In an update to my previous post about George Diamond Steak House and for all those who are into 1950s-style supper clubs and Chicagoland food history, check out this great You Tube post about George Diamond Steakhouse. Back in the day, there were several in the Chicago area including at 630 S. Wabash in the South Loop, Las Vegas, Acapulco, and Antioch (where there was also a George Diamond Golf Course) as well as in Whiting, Indiana.
If you’re thinking how does Whiting, an industrial city on the Indiana-Illinois border fit in with such locations as Vegas, Chicago, and Acapulco–well, consider this–at one time Whiting, now best known as the place where Polish foods are celebrated every year at the Pierogi Fest, one of the top festivals in the U.S. was a major destination for both Chicago and Northwest Indiana residents who enjoyed swank dining and perch dinners. It rocked from the early 1900s to the early 1980s and had such classic places as Phil Smidt’s and Vogel’s. Indeed the latter sold so many frog legs that they started raising their own in nearby Lake George.
And, if you’re really into George Diamond history, Etsy has two of the restaurant’s shot glasses for sale for $145.
With its signature orange roof, glistening pool with both high and low dives, restaurant with signature clam strips and 28 flavors of ice cream when nationwide chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla were typically all that was offered, Howard Johnson’s had it all.
In the years I’ve been writing about food for the Herald Palladium, the largest newspaper in Southwest Michigan, I’ve received many requests from readers for recipes but undoubtedly the most popular request has been for the fried chicken and Cole slaw recipes from Mead’s Chicken Nook, a very popular eatery in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph from 1945 until the late 1980’s which was started by Pearl and Buster Mead.
I was always told that the family
never shared the recipes from the restaurant so I was surprised when I heard
from Gina Lewis Schmaltz of Baroda suggesting I contact her brother Guy Lewis.
A quick message to him on Facebook and within a week we met at Watermark
Distillery in downtown Stevensville (Guy lives nearby) and I suddenly had a
copy of the recipes and more family history in my hands. It was like striking
“It wasn’t that we wanted to keep
these secret,” Lewis told me. “It’s just that I was afraid people wouldn’t believe
me because the chicken recipe is so simple. I thought people would think we
were keeping out a secret ingredient.”
It is indeed a very simple recipe.
An egg and milk batter, a little salt and flour. The steps are important, Guy
told me. The chicken is salted right before it’s dipped.
I told him that I was often
surprised at how simple some recipes are. There’s a famous perch, chicken and
frog leg place in Northwest Indiana where I grew up. It’s called Teibel’s Family
Restaurant and has been in business in Schererville for 90 years. When I was
given the recipe for their chicken, perch and frog legs, I was astounded it was
so simple. Basically flour and some seasonings the same recipe the original
Mrs. Tiebel had brought with her from Austria, her native country. But like piano playing and other skills, the
magic is in the cooking. We can all be given the same recipe or the same sheet
of music, but how it comes out is often extremely different.
Obviously the Mead family knew how
to fry chicken. During Prohibition Buster Mead learned how to do so at the
Allendale Resort in Branson, Missouri where he and his future wife, Pearl
McClure, were from.
“My grandparents moved from Branson to Benton Harbor at the start of World War II
because Buster assumed he would be drafted into military service and while he
was gone Pearl could live with her parents, Daisy and Jim McClure,” Lewis says.
“They lived in Stevensville and Jim worked at Emlong’s Nursery. They had also
recently moved from Missouri. Buster took a job at Upton Machine company–now
Whirlpool)–operating a machine which made parts for the war effort. In
September 1945 they opened the first Chicken Nook at 297 East Main St. in
Benton Harbor. In 1956 they moved to the newly built Chicken Nook at 1111 Main
St. in St. Joseph. My first job was bussing tables there on weekends when I was
At its peak, a lot of chickens got
fried at Mead’s. A 20 to 30-foot wall was line with fryers, all custom made as
were the griddles with sides of about an inch to two inches high.
“He’d pour oil in them to panfry
some of the chicken,” he says. “The legs and wings went into the deep fryers.”
