I saw the movie The Color Purple, it reminded me of our move from Chatham County into Chapel Hill.
I never wanted to go to beauty school. I wanted to cook and hear people talk about how good my food was, like they did at church when we had homecoming in August. Still, I went to beauty school and then to work at Friendly Beauty Parlor on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I worked there for a few months, though I never really liked it.
In late 1945, I met Joe Council, fresh from the army. When he took me home to meet his mother, I found her a very likable person who cooked like me. With her fur coat, turkey- or peacock-feathered wide-brim hats, and high heel shoes, she made me feel something I had never experienced before, especially in the way she talked to her son as if they were the best of friends. She made me realize what it felt like to have a mother around. I could talk to her like I thought I would have been able to talk to my own mother, if she had lived.
To my surprise, Joe's mother had known my mother as a little girl in Wake County and talked about the pretty ruffled blouses Mama had when she came home from college. I began to teach Miss Mary, as I called Joe's mother, to spell and write her name because Joe and I needed her to sign for us so we could get married. Even though Joe was not my sisters' choice for me because they thought he was too old, we were married in 1947.
We stayed with Miss Mary after we were married, until a cooking disaster sent me home to Papa. No matter what I did in Miss Mary's pans, I could never make brown gravy to go over the hamburger patties for supper; it was always gray, and Miss Mary was very unhappy about that. So I went home. Many tears and several days later, Joe came to stay in my family's house with Papa, too.
Times were very hard after the war for everyone. Joe worked at the sawmill, like a lot of other men, but when it rained there was no work and no money. I began work in the dining hall on the University of North Carolina campus, preparing vegetables for the cooks, and as a short order cook at the Carolina Coffee Shop, which is now one of the few restaurants in Chapel Hill that is older than mine.
When I began having my babies our first child, Norma, was born in 1949 I could work only until they found out I was pregnant. Between then and 1957, all my other seven children (including twins in 1953) were born in between different jobs. The hardest time in my life was after the twins' birth, because both of them and I became sick. For almost a year, my right eye would not close, and people began to call me Mrs. Boe, for the man with a patch over his eye on the Bohemian Beer label.
My cooking continued at Kappa Sigma fraternity and at St. Anthony Hall, when Charles Kuralt was a student and lived there, and for Professor Hugo Giduz and later his son Roland and his family. Joe's parents opened Bill's Bar-B-Q on Graham Street in Chapel Hill. It was a landmark during the integration era because it served lunches for jailed demonstrators. I worked there, too.
My first job doing family cooking was for a Mrs. Patterson on Wilson Court in Chapel Hill. (All I ever knew her as was "Mrs. Patterson"; at that time, blacks used only the last names of their employers.) Her family drank fresh orange juice every morning for breakfast, and I would take the peels home to dry so we could chew on them in bad weather to sweeten "bad breath." Now I know they probably helped ward off colds, but I didn't know that then. I still keep some over a warm place on the stove.
One day Mrs. Patterson told me to cook some sweet potatoes. She didn't say they were for a pie for dessert, but I just assumed that they were and boiled them. I guessed wrong, however, as she wanted them for the main dinner (though I never knew exactly how she wanted them cooked). When I realized my mistake, I decided to try something I was never given recipes or a cookbook on my cooking jobs so I mashed them and then put butter, Karo syrup, canned milk, orange juice, a handful of sugar, and a pinch of salt in them. The thought came to me to squeeze the oranges and put the potato mixture in the orange peel cups, then bake them.
At supper time, I set the table and put the food on, but I was so afraid of what I had done with the sweet potatoes that as they sat down I went to stand at the swinging door to hear if I was going to get fired. But what I heard them say was that the potatoes were soooo good. My heart said, "Yes, yes, yes, Dip." And I've been making up my own recipes and cooking them ever since.
In 1957, I began working with my mother-in-law in a tiny take-out restaurant business. Through this experience, I began sharpening my business skills.
In 1976, I was working at UNC Memorial Hospital when George Tate, who was the first black realtor in town, offered me the opportunity to take over a failing restaurant on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. I didn't even have the money to put anything down on the deal until my next paycheck. I had only $64 to buy enough food from a local grocer to make breakfast the first day that my restaurant opened. On a Saturday evening, around seven o'clock, some of my children and I went in and cleaned nearly all night getting ready for our first day.
