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Fried Chicken & Soul at the Chalfonte Hotel

This article originally ran in the July 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine.

Fried chicken and soul at the Chalfonte Hotel

There are few historic hostelries in this world where the eras of architecture and food embrace each other. At the Chalfonte, Cape May’s oldest continuous operating hotel, the Magnolia Room’s southern menu has been a tradition for 101 years. That is remarkable in itself. But more remarkable, the dishes: the fried chicken, split pea soup, herbed roast leg of lamb, baked ham, black-eyed peas, crab croquettes, fried eggplant, collards and ham hocks, fried green tomatoes, spoon bread, corn pudding, buttermilk biscuits, sweet potato pie, blueberry cobbler, have been lovingly produced by four generations of women from one Virginia family. In all, they have given 300 years of themselves at the Chalfonte.

Lucille cooking

In summer, the long, lacey scalloped verandas provide the same cool shade for rocking as they did the year Civil War hero Colonel Henry Sawyer built the Chalfonte, in 1876.

The dining room is elegant in its unspoiled plainness. Ocean breezes float from tall windows, refreshing as they were the evening Mr. Sawyer sat down for his first dinner. The heart of the hotel is, and always has been, the kitchen. The big black coal-burning stoves are gone and the giant iceboxes are no more. But the family of cooks that has made this kitchen nationally famous still reigns. They describe their distinctive style as “soul food with its Sunday clothes on.”

Their fried chicken is the Chalfonte special that has attracted the most attention from food writers and national TV shows over the years. And it is beyond a doubt, the most popular among guests. The chicken is deep golden crispy crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, with a pungent scent and flavor all its own.

The Chalfonte food is essentially southern home cooking, using locally grown ingredients with recipes capable of serving 150 to 200. It is the home cookin’ that helps make the old hotel feel like home for the guests who return year after year, from one generation to the next, to rooms that have had no air conditioning, televisions, internet, and only shared baths. It is one of the only hotel kitchens anywhere where guests burst in for hellos, hugs, kisses and gifts of flowers and scotch for the cooks who are considered family.

Left to right: Lucille, Dot, mother Helen, grandmother Clementine, and Dot’s daughter Tina

Imagine a splendid day in early October of 2009, late in the afternoon. Shafts of strong sunlight beam across the cavernous kitchen, throwing prisms off shiny pots. “The Ladies,” Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson, sisters, then 81 and 79, move about in a slow sashay, preparing for the last meal of the season. They claim this will be their very “last supper.” They have worked the Chalfonte their entire lives. They are weary, looking forward to winter, retirement, their own rocking chairs and watching soap operas without interruption.

The nostalgia in the kitchen this “last supper” is palpable, but there are no tears. There is joy in the routine of what the sisters do so well, putting their hearts and souls into their food preparations. Lucille is rolling crab croquettes to the size of little loaves of bread and dipping them in egg and spiced bread crumbs. There is the rhythm of experience in her hands.

Dot reaches up to the rack holding utensils, pots and pans and grabs one of the heavy black cast iron skillets. It is two feet wide with a three-foot handle that easily holds a dozen or so chicken quarters. “This big old thing is about 100 years old and that is older than me,” says Dot with a chuckle. “How many pieces of chicken has this pan fried? Only the Lord knows.”

Dot was nine years old when she started here. Lucille was seven. Their first job was to rinse sand from guests’ bathing suits. Once finished, they hung the suits on the door knobs of the rooms. There was the time when the sisters got in a fight and engaged in a tug-of-war with a suit. It spit in half, and they had to forfeit their wages to buy a new one. “That’s the way life lessons were taught back then,” says Dot.

Dot’s husband Fraizel Burton, Dot, and Helen Dickerson

Lucille bends beneath a long stainless steel table and hoists to the top yeast rolls that have been rising under snow white towels. “This is our mother Helen Dickerson’s famous hot rolls recipe,” says Lucille. “I make 12 dozen most days, and have added my own touches. In a hurry one day to cool the yeast mix, I added some ice cream. The vanilla flavor was special, and ever since I add ice cream to every batch.”

Ice cream. The very mention of ice cream reminds Lucille—Ceilly—of a favorite memory. “Come with me,” she says, leading the way out the kitchen, across the alley, to a white box of a small building. “The Coal Bin,” she announces. “When we were girls, our grandmother Clementine, my sister Dot and I slept on iron beds in the same room as the coal. Later on, they added this bedroom with windows. At night, we’d wait until Clementine was snoring loud as thunder. We’d sneak out the bed, crawl out the window, and run down town to see what was goin’ on. Clementine loved ice cream. It was our ticket back to bed! We bribed her with ice cream, and Grandma, don’t you dare tell Mama we were AWOL. Mama was a disciplinarian.”

