Culinary Cape May: A Gastronomic History

Text by John Howard-Fusco • Photographs by Michelle Giorla / Fall 2017
Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May

“Cape May is the place of places for an epicure. All our great hotels…have become famous justly for their cuisine. Everything that the world gives in the edible line is to be found in the bills of fare of our Cape May hotels—aye and on their tables.”

Cape May Ocean Wave, August 24, 1878

More than a century after these words appeared in print, The New York Times declared Cape May “The Restaurant Capital of New Jersey.” While we now bask in the brightness of a multitude of great restaurants, local farm markets and vineyards, microbreweries and top-notch oysters and scallops, Cape May has had its share of culinary high points and low marks. As America’s Original Seaside Resort made its journey from a hunting ground for the Native Americans to a sea bathing destination for the affluent, from a shore town on decline and lost in time to its modern renaissance, food has been an important part all along the way.

Although the Paleo-Indians some 12,000 years ago may have dined on mastodons in the area of Cape May, there’s little culinary information from that time to sink our teeth into (recipes on how to prepare mastodon were not left behind for discovery). Moving ahead several thousand years, the Kechemeches of the Lenapehoking used this region for hunting birds and game. They also harvested the seas, collecting oysters and clams and catching fish with harpoons. Wild berries were plentiful and available for the picking.

The explorers from Europe arrived in the early 1600s, observing the blue plums along the shores and the abundance of oysters, crabs, and clams. The sight of whales along the Atlantic brought the first settlement, Town Bank, to the Cape. The prospect of whaling also brought the entrepreneurial interest of Dr. Daniel Coxe, an Englishman and member of the Royal Society. Dr. Coxe purchased 95,000 acres of land in present-day Cape May County and dreamed of a whaling fishery, along with harvesting wild grapes for wine and growing fruit trees.

While the plans of Dr. Coxe never quite came to fruition, the land would eventually be used for farming. Settlers from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Long Island came, bringing their knowledge of farming in the New World with them. Be they farmer, whaler, or boat pilot, all farmed their own land as the yeoman would have done back in England. By 1692, the county of Cape May was established, and in the inaugural session of court in 1693, one of the first orders of business was to make sure the grand jury would be fed dinner at the expense of the county.

The backwater outpost that was Cape May for most of the 17th Century would develop trade by sea as a regional port and by land, thanks to the first road that connected it to the rest of West Jersey in 1707. Farmers and fishermen could not reach Burlington and Philadelphia with their goods, and rum from the West Indies managed to find its way to Cape May.

Roads and commerce brought the need for taverns to Cape May. While the first licensed tavern owner, Jacob Ludlam, Jr., did not open for business until 1740, it is believed that the house of Benjamin Godfrey served as a tavern as far back as 1692 when it was used to host a town meeting. The number of taverns grew at a slow pace in the county, but the addition of more roads brought the need for additional houses of entertainment.

Tavern dining was an eat-at-your-own-risk proposition. The quality of home cooking from one stop to another could vary greatly—and there were no quality standards being enforced. Rates as to what a tavern could charge would not be established until 1801, when the Court of General Quarter Session of the Peace set the prices for meals and drinks.

By the late 18th Century, the name of Hughes began to appear on tavern licenses. Memucan and Ellis Hughes were tavern owners, with the latter having an instrumental role in changing the trajectory of Cape May. He placed an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette in 1801 announcing “Sea Shore Entertainment” and that “fish, oysters, crabs, and good liquors” would be available. Although not the first ad to mention Cape May and sea bathing (Robert Parsons had mentioned it as a selling point in an ad for his house back in 1766), this one was promoting the local food as well as the beach.

The Hughes family solidified themselves as Cape May’s first family of accommodation when Thomas H. Hughes, Ellis’ son, decided to build his own seaside house of entertainment. Thomas went big—three stories big—with a large dining area on the first floor. The Big House by the Sea, or “Tommy’s Folly,” as it was called in jest, opened for business in 1816 and was an instant success. An even bigger Big House was built two years later after a fire. The Big House by the Sea would eventually become its moniker, known far and wide in 1828. When Thomas Hughes was elected to House of Representatives, his house was renamed Congress Hall.

