SOUTHERN COOKING is alive and well . . . in Cape May, N.J. For those who love hot biscuits and spoon bread, fried chicken and bread pudding, it doesn't make any difference where it's preserved as long as it is. Besides, the keeper of the tradition is Richmond, Va., born and bred Helen Dickerson, who has been cooking at the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May for 35 years.
She's been going there a lot longer than that. First as a baby sitter for the owner's children. She started when she was 8 and made $3 a week, and went later as a waitress, then head waitress and finally at the job she holds today at age 71.
Four generations of Dickersons have been cooking at the hotel. Helen dickerson's mother was first. Now Helen's daughter, Dot Burton, is her mother's chief assistant. (Dot's husband also pitches in, peeling 250 potatoes every Saturday night.) Dot's children have been pressed into service and one of them is going to cooking school.
Let's hope what he learns at cooking school won't undo all the wonderful things he has learned by watching his grandmother. On the other hand, unlike her he won't be afraid of the food processor, which she refuses to use. "I won't touch it. For one thing," Helen Dickerson said as she arranged the lemon slices on the broiled blue fish, "I'm afraid of breaking it."
Looking with disdain at the electric stove in the local kitchen where she had been preparing many of her specialities, she said, "I wouldn't have one of those things if you paid me. When I first started cooking we had an old coal stove. It was the best kind."
Only last year did she and her daughter stop chopping everything by hand with handmade chopper. Now they've got an electric one.
But old-fashioned is what the Chalfonte Hotel exemplifies anyway. At 104 years old it is now an historic landmark, its exterior preserved by a grant of $10,000 from the National Park Service. Three summers ago 70 architecture students from the University of Pennsylvania descended on the hotel as a "matching gift" for the grant. They donated their services to restore the exterior, which looks very much the way it did when it opened in 1876.
The hotel has been owned by the Satterfield family since 1910. Mary Satterfield, 86, ran the hotel every summer following her husband's death in the 1950s. But a few years ago she decided it was more than she could do herself. Now the day-to-day management is shared by Judy Bartella and Ann LeDuc, both whom started visiting the Cape May resort as children and worked there when they were in college. During the winter they teach school.
During the winter Helen Dickerson rests and tries to make up for the summer days that begin at 5:30 a.m. When the hotel, which has 103 rooms (and 11 private baths) is full, the kitchen is preparing two meals a day for 180 guests. It's really more like a boarding house, said Bartella. Rates, which range from $27 a day for a single up to $77 for two, depending on the accommodations, include those meals. Whether or not you have a private bath, running water or water in a pitcher, when it comes to the meals, everyone gets the same. Plenty of it and all of it delicious.
And according to Helen Dickerson, the menu hasn't changed much since she began cooking. Some of the recipes, she said are at least 50 years old. What people eat hasn't changed much either. "They don't eat any less. The young crowd seems to want the same thing," the cook said. "A lot of them never had this before."
What they've never had before is food cooked from scratch. "Everything . . . because it makes better food," Helen Dickerson said matter of factly. Even the mayonnaise is homemade because the owner wants it that way. Dickerson tried the mayonnaise in the jar once, but Mrs. Satterfield knew right away. "I feel sorry for the younger generation," Dickerson said. "All the young people care about is sand, sun, water and booze."
But not the ones who to the Chalfonte, where they get roast lamb on Monday, roast beef on Tuesday, fried chicken on Wednesday, country ham and turkey on Thursday, crabcakes and broiled bluefish on Friday. They are served with "all the trimmings."
These trimmings were sampled in Potomac late last month. A few of the dishes were prepared in Cape May, where Helen Dickerson and her daughter both live now. Additional preparation was done at Cissy Finley's home in Potomac so Finley could watch and write down the recipes as they were prepared. Then the food was carted to Lynn Carroll's house, where it made a lunch that went on almost until dinner time. "We wouldn't have been so late," said Helen Dickerson, "if she (Finley) hadn't been on my back." Neither cook has ever measured a thing before. "It's the first time I ever measured recipes," said Dot Burton, "and I'm tellin' you it was real hard."
Her mother is convinced that after a day of measuring she "can measure a grain of salt."