Their poultry was delivered almost
daily from Troyer’s in Goshen, Indiana—talk about fresh. As an aside, Troyer’s
County Market, which opened in 1912, is still in business.
“It came in big crates that were
slid down the stairs to the basement. From afternoon to evening, the staff
would be downstairs cutting up the chickens which came in whole,” says Guy.
“They then went into a big tub of ice.”
Gina Lewis Schultz remembers working
at Mead’s when they were located on Red Arrow Highway in Stevensville in what
is now Lee’s Hunan.
“I was in my teens,” she says. “I
remember my dad taught me how to make Pearl’s Dressing two gallons at a time.”
Her grandfather created most of the
recipes on the menu including the dressing which he named after his wife.
Schultz says she’s seen other recipes for it but the dressing served at the
restaurant contained apple cider and what she calls “heavy mayonnaise” such as
“But no Miracle Whip,” she says
Schultz still makes the fried
chicken about once a month or so for her husband using the originally recipe.
When I mentioned that I had made it earlier in the evening and my kitchen
looked like a disaster with egg dip, flour and oil scattered around, she said,
“well, it is kind of messy,” though I felt, from the kindly tone of her voice,
that it wasn’t a messy process when she did it.
I asked Schultz what she remembers
most about her time working there and she recalls how busy it was.
“And there was constantly and
constantly chicken being served or going out the door,” she says.
In the early 60’s the Meads opened a
second location at 325 W. Main St. Benton Harbor but it was only open for a few
“That location has been the home of
many other restaurants since then,” says Lewis. “In the late 70’s the Meads
retired and sold the restaurant. Buster worked part time in the deli for Harry
Zick at his Vineland Foodland on Vineland Road in St. Joseph Township.
Eventually my grandfather decided he
wasn’t done in the restaurant business and opened his new Chicken Nook on Red Arrow Highway. They were in business there for just a couple
of years then age finally caught up with them and they had to shut down the
fryers for the last time. I worked there a few hours per week to help out and
so learned some of Grandpa Meads recipes but also, even better, I got a lot of
adult time with my grandfather.”
Recreating Mead’s Fried Chicken
I have the hardest time following
recipes, I always want to take short cuts, add my own tweaks or substitute
ingredients. But I vowed to myself that I would follow the fried chicken recipe
given to me by Lewis and Schmaltz. So I
bought whole milk instead of substituting the almond milk which I had in my
refrigerator (though I thought about doing so a couple of times) and though
four to six eggs seemed like way too many, I added six to a pint of milk just
like the recipe called for.
Now I really like fried food that’s
done well but I’m not sure I’m the person who can do that—it’s a skill I don’t
possess. Despite that, I filled a very
large skillet (and large is important as the you don’t want oil sputtering all
over the stove and countertop) with vegetable oil and set the burner to high. I
also turned on the vent over the stove—also necessary because the heat from the
bubbling oil can set off the smoke detector. I also left my front door open
just in case.
The Mead recipe said you could
double dip the chicken into the egg-milk mix and flour if you wanted extra
crispy and so I did. But then I made a mistake. I dipped all the pieces while
waiting for the oil to heat up. I would have done better to dip (or double dip)
just before I put the meat in the hot oil. Because I didn’t, some of the batter
started dropping off and by then I was out of the mix so I had to try to patch
it back on resulting in some serious clumps of breading. But hey, I like crispy
coating even if it didn’t make the chicken look somewhat misshapen.
The chicken pieces sizzled when I
placed them in the oil. I followed Guy’s instructions to do the legs and wings
separately because they cook more quickly which meant that the batter on those
pieces had even more time to drop off. Patch, patch again.
Because I don’t fry often, the only
thermometer I could find was one for meat which doesn’t go high enough to tell
me when the oil is at 350°F. (I think my daughter borrowed my candy
thermometer but that’s a different story). But I remembered a trick from my one
food class in high school and that was if you stick a wooden spoon in oil and
bubbles form around it and then start to float to the surface, that it’s about
the right temperature for frying—somewhere between 325°F to 350°F.