Congress Hall relied upon the locally caught and produced foodstuffs for its cuisine. Seafood, fowl, mutton, and other game adorned its table. It was said that not a piece of beefsteak was brought into Congress Hall from the beginning of summer until the end. But there was one thing that the growing Philadelphia vacationer simply could not do without, and that was hard Philadelphia butter. For that, as well as a few other items not found locally, Hughes was heavily dependent on deliveries by boat and stagecoach.

In the 1820s, Cape May was more of a rugged vacationing spot than a sophisticated resort. One evening in 1829, the visitors staying at Atlantic Hall became part of the kitchen prep team. Alexander MacKenzie, owner of Atlantic Hall, was able to procure a sheep from one of his neighbors and asked some of the patrons to help dress the animal. Others were told to pick up some corn from local farmers. “When the mutton was cooked and the corn boiled,” one of the visitors said, “an appetite would have accumulated sufficient to make these viands seem like the ambrosia of Olympus.” The visitors of Cape May today might not be so inclined to enjoy an evening of foraging and slaughter-your-own.

By the 1830s, the hotels had to step up their collective games as the more affluent urbanites from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C raised their levels of expectation. An advertisement by the Atlantic Hotel for the 1837 season made mention of their new head of its culinary department, a Monsieur Porrot. The ad called Porrot “the best cuisinier in the country.” In 1839, Richard Ludlam’s Mansion House announced that good cooks and competent attendants had been hired for that summer season.

With Cape May becoming a place to escape the summer heat, Philadelphia entrepreneurs began to see opportunity. Hoteliers from the city began to open hotels in Cape May. The McMakin brothers bought the Atlantic Hotel, rebuilt it, and opened the New Atlantic in 1842. Lilburn Harwood bought and remodeled the Columbia House in 1850. With each new hotel, the dining rooms would get larger and larger. And the meals kept pace in size and scope.

A bill of fare from 1851—now framed and hanging on the wall at Congress Hall—shows just how far dining had come. The menu for this evening included turtle soup, boiled salmon in lobster sauce, foie de veau (veal liver with onions) in wine sauce, haricot de mouton (mutton stew with beans) and roast beef with champagne sauce. No going out and skinning your own sheep here!

By the 1850s, vacationers from the cities of the Northeast were well-accustomed to the new French style of restaurant dining. Not content with the long tables, communal meals, and having to bribe your waiter for attention, visitors were met with hotels willing to oblige them. Families and smaller groups were now being given the option to have their own private table. The grand Mount Vernon Hotel, opened in 1854 with a dining area the size of one and a half football fields, offered parties up to six people their own private dining at an hour that was agreeable to them. Even Congress Hall would eventually conform to the new style of dining, offering separate restaurants for ladies and gentlemen.

Another pleasurable food item that had made its way to Cape May was ice cream. By the early 1840s, Philadelphians Ayers W. Thompkins and Robert G. Simpson had opened confectionary shops on the Cape serving the sweet summertime treat. By the 1860s, ice cream saloons were everywhere, and much of it was shipped from Salem County. Confectionary shops also carried candy from chocolate makers such as Stephen F. Whitman of Philadelphia.

Work for African Americans in the kitchens and dining rooms continued on, notwithstanding the incidents that took place between them and the white patrons. Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer noted in a journal during her stay in 1850 of “a great battle in one hotel between the black servants and the gentleman, which caused some bloody heads.” A waiter at the Mount Vernon Hotel, Joshua Gibbs, had a tumbler glass thrown at him, and in the ensuing altercation was stabbed by a young male visitor.

But there was also the potential for some delicious irony. In 1852, Harriet Tubman worked in a hotel kitchen in Cape May, raising funds for her work in helping slaves escape. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, people from the South also came to visit Cape May. Imagine a slave-owning gentleman being served food prepared by the very person trying to free his slaves.

