Slower Lower Delaware
Slippery Dumplings and Lima Bean Soup: A Beyond-the-Boardwalk Tour of Fare From the Southern Part of the State
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page F01
REHOBOTH BEACH, Del.
On a Sunday summer morning in one part of Delaware, fresh corn-kernel fritters come to the breakfast table, coated with butter, drizzled with maple syrup. Alongside sits a sliver of spicy scrapple. The folks who gather around these tables have a seemingly, limitless appreciation for lima beans in every form and a taste for sweet mustard pickle made with green tomatoes and cauliflower. Dessert might be a vanilla-flavored white potato pie.
These regional dishes are not just a manner of cooking; they also embody an atmosphere from a portion of the state that lies below the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal connecting Delaware Bay with the Chesapeake Bay. That would be lower New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties, commonly referred to as downstate.
With the exception of the coastal resorts and the capital, Dover, downstate Delaware is rural and conservative, in contrast to the urban and industrial north. On the whole, the region is noted for the broiler chicken industry, flat farmlands planted with potatoes and small towns where police enforce speed limits. Houses have screened porches with slow-moving ceiling fans. The pace is casual and the people practical.
Beachgoers might think pizza and funnel cake topped off with saltwater taffy are the hallmarks of Delaware food. Chain restaurants on Highway 1 offer another option. Rehoboth also has its share of fashionable, candle-lit restaurants for those who can afford them.
But both hidden and in plain view, other beach businesses serve noteworthy dishes that are, to some degree, particular to southern Delaware. And folks familiar with the slower lower approach to foods line up for the possibilities at a number of unfussy outposts that have stood the test of time.
If there is one dish that typifies downstate cuisine, it is chicken with dumplings -- a gut-filling combination of shredded white and dark meat suspended in thick, flour-enriched, chicken gravy. And not just any dumpling or dough mass will do. Downstate cooks prefer flat, slippery dumplings -- not to be confused with the golf ball-size drop dumplings that are favored farther north.
This crowd-pleasing dish is a favorite at area volunteer fire department fundraisers. Chicken with slippery dumplings, often served with boiled lima beans and stewed tomatoes, is the Wednesday special at the Captain's Table restaurant on Highway 1 in Rehoboth.
Even on a blinding, white-hot day, it's dark and cool inside Captain's. The separate bar area, in particular, is cozy with nautical decor. Says regular customer and Rehoboth resident Pat Farley, 81: "It's the kind of place where older women feel comfortable and secure." Co-owner and cook Doris Lynch, 82, has been overseeing the slippery production for 25 years.
"You've got to make sure you start with a big, old fat hen to give it the flavor," says Lynch, who is also noted locally for her sherry-scented oyster stew. All the while her small hands form perfect, lump-meat crab cakes for the dinner rush. "And your dumplings have to be rolled out thin so they absorb the chicken fat," she says. "That's what makes them slippery."
Still, Lynch says she is not a slippery fan. "It's too heavy. But that's just Sussex County," she says with a nod. "That's what people eat down here." So many, in fact, that chicken with dumplings is a sell-out every week.
An unexpected taste of downstate is served every Friday in, of all places, the otherwise private Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 7447 clubhouse on State Road.
On "shrimp night," regular customers grab the comfortable stools around a large, attractive bar. This lively group is set for the evening. The bargain beer and bubbly conversation flow. Families with children are sequestered in a dining area on the right side of the hall. Everyone is peeling shrimp.
Back in the kitchen, volunteer vets boil each order of medium-size shrimp in beer and spices for exactly 3 1/2 minutes. With military precision, a timer is set next to every pot. The ketchup-based dipping sauce has a good hit of horseradish.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company