The chicken made a satisfying
sizzling sound when I plopped it in the oil. But here’s another issue I
encountered. How to tell when the chicken was done–I like sushi, pink pork
chops and bloody steaks but really like my chicken thoroughly cooked. I didn’t
know whether I could stick my meat thermometer into the frying meat or if
breaking the crust would somehow ruin the taste or make it too greasy. That’s
when I turned to Google which informed me that it was indeed okay and that I
could either cut the meat to see if it was done or use the thermometer to
determine if the interior had reached a temperature of165°F. You can also, the directions
said, finish off the chicken in a 350°F preheated oven.
When it was all over, I had a large
platter of fried chicken, a large amount of Pearl’s Dressing for my salad (and
many more) and a very messy kitchen.
Overall—it might not be the chicken we would have eaten at one of the
Chicken Nook’s restaurants but it was pretty good.
“The Meads have since passed on but
the legacy of the Chicken Nook lives on,” says Guy Lewis.
That is so true. So many people have
Chicken Nook memories.
John Madill, a long time
photographer for the Herald Palladium and now retired, emailed me to say he
remembered getting a photo assignment in the early or mid 80’s for a new
“Turned out to be Mr. Mead coming
out of retirement to start making his chicken again,” he says. “I remember him
well in a white apron, stopping his prep work in the kitchen to come out and
talk to me.”
Kathy Thornton, owner of Thornton’s Café in downtown St.
Joseph, remembers when she married her husband, Bob, that her in-laws. Norman
and Annabelle Thornton hosted their rehearsal dinner at the Chicken Nook in
“As I recall it was a wonderful—a
lovely experience,” says Thornton who went attended St. Joseph High School with
As for Lewis, he remembers a
sandwich at the Chicken Nook that he really liked. Called the Dutchburger, he
says it was basically shaved ham grilled on the griddle, flipped over with
cheese being added and them flip it over again.
“It was served on a Kreamo bun,”
says Lewis, “we also used Kreamo.”
Lewis seldom makes the fried
chicken, he’s turned his interest to artisan beers—teaching himself and also
learning from the brew master at The Livery.
“I make about gallons at a time
include German-style Hefeweizen I call Hagar Hefeweizen and Pitcairn Vanilla
Porter because I use an authentic Tahitian vanilla bean.
When doing research on his family’s
history, Lewis found an old advertisement for Pearl’s Dressing. It seems that
an enterprise called Pasquale’s was bottling the dress and selling it. There
was also a Pasquale’s Pizza in Benton Harbor, but neither Lewis or I have been
able to find out any more information about the bottled dressing. But we’ll
following recipes are courtesy of Gina Lewis Schmaltz and Guy Lewis,
grandchildren of Pearl and Buster Mead.
2 ½ to 3
1 pint of
whole milk (approximately)
flour for dredging
Cut up the
chicken into make 8 pieces. Make an egg dip of approximately 4 to 6 eggs whisked
together with about a pint of milk. The egg mixture should be thick enough so
it sticks well to the chicken pieces.
chicken into the egg dip then dredge in all-purpose flour. Salt the chicken
well as the pieces are going into the flour.
If you want
extra crispy crust, return to the egg dip mixture and then back into the flour.
Pan fry at
about 350 to 365 degrees in enough vegetable oil to more than halfway cover the
pieces. Breast and thighs should be fried separately for the legs and wings
since the larger pieces take longer.
pieces when golden brown and finish frying the other side.
vinegar, one splash
with a box shredder. Do not use pre-shredded cabbage, it is already too dry.
Add salt as
you shred, it helps to release the moisture from the cabbage.
and heavy mayonnaise such as Hellman’s (not Miracle Whip) to taste. Mix well
and set aside for a short time to let it all blend together.
is a slightly different recipe than the one I published in my column several
½ pint salad
apple cider vinegar
ounce can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup
Put all in
mixer and blend at slow speed. Don not whip as this will cause your oil for
separate from mixture.