Helen Dickerson ruled the Chalfonte kitchen for 45 years with a tough hand, lusty humor and a warm heart. “Mother was in her starched kitchen whites, ready to go to work, at 6:30 every morning. She’d be waiting at the back door to welcome the help,” says Dot. “She expected a ‘good mornin’’ from every one. If anyone had the head down, a hang-over, an attitude, Mama said real loud, ‘Well, good mornin’. Did I sleep with you last night?’ That broke it up, whatever it was.”

Once when a cook chain-smoked, against Chalfonte rules, Helen waited for the propitious moment, threw a piece of wadded up dough and hit him smack in the forehead. “He never ever smoked in the kitchen again,” says Dot.

There was the calamity when a disgruntled cook threw a big pot at a dishwasher. The pot sideswiped the dishwasher and hit the wall hard suffering a big dent. Miss Helen strode over, picked up the pot, handed it to the cook to wash, and put it back in service. She eyed all the help eyeing her, and never saying a word, went back to work. So did everyone else. “There’s the pot,” says Lucille, “It’s still in use and it always reminds us of Mama.”

Helen Dickerson was a fixture at the Chalfonte for 77 years. She came to the hotel as a child with her great-aunt, Kate Smith, who worked winters for the owners, the Satterfield family, in Richmond, Virginia, and summers, at the Chalfonte. Helen was five when she first set foot in the kitchen, sitting in a little chair at the back door waiting to join Miss Susie Satterfield picking flowers for the dining room tables. Helen’s mother, Clementine, was hard at work on the second floor making beds and cleaning rooms. Clementine began chambermaid duties at age 12, and worked those same rooms pleasing guests for 60 years. “She was a portrait in service and loyalty,” says granddaughter Lucille. “Our mother Helen showed the same devotion to duty in the kitchen.”

The Tin House

When times get hot in the kitchen on sultry summer days, with competing egos, dinner deadlines and yet more chicken to fry, a cooling off spot is the Tin House, especially in June and July when the pink roses entwine the fence and the lattice, perfuming the air. The Tin House is an overgrown dollhouse about 12 by 22 feet, hidden from the street by a tall hedge. If you don’t know the white and green structure is there, you could pass it by for years.

The Tin House was born of desperation. “There was a Philadelphia man who could not pay Calvin Satterfield his hotel bill,” says Anne LeDuc, who with Judy Bartella, owned, restored and operated the Chalfonte for 25 years until late summer, 2008. The delinquent guest shipped tin cutouts to Mr. Satterfield for payment, and the result is the charming little building. “It was where they hid the bourbon and whiskey in Prohibition,” says Anne, who has summered at the Chalfonte since age two. She remembers the pomp of the place when the wait staff shined their tables’ silver to gleaming perfection. They carried little cotton towels to polish goblets before meals. The white-gloved maitre’d, William, seated the guests in their dinner attire. The wait staff stood against the wall, hands behind their backs until ready to spring into polite action serving the plates.

Like the Satterfields, Anne is a Virginia native. “The Virginians and West Virginians loved their bourbon,” says Anne, “and that included the women. I was astonished at their capacity. I looked in the window of the Tin House one day, and there was Mother at a party, hanging from her knees from the bar. The Tin House parties are legendary. Guests gave their own cocktail parties at the Tin House before we had the King Edward Bar. They ordered their favorite hors d’oeuvres. Helen and the kitchen provided them. Most popular were the miniature warm biscuits sandwiching Virginia ham spread.

“To this day, the Tin House and the Wedding Tree, the big lovely willow, are favorite spots for parties and nuptials,” says Anne. “And the shenanigans continue. One morning I went out to smell the roses, and a couple was having a Magnolia Room breakfast on the roof. They had hoisted the little patio table and two chairs to the roof – to get a view of the ocean, perhaps.

Dot, left, and Lucille on the Chalfonte porch

“Various of our staff have preferred living in the Tin House with its bed, bureau and chair,” says Anne. “We have had some characters.” Anne recalls handyman extraordinaire, Theodore, whose car was the love of his life. “Theodore could not drive,” says Anne. “But he required the benefit of a garage for his beloved sedan. Once or twice a summer, his friend would come up from Richmond, and with great ceremony, drive the two of them around town. Theodore could do anything. Fix leaky pipes with gauze. Stoke the coal fires. Carve the meat. I still miss Theodore.” Anne mists over remembering. “They say I should write a book.”