After the Civil War, Cape May had its own battles: fire and competition. The fire of 1869, and the even greater and more devastating fire of 1878, forced the seaside resort to move toward smaller cottages. In addition, the emergence of Atlantic City to the north began to draw summer vacationers away from Cape May. The 1880s would see the community look for different industries to emerge. Two of the more curious experiments during this time were sugar cane crops and porpoise as a food item. Both would see some minor success before completely failing.

Compounding the issue was the developing battle over alcohol. Hotels were divided on this issue, with some choosing to not serve alcohol. Aaron Garretson’s National Hall, a dry hotel that promoted a family-friendly atmosphere, would even host temperance meetings. Some local residents wrote petitions to stop the issuing of tavern licenses. The battle would rage in Cape May—and all over the country—until the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, which began the era of Prohibition.

During this time the influx of immigrants had an impact on the culinary scene. William Essen made his way from Germany by way of Philadelphia to establish his bakery here in the 1870s. Caramille Mirabella became the first licensed tavern keeper of Italian descent. And Polish-born Adolph Proskauer opened his restaurant and hotel Maison Dore for a couple of seasons before having even greater success as a restaurateur in Philadelphia.

The turn of the century saw Cape May putting its hopes on Hotel Cape May, a modern grand hotel. Although over 900 people dined in the main dining room and café on the opening day of this million-dollar hotel in 1908, financial troubles would plague the Hotel Cape May throughout its lifespan. Even the efforts of Nelson Z. Graves, who briefly took over ownership, could not keep the hotel afloat.

During his time in Cape May, Graves also established the Cape May Farmstead. Five hundred acres in size, the Farmstead raised milking cows, chickens and ducks. Touting its high quality milk and eggs, Cape May Farmstead supplied hotels in Cape May, New York, and Philadelphia. But bankruptcy ended this project, along with Graves’ ownership of Hotel Cape May. It later became the Christian Admiral under the ownership of the Reverend Carl McIntire, and was eventually demolished in early 1996.

While Cape May as a whole may have been struggling during the first part of the 20th Century, a number of dining establishments that are known to this day got started in this period. Susie and Calvin Satterfield from Virginia purchased The Chalfonte (first owned by Civil War hero Henry Sawyer in 1876) in 1911 and brought with them Southern cooks. From these cooks a young Helen Dickerson learned the ways of perfecting fried chicken and other Southern staples, passing that knowledge onto her daughters Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson.

The Collins Café would become The Merion Inn in 1906, and the martini has never had a better home. Harry Redding opened his C-View Inn in 1917 and can proudly carry the nickname “Cape May’s Oldest Tavern.” And in 1926, Naum Kahn opened Kahn’s Restaurant. When he turned the business over to his son Sam in 1949, he changed the name to The Ugly Mug.

Also in 1926, Jess Laudeman started his Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company in Wildwood. By 1939, he made the decision to move his operations to Schellenger’s Landing, and purchased a property that had a restaurant included. After leasing out the restaurant for a number of years, he gave his son Wally an opportunity to run the place. That place was called The Lobster House, and people to this day seek them out for fresh seafood.

Fishing and farming saw great changes during the last century. Staples of the 19th Century, such as the sheepshead and the Cape May goody (which was compared to hogfish and perch), were fished out of existence. The oyster industry was dealt massive blows by diseases: MSX in the 1950s and DERMO in the 1990s nearly wiped out the industry altogether. But a savior came in the form of the little scallop. Commercial scallop harvesting from the Hudson Canyon (75 miles from Cape May) in the Atlantic Ocean has helped make the port of Cape May the second busiest fishing port on the east coast.

Even the oyster industry has gotten a new lease on life. With help from the Rutgers Aquaculture Innovation Center, oyster farmers have been able to bring back a more sustainable Cape May Salt oyster. Slow Food USA deemed the Cape May Salt the first regional food item worthy of preserving. Protecting the oyster beds is nothing new to Cape May, which saw the first protection law passed in 1719.

