Even now, two decades after I first met Mildred Council, it's hard to tell what was more impressive - the second-helpings she served of her storied candied yams or the second chance at life she served up to the many cons and ex-cons who worked at her Chapel Hill restaurant, Mama Dip's Kitchen.
If your relatives and friends visiting the Triangle are anything like mine, they always want to be taken to one of four places - the old or new Durham Bulls baseball park, the 14 Kt. Dinner Theater or Mama Dip's.
Council, known to just about everybody as Mama Dip, died May 21. She was 89.
When I first started going to Dip's, it was just because the food was great. Then I learned about Council's work with the Orange and Durham correctional centers to help inmates leave prison on the good foot - with some work experience and self-esteem.
At Dip's, one could eat great food and feel as though you were doing a good deed at the same time, because for nearly 40 years, Council had been saving inmates one scrubbed pot, one peeled onion, one whisked broom at a time.
Take Paul Scott.
When I interviewed Scott eight years ago, he was busting suds at Mama Dip's. That was, he said, his first real job - except for selling drugs.
That's why he was also doing an eight-year bid as a non-violent habitual felon at the Durham prison and working at Dip's as part of the inmate work-release program.
"If I'd given work a chance, I might not ever have seen the inside of a prison," he said. "This job is a blessing. Mama Dip is a blessing.
"I went on interviews for a year before I got this" job, Scott said. "A lot of people don't want to take a chance on us."
Not only did Council take a chance, but she never judged the people who worked for her. "I don't ask them what they've done, but sometimes they tell me," she said. "They're not all bad people. Most of them are locked up for drugs. If you could take a broom and sweep out all of the drugs... you'd be surprised at what you might find."
One of my favorite gospel songs is a heart-tugging hymn by the Gatlin Brothers called "The Midnight Choir" which has a line that goes "Will they have Mogen David in heaven? (If not, who the hell wants to go)?"
That's how I feel about Mama Dip's yams, and poke chops, and smothered chicken and...
Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, in his autobiography, criticized UNC basketball star Michael Jordan's "demureness" when it came to speaking out on social and political issues. I agreed with Ashe and thought the world had bequeathed unto Jordan a megaphone through which he could have positively influenced the world.
He chose not to.
Two people helped make me consider that I might be wrong about Jordan.
After one critical column, Dean Smith called - and wrote - saying "Barry, you're going to be surprised by Michael," meaning, I assumed, that once Jordan quit playing basketball he'd dedicate himself to speaking out on issues more important than which sports drink or basketball shoe was best.
Years later, when I was interviewing Mrs. Council about her altruistic penchant for hiring people whom most other employers shunned, she asked if I was the same person who was always writing bad stuff about Michael.
I averred that I was.
He was, she told me, always respectful when he came into her restaurant, which he did often before and after he became a star.
The way I see it, if two people as admired as Dean Smith and Mama Dip think someone is a good person, perhaps I should consider the possibility that I could be wrong.
One thing I know I'm not wrong about, though, is that Mildred Council - Mama Dip - was a great woman.
She could cook, too.