Lucille Thompson knows the value of a good family recipe.
Thompson, 82, and her sister, Dot Burton, are famous in Cape May for the fried chicken and crab cakes they make as cooks at the Chalfonte Hotel.
Those recipes, passed down from mother to daughter, have led to the pair being featured on TV and in newspapers.
But Thompson has made her own contributions to the family recipe lore, and her corn pudding is the stuff of legend at the Chalfonte's Sunday buffet.
"On the buffet you can go back for as much as you like," Thompson said. "People will go back for seconds and thirds, so it goes pretty fast."
That Thompson can turn out delicious meals is no surprise, given her background. Three generations of her family have worked at the Chalfonte, and Thompson and her sister practically grew up in the historic hotel's kitchen.
"Our grandmother was the head chambermaid. Our mother was the head waitress. When the cook left, they asked my mother to come out and cook," Thompson said.
Thompson said it was no surprise her mom was called to work in the kitchen. Helen Dickerson was a good cook, well-schooled in the southern dishes featured on the Chalfonte's menu.
"The first owners of the Chalfonte, were from the South, so there was a lot of southern food on the menu. That's what the guests expected," Thompson said.
Thompson's family were also from the South. The West Cape May woman and her sister were born in Richmond, Va., and the family returned there each year when the Chalfonte closed for the season.
Thompson figures she was about 7 years old and her sister was 9 years old when their mother first took them to the hotel. They had to work. They would rinse the sand out of the guest's bathing suits and then deliver the dry suits to the proper rooms the next day.
The mother also kept busy during the tourist season, but she was not too busy to teach her daughters to cook.
Both Thompson and Burton got lessons in Chalfonte favorites.
"Mom took the time to teach us. She taught me how to make the rolls and the crab cakes - the crab cakes are pretty famous at the Chalfonte," Thompson said. "What's different with the crab cakes is that there is no filler in them. A lot of places use filler in their recipes. We don't have any filler - it's all crab meat."
By the time she was 14, Thompson was working in the kitchen.
At that time the Chalfonte had separate adult and children's dining rooms.
"It wasn't so much that the children got different food - they just didn't eat in the main dining room. This way, their parents could enjoy their meal. There were people there to baby sit them. There was a TV back there for the kids, and games. It was nice."
Thompson got her start preparing meals for the younger diners. She remembers it being a good place to learn to cook, with a lot of the same challenges, but not as much pressure, as cooking for the adult dining room.
But Thompson's apprenticeship didn't last long. By the time she was 16, she was cooking for the main room, starting a 66-year run of pleasing hungry guests.
"My family has cooked there through three owners. They keep us there because we are good cooks," Thompson said proudly.
These days Thompson and her sister have a routine. Each woman has her own TV in the kitchen, and her own specialty, with Burton making the fried chicken and Thompson making the crab cakes and the rolls.
"We go to work at 6 every morning and we work until 6. We like the soap operas. We sit down and we prep a lot. We are not on our feet all day," she said.
Sunday buffets are still a big deal at the Chalfonte, with the meal including fried chicken, some fish and two kinds of ham. Thompson created her corn pudding for the buffet, figuring it would go well with the fried chicken.
"I don't know how I came up with it. I was just messing around I guess," Thompson said.
She was surprised when the pudding proved to be a hit with guests.
"Some weeks we would have corn (on the) cob, and everyone would have a fit - they wanted the corn pudding," Thompson said.
The food is so good, Thompson and her sister are almost as popular as the meals they serve.
"The guests are always coming out to the kitchen," Thompson said. "They always want to meet us and take our pictures. We would be kind of rich if we had a dollar for everyone who wants to meet us and take our picture - but it doesn't bother us. We don't mind."
Guests aren't the only ones who like the pudding. Thompson's own children love it, as does Jack Riehl, who has worked as a handyman at the hotel.
"This recipe is not in the Chalfonte Cookbook and is served as a side dish at the traditional Chalfonte Sunday evening buffet. Lucille usually prepares two large baking dishes of corn pudding and it is usually gone in the first hour (6 p.m.) of the three-hour buffet. So if you arrive at 7 p.m., well, you usually don't get a bite," Riehl said.
Riehl wanted to make sure he could have the pudding when he wanted it, so he approached Thompson for the recipe.
"It's great. It doesn't last once they put it out, so I convinced her to tamper it down so I could make a smaller amount. It's excellent," he said.
How long Thompson will be making her corn pudding at the Chalfonte is a question. The sisters are getting older and are looking toward retirement.
"Every year we say this is our last year - but I think that this year will be our last year," she said. But Thompson quickly adds "as long as your health is good I think we are better off doing something. In the winter, when we aren't doing anything, it's boring."
Thompson has a son and two granddaughters, but they are not interested in continuing the family tradition at the Chalfonte. Her nephew, James Burton, is a culinary school graduate and is employed cooking at the Rusty Nail Bar & Grill in Cape May.
And while no fourth-generation family member seems likely to follow in Helen Dickerson's footsteps - she worked at the Chalfonte for more than 70 years before dying in 1991 - she has left her mark not only on her daughter, but also her grandchildren.
"She was quiet a lady - she was always giving advice. Her main advice was always 'Whatever you do, do your best," Thompson said. "That's still good advice."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•24-ounce can evaporated milk
•1/4 pound butter
• 12 whole eggs
•6 egg whites
•1 heaping tablespoon flour
•1/2 teaspoon salt
•3 level teaspoons baking powder
•1 to 1 1/2 pounds (cooked) corn (can be canned or cooked corn on the cob)
•1 14-ounce can creamed corn
•1/2 cup sugar
•1 pint heavy cream
Pour the evaporated milk into a pot and then add the butter. Mix over low heat until the butter is melted. Set aside and keep warm.
Beat all the eggs together including the six egg whites. You do not need to beat the six egg whites separately.
Mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Then add this mix to the eggs until you don't see any white spots. This means that you have mixed it well.
Put the corn in a big bowl and add the creamed corn. Mix.
Now pour the milk over the corn. Add the heavy cream.
Now add the egg mix into the bowl of corn.
The last ingredient you add is the sugar. Add the sugar to the mix and keep stirring.
Pour into a Pyrex dish and put the dish in a pan of water. This is so the corn pudding cooks evenly.
Now if the Pyrex dish looks like it could take more corn, then add some corn. When you bake it, it should not overflow so you want to add enough corn to your Pyrex dish so you get it near the top. Leave a little space at the top.
Cook uncovered at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Stick a toothpick in it to see if it is done. If the toothpick is gummy, it needs to cook some more.