Sunday morning I stopped by Fowler's Food Store on Franklin Street to shop for breakfast. I purchased bacon, sausage, eggs, grits, flour, coffee, sugar, salt, catsup, chickens, Crisco, cheese, cornmeal, and trash bags, spending almost all of my money and not realizing that I could not have changed a ten dollar bill if someone had given me one first thing that morning. I don't know how many times we ran out of eggs and bacon. The breakfast trade was good enough that I left for the grocery store to buy food to make lunch, and then I used the money from lunch to buy food for the evening dinner. At the end of the day, my profit counted out to $135, and I was in business! I named my restaurant Dip's Country Kitchen.
Monday was a rather busy day for me back to Fowler's to purchase Coca-Colas; then back to the restaurant to make pies; then to Durham to apply for a restaurant license.
I went from 18 to 22 seats in the restaurant in a year. Not able to add any more seats, we began a take-out business. By 1985, I was able to rent the space adjoining my restaurant and remodeled to seat 90. Soon the restaurant was equipped with a walk-in refrigerator, two ovens, two steam tables, two fryers, and a dish-washing machine. I started out with a staff of three and now have 15 employees.
Since then, I have not looked back. The name of the restaurant changed to just Dip's after a trademark challenge. I've taken business management courses at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and several seminars to improve my management skills. And I've been able to hire several of my children and grandchildren, plus nieces and nephews, to work in the restaurant over the years. In 1998 I purchased the land across the street from the leased property where I had been in business since 1976 and built my own restaurant, which opened early in 1999 with the name Mama Dip's Kitchen and will be a legacy to my children.
The restaurant menu has changed with the times. We now offer vegetable platters, for example. However, there are still people in the community who are interested in cooking game meat, like rabbit and squirrel. Recently, someone called the restaurant and said that he had caught a raccoon in his garbage can and wanted to know how to cook it.
In addition to operating the restaurant, I make, bottle, and distribute my own special barbecue sauce, as well as dressings. Many local speciality food shops sell these, and we sell them directly from the restaurant as well.
Over the years, my restaurant has had plenty of good press. A few years ago, Garrison Keillor brought his homespun live radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, to Chapel Hill and invited me to be one of his guests. Afterward, the entire audience seemed to descend on Dip's, eating up "everything and then some," as one of my daughters described it.
Craig Claiborne, a food critic for the New York Times, has written about the restaurant, and it's been written up in Southern Living as well. The restaurant has received notice in US Air's in-flight magazine, and it's been featured in a story in the Washington Post. We have also had a lot of good publicity from the local papers the Daily Tar Heel, the Chapel Hill News, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun, and many more. In the autumn of 1998, I appeared on the ABC-TV news show Good Morning, America, making pecan pie for Thanksgiving dinner.
Preparing and eating different foods has been a mind and soul experience for me. Over the years I have observed that many important discussions take place and many important decisions get made at a table over a plate of food. All over the world, each country has its own cuisine, and whatever the agenda, food is always important. Whether it's at a picnic or a fancy dinner, food always brings joy to family, friends, and strangers. The best is sometimes the easiest to make. Southern cooking seems the simplest.
More than 15 years ago, people started asking me to write a cookbook. I even got started on it about 10 years ago. But it was a complicated and time-consuming process mostly because what I've done all my life is dump cooking. Over the past 10 years, though, I've been writing things down and measuring them so I can know I'm giving out the right information for some good country cooking. Still, you should be mindful of my recipes' origins in the dump cooking style. Feel free to modify and adapt them as you like. Experiment with them. Don't worry if your brown sugar is dark or light, if your mustard is yellow or Dijon, if your seasoned salt is Lawry's or Durkee's. Use what you have. Try it different ways. Use your imagination. Treat the recipes like sewing patterns stretch or alter them to fit. In my own cooking, I've experimented with different spices, shortening, leavening, flour, and meal and noticed the different results that I got from each in different foods. So I encourage you to stretch your cooking luck, too but remember to try new recipes with your family first. Most all of my recipes have been prepared and served sometime during the 20 years that I've operated my restaurant on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. If it were not for the restaurant, I would not have put this book together. Some desserts came from family reunions but never with a recipe. A little of this and that, and do you like it?
After more than 60 years of doing my own dump cooking, which I've shared with family and friends, this is the first chance I've had to put recipes together for a real cookbook. Sharing my cooking with the community reminds me of bringing my dolls together so many years ago for some old-fashioned mud pies. It's another thing in my life that I can be thankful for spreading my love and happiness like pumpkin seeds all around.
Mildred "Mama Dip" Council, Chapel Hill, 1999
are some of Mama Dip's recipes to try.