The Fordook pole lima bean sustained local farmers for many decades. They were grown for their size and ability to stay green when dried, and as many as 125 farms grew them as recently as 1950. Rea’s Farm in West Cape May dedicated 700 to 1,200 acres alone just for lima beans. The growers supplied Seabrook Farms, then Hanover Foods. When Hanover moved their operations, it was a death blow. Now, Rea’s Farm grows seven to 12 acres of limas. But this bean’s decline has not stopped West Cape May from throwing its annual Lima Bean Festival, which attracts visitors by the thousands.

While the lima bean has declined, the beach plum has enjoyed a renewed interest. The native fruit has gone from a cottage industry to a serious crop. In 2010, the humble beach plum was named the official fruit of Cape May County. Smaller than a regular plum and carrying a slightly tart flavor, beach plums are finding their way onto the tables of local restaurants as well as in local wine and beer. And it was the taste of the beach plum that attracted Reverend Carl McIntyre to Cape May. When he purchased Congress Hall, he changed the name of the circular restaurant on the corner of the property to Beach Plum. He also employed his grandson, Curtis Bashaw, as a waiter. Bashaw has played a prominent role in Cape May’s resurgence in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Farmland acreage in Cape May County saw a dramatic reduction in the last half century. In 1950, there were 29,212 acres of farmland. By 2007, that number was down to 7,976 acres. In the last quarter century, one industry has emerged as a way to preserve farmland: winemaking.

Wine grapes are not a new crop in Cape May. Farmers had been growing wine grapes for much of the 1800s, selling them while also making their own private barrels of wine. A black rot in the 1880s destroyed many of the vines, but the industry recovered. Then came Prohibition, and the wine industry was dead.

The modern resurgence of the wine industry in Cape May started with Bill and Joan Hayes, who taught themselves the ways of winemaking. Cape May Winery would open in 1995, and continues to be the most popular of the wineries in the area. There are now six wineries in Cape May County, each with its own style and wine varieties.

After the storm in 1962 that devastated Cape May, once again the town was at a crossroads. To go from that point to 1996, where the “Restaurant Capital of New Jersey” title was given by The New York Times, took quite some effort. Cape May’s modern dining makeover began over a poker game when Harry Kulkowitz became interested in owning the Carroll Villa. He opened the hotel in 1976 along with The Mad Batter restaurant, got a positive review from The Philadelphia Inquirer, and it suddenly became a destination. Then came The Washington Inn in 1978, owned by schoolteachers Toby and Rona Craig. Two years later, Louisa Hull and Doug Dietsch brought the philosophy of Alice Waters to Cape May in the form of Louisa’s Café.

Down on Bank Street, Steven and Janet Miller brought in Chef Henry Sing Chen and established a whole new dining experience to this shore town with the opening on 410 Bank Street in 1984. A mash-up of Asian, New Orleans and the Caribbean, nothing like 410 Bank Street had ever existed here. And then, the last of the true restaurant anchors opened in 1989. After a $3 million renovation, The Virginia Hotel emerged with an elegant dining showpiece, The Ebbitt Room.

So where does Cape May find itself in the 21st Century? For the food enthusiast, times are good. Congress Hall got a $20 million makeover, and became a top-notch hotel once again with the excellent Blue Pig restaurant and two exciting bar areas. There’s never a shortage of restaurants old and new, from Peter Shields Inn to The YB. West Cape May has stepped out on its own as Cape May’s hipster granola sister, complete with farm markets and unique dining in places such as Good Earth Organic Eatery and Empanada Mama’s. Elizabeth Degener, a/k/a The Bread Lady, keeps drawing long lines along Sunset Boulevard with her clay oven-baked breads. And James Beard-nominated chef Lucas Manteca has made The Red Store in Cape May Point destination dining. The local breweries, wineries, and distilleries that have sprung up over the last decade or so provide the perfect complement to any local foodie forays.

If Cape May’s gastronomic evolution through the centuries to the dining destination it is today is any indication, the future of its current spot on the East Coast culinary map seems assured.