In the early days of the LeDuc-Bartella regime at the Chalfonte, one of the staff did write a book, a precious tome chronicling the recipes the Virginia ladies cooked by instinct: their touch, taste and feel. The cookbook is called I Just Quit Stirrin’ When the Tastin’s Good, quoting Helen Dickerson as she struggled to explain her recipes and methods. She was prodded on by Cissy Finley Grant, who dutifully wrote down the measurements, not for the usual 150 to 200 meals Helen was accustomed to turning out, but for servings from six to 12. Cissy’s brother-in-law, Bill Grant, told her it was a project, “like putting folklore in your stomach.” The project consumed the cooks, Helen, Dot and Lucille, through the summer of 1985, testing, retesting and testing again the recipes.

The result is a 94- page cookbook, still available in the lobby, that has gone home with thousands of Cape May visitors. The recipes represent combined cultures. There are the flavors of the European cuisine that graced the tables of the Virginia aristocracy on plantations robust with game, garden vegetables and orchard fruits. Through the years, African-American cooks added the tastes and textures from their slave cabin kitchens to the main house menus. From one generation to the next, the foods melded into the good ol’ southern cooking still served today at the Chalfonte’s Magnolia Room.

Back in the kitchen, Dot is standing over the two big old cast-iron skillets, bubbling with oil, and mounds of sliced onions. She swirls around the onions, allowing them to crisp before adding the chicken quarters that have been soaking in a salt brine. “The onions are our secret” says Dot. “The onions and the paprika in the flour that helps turn the chicken golden brown.” The smell of the onions frying sends the olfactory and saliva glands into mouth-watering anticipation.

Dot dredges the chicken pieces in the flour, salt, pepper and paprika mixture, coating each piece, and drops them in the bubbling oil. She never leaves her station during the 20 minutes to half hour it takes for each pan full to cook and crisp. Then she lays the pieces on a rack over a baking pan to drip off any oil, and place it in a warming oven until time to plate and serve Chalfonte’s Southern Fried Chicken in the Magnolia Room.

Late in the summer of 2008, Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella sold their National Historic Landmark to Bob and Linda Mullock. Anne winces at the emotional pain, but the Mullocks are determined to maintain the historical ambiance of the place. “And, they’ll keep the Tin House,” says Anne. “That was always a barometer to me– of trust to keep it the way it is, with some updated amenities, like bathrooms and air conditioning.”

And “The Ladies?” They are back! No rocking chairs on cool verandas for them this season. New owner Bob Mullock says, “The Ladies cannot not come back. They are the heart and soul of the place. I cannot imagine life here without them. How would I survive without their fried chicken?”

Bob Mullock has been in love with the Chalfonte {cool fountain in French} for a long time. He was married at the hotel in 1980 when he and his wife, Linda, were in the first year of running a B and B they restored called the Victorian Rose, on Columbia Avenue just a few steps from the Chalfonte. One of Mullock’s favorite photos is a picture of him and his bride in their wedding regalia in the kitchen with “The Ladies.” And that evening, Bob remembers fetching Helen from the kitchen and dancing with her and thanking her for a lovely day.

The Chalfonte is that way. She gets into your soul and then you are beholden to her. 

The Chalfonte Hotel’s Southern Fried Chicken Recipe

  • 1 3-pound frying chicken, quartered
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 cups shortening or coin oil (or a 2-inch depth for frying)
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  1. Soak the chicken in salted water for 1 hour. Add 1 tablespoon salt to each quart of water. Drain chicken and pat dry.
  2. Meanwhile, in a bag or bowl, mix flour, paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken and shake to coat thoroughly.
  3. In a large skillet or deep fryer, heat the shortening or oil to 365 to 375 degrees. Place the onion in the hot oil. Adjust the heat as needed to keep the oil sizzling moderately, but don’t let it burn.
  4. Add the chicken to hot oil, again adjusting the heat. Fry for 10 minutes. Turn chicken and fry until tender, crisp and browned, about 10 minutes more. Test for doneness with a fork, or watch for the breast meat to split along the muscle.

Note: As long as the oil is sizzling, moisture is being forced out of the chicken as steam, preventing the meat from absorbing excess oil. Dot places the fried chicken on a rack over a baking pan and keeps the chicken warm in the oven until served.