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 31/2 minutes. With military precision, a timer is set next to every pot. The ketchup-based dipping sauce has a good hit of horseradish.
"You got to have the right mixture of Old Bay [seasoning], celery seed, cayenne pepper and salt, the lower Delaware way. People really go for it," says post commander Harry McLaughlin, a Navy veteran who served in World War II in the South Pacific.
The commander's wife, Stel, "not Stella, like from 'Streetcar.' Call me Stel," is carrying plate after plate piled with shrimp off to the weekly customers. Veterans' shrimp is also available to go. But then the camaraderie, pool table and dollar pitchers would be missed.
For Sussex-style home fries topped with chipped beef as well as colossal western omelets, locals wait their turn at Crystal Restaurant, the preferred breakfast meeting place for retirees. Families with children form ranks at Royal Treat -- a breakfast and ice cream parlor -- for one of the 12 tables on the screened porch. Some will wait 45 minutes for an old-fashioned chocolate soda made with a key ingredient (it's half-and-half).
Still, perhaps, the business that screams slower lower like no other is Lingo's Market at First Street and Baltimore Avenue. Founded by John A. Lingo in 1898, this deep, narrow, well-worn grocery with exposed pipes and a scruffy wood floor appears to change little or not at all from decade to decade.
Matriarch and downstate icon, Eleanor Lingo, 89, spends 80 hours a week behind the checkout register, possibly too close to the open produce cases. It's cold near the counters, so Lingo always bundles up with layers of cardigan sweaters in assorted colors.
"Families who have shopped here since the 1940s, they've seen her at the counter since they were children," says granddaughter Jessica Lingo. "We're maintaining a tradition. And it's hard with so much competition from the supermarkets out on the highway."
But despite the old-time look, Lingo's has diversified by offering hot, French-style pastries in the early morning as well as lobsters steamed to order, rotisserie chicken and more than 50 types of imported cheeses and pate in the deli case. "We're adjusting to the desires of customers. It's just not retirees in Rehoboth anymore. There are more families with small children," says Lingo.
Back on Highway 1 at Bozie's Produce, a glorified roadside stand that sells local vegetables and fruits as well as the striped petunias favored by downstate gardeners, co-owner Jeany Argo is taking a lunch break at a picnic table behind the greenhouse.
Her father, Bozie Furniss, opened the business in 1971. Five years ago, with the help of her husband, Sammy, "who went from laying bricks and blocks to making cakes," they introduced Sussex-style prepared food. "It all started with a pint of coleslaw," says Argo as she finishes eating a cup of creamy clam chowder. "What makes our coleslaw different is that it's made with Miracle Whip. That's the way I was taught." She characterizes downstate cooking as "straightforward with no extra spices."
On an average summer weekend, the Argos sell 250 to 300 pounds of chicken salad that is noticeably sweetened with sugar: "My grandmother's recipe," says Argo. Gallons of lima bean soup fly out the door. Bozie's shrimp salad, rich with paprika, will wind up on crackers at cocktail parties up and down the beach.
"It's what we've eaten all our lives," says Argo. "Plain, old-fashioned cooking."
In slower lower Delaware, clockwise, from top left: Captain's Table Restaurant owner-cook Doris Lynch gets a hug from her son Alan; peppers at Bozie's Produce; Sara Lingo, 5, with an ice cream cone at Royal Treat (whose sign is to her immediate left); prepared salads at Bozie's; owner-chef Pete Tsolakis keeps things moving in the morning at Crystal Restaurant; eye-catching flavors at Royal Treat; oyster stew at the Captain's Table.