The First Ladies of Cape May at the Chalfonte
At the Chalfonte, a legacy of southern cooking
The Chalfonte Hotel has been open continuously since 1876—its fascinating history includes owners whose families fought on both sides of the Civil War and another family, the Dickersons, who have worked at the Cape May hotel for five generations. At ages 87 and 85, sisters Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson—known to everyone as The Ladies; also “the queens of the Chalfonte”—still hold domain over the kitchen.
Between them, Burton and Thompson have worked here for 76 years, many spent cooking the traditional southern fare that made their mother famous. Foremost among these dishes are skillet-fried chicken (Burton’s domain) and crab croquettes (Thompson’s). Their mother, Helen Dickerson, worked at the hotel for 77 years and their grandmother, Clementine Young, was head chambermaid for more than 60.
“We first came here with our mother when I was 9 years old and Lucille was 7,” Burton says. This would have been in the mid-1930s. The young sisters’ first official job was rinsing sand out of guests’ bathing suits, hanging them up to dry, and delivering them the next day—for which they were paid $5 a week. Their mother, universally called Miss Helen, was even younger when she first arrived at the Chalfonte. “Our mother was 4. She would sit over by that door and pick flowers with Miss Satterfield, who put them on the tables,” Burton says.
My interview with Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson happened on an unseasonably warm September afternoon; the sisters sat side by side at the end of a long aluminum worktable in the kitchen. (A consultant once advised owner Bob Mullock that it would aid the kitchen’s work flow if the table were eliminated, to which he replied, “It might be more efficient, but this is where The Ladies survey their principality from.”) The sisters, dressed in identical white slacks and patterned smocks, as is their custom, were taking a break from whipping up the tartar sauce to go with the croquettes, and generally overseeing everything that would be served for dinner in the Magnolia Room, the Chalfonte’s 170-seat dining space.
Members of the Dickerson family had for many years worked for the aforementioned Satterfield family of Richmond, Virginia, whose patriarch was a Confederate general. Over its 138-year history, the Chalfonte has had only four sets of owners, with various members of the Satterfields spanning the era from 1911 to 1983. When that wealthy family left Virginia for Cape May each summer to run the hotel, they brought along their household staff. As early as 1915 this included Helen Dickerson’s great-aunt Kate Smith, and later Clementine Young, Burton and Thompson’s grandmother.
Miss Helen, the young flower picker, followed her great-aunt and mother into the Chalfonte’s ranks, eventually becoming head waitress. One day in 1945 she was asked to help out in the kitchen until a new head cook could be found. She learned quickly and wound up staying in that position for 45 years, eventually bringing daughters Dot and Lucille into the kitchen as well. Miss Helen became renowned for the southern specialties she termed “soul food with its Sunday clothes on.” To this day her daughters use her recipes to make not only the fried chicken and crab croquettes, but also yeast-risen, hand-formed dinner rolls; buttermilk biscuits with ham spread; spoon bread; and shrimp and grits, to name just a few. Burton and Thompson are happy to share their secrets, which include adding sliced onions to flavor the hot oil the chicken is fried in, and adding a splash of sherry to the tartar sauce.
In many ways, the Chalfonte, Cape May’s oldest continuously operating hotel, remains a throwback: A handful of its 70 guest rooms and public areas are still not air-conditioned, and there are only two television sets on the premises (although complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout). One of those TVs sits in the kitchen, so that every afternoon Burton and Thompson can watch their favorite soap, “General Hospital.” Although the room is not air-conditioned, an ocean breeze wafts in through a worn, small-paned casement window directly across from the sisters’ worktable. Despite their ages, each woman works five days a week, technically from 6am to 6pm, although they often appear in the dining room well after that, summoned by appreciative guests who have been eating their food for decades and want to catch up.
The sisters speak with remnants of soft Virginia accents, chuckle often, and display an abiding fondness for their mother and their families—which these days include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—as well as for the people they have worked with and for at the Chalfonte. Since 2008, this has been the new owner Bob Mullock and his family. Mullock first met Helen Dickerson at the hotel 34 years ago and two years later, he and his wife, Linda, got married there. “Miss Helen was a character,” Mullock says, one who was known for her grace and good humor. Whereas “Miss Helen kept people in line,” he explains, “Dot and Lucille are warm and lovable. You instinctively feel like you’re with your own mother.”
By 1984 Miss Helen’s fried chicken was so famous that she and Dot were guests on the television show “Donohue.” A dietitian was another guest that day, who warned about the dangers of fried food. Lucille was recovering from back surgery at the time, so watched from home.
