WAIT till you meet Helen. She's incredible.'' These were the first words I heard when I arrived at the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May, N.J., for a work weekend -- two days of spring cleaning and repair work done by volunteers. Helen Dickerson, I soon learned, deserves her reputation. She's the cook who created the fragrant chicken vegetable soup kept simmering on the stove for late arrivals, and she is the source of the Chalfonte's famous Southern cooking.
Hot biscuits, fried chicken, spoon bread, blueberry cobbler -- these and other specialties of the Southern kitchen keep the hotel's dining room full of appreciative diners during the June-October season. ``People keep coming back,'' says Helen. ``They must be enjoying it.''
The Chalfonte's cuisine has long been in the hands of Dickerson cooks. Helen, who makes everything from scratch and never measures, has been cooking there for more than 45 years. Helen's mother worked in the hotel's kitchen, and for 25 years Helen's daughter, Dot Burton, has been her chief assistant. Dot's husband sometimes helps out on weekends, and Helen's grandsons also pitch in, especially when the hotel is full and the kitchen turns out two meals a day for 180 people.
Helen has been associated with the Chalfonte since she was 4, when an aunt who ran the children's dining room brought her there from her home in Richmond, Va. Her first job was picking flowers for the dining room. Then, at age 8, she became the baby sitter for the owner's son. At 12 she went to the dining room as a waitress, and when a cook was needed around 1940 she moved to the kitchen. She has been there ever since.
``I'll be here a few more years,'' she says, looking around the spacious room filled with work tables, four ovens, and a long row of spoons and whisks hanging from the ceiling.
During the season, work for Helen and Dot begins at 6:30 in the morning and ends 16 hours later. They have used an electric chopper since 1979, but Helen draws the line at food processors.
``No way,'' she says. ``It's a matter of you can't teach an old dog new tricks.'' She ``puts up'' with gas stoves. But if she had her way she would use coal, which, she says, cooks food more evenly and slowly, ``so you get all the goodness of it.''
Of microwave ovens she says, ``I wouldn't have one if somebody gave it to me.''
Chalfonte guests are served roast lamb on Monday, deviled crab (Helen's most popular dish) or country ham on Tuesday, Southern broiled or fried chicken on Wednesday, country ham or roast turkey on Thursday, and crab or roast leg of lamb on Friday, complete with ``all the trimmings.'' Some of the Chalfonte recipes have been passed down over the years from cook to cook. Everything is made with fresh ingredients from nearby markets. Fish is served twice a day, fried in the morning, fried or broiled at nigh t.
Meals are served family style, and there is more than enough for everyone, no matter whether the guest is paying minimum rates ($43 a day for a single) or the maximum ($108 for two).
The 103-room hotel in which Helen's meals are served is as traditional as her cooking. Built in 1876 by a Civil War veteran, it was one of two large wooden hotels to survive a fire in 1878 that burned 30 acres of the town to the ground.
Since Colonial times, Cape May had been a choice vacation spot, hosting Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, the actress Lily Langtry, coal barons, an assortment of gamblers who frequented the town's casinos, and wealthy Southern plantation owners who stopped visiting the resort town only when the Civil War broke out.
In the 1880s residents rebuilt their homes, smaller in scale than the houses that burned but in an ornate Victorian style that has won the whole town national landmark status. The Chalfonte's columned porches, intricately carved railings, and widow's walk, from which one can see the ocean surf, are part of that tradition. Its spacious parlors and cushioned nooks and crannies bespeak a comfortable, expansive age.
The hotel owes much of its authenticity to 70 architectural students from the University of Pennsylvania who in 1977 helped to restore the exterior. The students donated their labor as a ``matching gift'' for a grant of $10,000 from the National Park Service. Today the Chalfonte looks much the same as it did when it opened 109 years ago.
John Milner, a Philadelphia architect and University of Pennsylvania instructor, and David Fogel, head of the historic preservation department at the University of Maryland, organized the architectural students' work.
Volunteering labor to maintain the Chalfonte has become a tradition, with work weekends now scheduled for both spring and fall. They were institutionalized by the hotel's current owners, Judy Bartella and Ann LeDuc, Philadelphia teachers who first came to Cape May as children.
Ms. Bartella and Ms. LeDuc bought the Chalfonte in 1983 from the Satterfield family of Richmond, Va., who had operated it since 1911. And they view themselves as fortunate that Helen Dickerson remained on the premises to carry on her culinary traditions.
Although Helen says ``No, ma'am'' to the idea of measuring ingredients, she has cooperated with more conventional cooks to specify amounts so that her recipes can be shared. A collection of them -- tentatively titled ``I Stop Stirring When It Tastes Good'' -- will be published in the fall. The cookbook will include these recipes. Crab Meat 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 F. until brown.
Makes 12 to 14 croquettes. Thick Cream Sauce I 3 tablespoons butter or margarine 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk
Melt butter in small pan; add flour and cook over low heat. Add milk, stirring constantly, and cook until mixture is thickened. Eggplant Casserole 2 medium eggplants (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cubed 2 cups chopped onion 1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, well drained (juice reserved) and chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 tablespoons Worcestershire 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
Place eggplants and onions in large pan with barely enough water to cover; simmer until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain well.
Add drained tomatoes, salt, pepper, Worcestershire, cream sauce, and 1/4 cup butter.
Melt 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 F. until heated through, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Makes 6 to 8 servings. Thick Cream Sauce II 1 1/2 tablespoons butter or margarine 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 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. Spoonbread 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 F. for about 30 minutes, until top is golden brown. Makes 12 servings. Bread Pudding 4 slices bread 1/2 cup raisins (optional) 4 eggs 3/4 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoon 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. Beat eggs; add sugar and salt, then milk, vanilla, and nutmeg. Blend well and pour over cubes.
Set dish in pan of cold water. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 to 35 minutes.