Good thing, too. Now others can enjoy Helen Dickerson's cooking at home. For those with a desire to try it in Cape May, the Chalfonte Hotel opens Memorial Day. The telephone is (609) 884-8934. CRAB MEAT CROQUETTES (12 to 14 croquettes) 1 1/2 pounds crab meat (backfin not necessary, but preferable) 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/4 cup grated onion 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1 cup thick cream sauce (recipe below) 5 eggs 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon pepper 2 dashes hot pepper sauce 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 2 teaspoons salt Bread crumbs Fat for deep frying
Pick over crab meat. Mix with parsley, onion, lemon juice, cream sauce, 2 eggs, Worcestershire, pepper, hot pepper sauce and dry mustard. Shape into 2 1/2-to-3-inch-long croquettes. Beat remaining 3 eggs in a soup bowl. Dip each croquette in bread crumbs, then in beaten eggs, mixed with salt, then in bread crumbs again. Fry in deep fat at 375 degrees until brown. Thick Cream Sauce I 3 tablespoons butter or margerine 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk
Melt butter in small pan; add flour and cook over low heat. Add milk, stirring, and cook until mixture is thickened. EGGPLANT CASSEROLE (6 to 8 servings) 2 medium eggplant (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cubed 2 cups chopped onion 1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, well drained (juice reserved) and chopped 2 tablespoons Worcerstershire sauce. 1/2 cup thick cream sauce (recipe below) 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 1/2 cup bread crumbs 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese Paprika 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper
Place eggplant and onions in large pan with water barely to cover; simmer until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Drains well. Add tomatoes (reserve juice for cream sauce), salt and pepper, Worcestershire, cream sauce and 1/4 cup butter. cMelt remaining tablespoon of butter in an 8-cup baking dish; sprinkle bottom with 1/4 cup bread crumbs. Add eggplant mixture, sprinkle top with cheese, remaining crumbs and paprika. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Thick Cream Sauce II 1 1/2 tablespoons butter or margarine 2 tablespoons flour 1/4 cup milk or juice from canned tomatoes
Melt butter in small pan; add flour and cook over low heat until well blended. Add liquid and cook until thickened. HELEN'S ROLLS (Makes about 5 dozen) 4 cups milk 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons margarine 1/2 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons soft shortening 3 1/2 teaspoons sugar 2 packages dry yeast 11 cups flour 4 teaspoons salt 4 eggs 2 tablespoons melted margarine
Combine 3 cups milk, 1/2 cup margarine and shortening in a saucepan. Heat until margine is melted; set aside and cool. Heat remaining cup milk with sugar until lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over and set aside. Combine flour and salt; add 4 eggs. add both milk mixtures and mix until all ingredients are blended and dough is manageable and not sticky. Add extra flour, if necessary. Knead for 10 minutes. Melt 2 tablespoons margarine in large pan; grease sides of pan and top and sides of dough. Cover with warm lid and let rise until triple in bulk. Pinch off walnut-size pieces of dough for sectional rolls (3 pieces for each roll). Dip each section in melted margarine and place the three pieces in each cup of ungreased stick-proof muffin pans. Brush top with margarine. Let rise until dough in bulk. Bulk at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes. SPOONBREAD (12 servings) 1 cup stone ground yellow cornmeal 2 tablespoons shortening 3 cans (13 ounces each) evaporated milk 4 eggs, beaten 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 tablespoon baking powder
Bring meal, shortening and 2 cans of milk to boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Combine eggs, remaining milk and salt; add to meal mixture. Quickly stir in baking powder. Pour mixture into two greased, 1-quart casseroles or one 2-quart casserole. Bake at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes, until top is golden brown. BREAD PUDDING (6 to 8 servings) 4 slices bread 1/2 cup raisins (optional) 4 eggs 3/4 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoons salt 4 cups evaporated milk 2 teaspoons vanilla 2 teaspoons nutmeg
Butter bread and toast under broiler. Cube and spread evenly over bottom of a 2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle raisins over, if used. Beat eggs; add sugar and salt, then milk, vanilla and nutmeg. Blend well and pour over cubes. Sprinkle with additional nutmeg, if desired. Set dish in pan of cold water. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.