“Mother stole the show,” she says, laughing. “She told him, ‘I already put two husbands in the grave and I’m still here!’” That same chicken recipe has more recently been featured on Food Network’s “Tyler’s Ultimate” and was named among the country’s best by USA Today. Dot Burton fries up the chicken in the same heavy two-foot-diameter black cast-iron skillet that her mother did, and until recent years this diminutive woman wielded it, full of oil, singlehandedly. Two such skillets have been in use at the Chalfonte for more than 100 years, each one holding 40 pieces of quartered chicken.
The Magnolia Room, which serves breakfast and dinner, has undergone few changes over the years, the most significant being the partial addition of air-conditioning. The dining room, like the rest of the hotel, retains its distinctly genteel southern feel—fitting both because of its history and because Cape May lies on the same latitude as Washington, DC. But 2009 marked the end of one of its most entrenched customs: having a separate dining room for children. That room has since been converted to a display area for Civil War artifacts and the role played in the war by the Chalfonte’s builder and first owner, Henry Sawyer. Sawyer was a colonel in the Union army, and eventually a prisoner of war who was exchanged for the son of Robert E. Lee. Bob Mullock conducts lectures about Sawyer in this room throughout the summer. Another casualty of modern times is the kidney stew that was served at Sunday breakfast. “The new folks don’t want to eat that anymore,” Burton says. “It was good, though! We did it up until one of the Satterfield sons died, because he liked it,” adds her sister.
The Ladies recall that, back in the day, the same families would return to the Chalfonte year in and year out, and were always given the same table, where meals were served family style. “You didn’t get a clean tablecloth but once a day, after breakfast,” Thompson recalls, “and you kept your napkin for three meals. Each place was set with a little dish of salt, and that was your personal salt.”
Burton and Thompson say that each having her own specialty dishes has helped them to work together amicably over the years, although, they admit, “we have our ups and downs.” These days they live together as well, with Thompson driving them to work each day from the house they share in West Cape May, which Thompson and her husband, now deceased, purchased for their mother in her final years. “Mother always said she wants to die here [in the Chalfonte kitchen] with her boots on—and she almost did!” says Dot Burton. That is not an exaggeration: Miss Helen left in November of 1990 and died one month later, at the age of 81.
Her daughters’ favorite recollections of their decades at the Chalfonte center on their mother. “Everyone loved her, and we still miss her every day,” Burton says.
After Thompson married she moved to the Princeton area, but in 1976 returned to work summers at the Chalfonte. “I went up to Princeton in the first place because there were no jobs here during the winter— and no men!” she says. “I got me a job and I got me a man and then I came back.” One of her favorite times was a summer during the 1980s. “I was working in the kitchen and the dining room, and I made $5,000 in tips!” Another year, she had to stay back home to take care of her ailing grandfather, but was pleased when the owner at that time, Mrs. Mary “Meenie” Satterfield, sent her paychecks anyway. “It wasn’t much, but it was nice of her,” Thompson says.
Yet, the sisters agree, that particular member of the Satterfield family was “a little prejudiced, although she did love our family.” They recall the time a black man—possibly the first guest of color—was dining in the Magnolia Room. “When Mrs. Satterfield walked in, she walked right back out and went around on the porch just so she didn’t have to walk past him,” Thompson says. “And,” adds Burton,
“I remember when there was only one beach where we could swim.” Through the 1950s, the beaches in town were segregated, and the Grant Street beach, near Congress Hall, was the “colored only” beach. Over the summer of 1985, Cissy Finley Grant, the Chalfonte’s public relations director at the time, sat down with Miss Helen and her two daughters with the aim of capturing 60 of their beloved recipes.
A commemorative version of the spiral-bound cookbook was produced in 2013 by Bob Mullock, on the occasion of The Ladies’ 75th anniversary at the Chalfonte. The title is taken from a saying of Miss Helen’s: I Just Quit Stirrin’ When the Tastin’s Good. For the last few years The Ladies have been joined in the Chalfonte kitchen by some of their children and grandchildren, and Burton’s son, Jimmy, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, is executive chef at the Rusty Nail in Cape May. But asked if they see a next generation of Dickersons continuing their legacy at the Chalfonte, the sisters say no.
Burton had a heart attack in 2003 while at work in the kitchen preparing for one of the many weddings held at the Chalfonte. After she recovered, she returned to her post. Then, a few years ago, Thompson needed to have a stent inserted in one of her heart valves. For at least the last six years The Ladies have declared that the current season— the Chalfonte is open between Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends—will be their last. “But every year we come back,” Thompson admits, “because over the winter we get bored.” So odds are, come this Memorial Day weekend they’ll be found sitting side by side at that long aluminum table, slicing onions and whisking tartar sauce and watching “General Hospital,” all the while surveying their queenly domain.
301 Howard St., Cape May