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 gold.
“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 about 15.”
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 Hellman’s.
“But no Miracle Whip,” she says emphatically.
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 years.
“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.”
Sidebar: 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 restaurant.
“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 1973.
“As I recall it was a wonderful—a lovely experience,” says Thornton who went attended St. Joseph High School with Guy Lewis.
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 keep looking.
The following recipes are courtesy of Gina Lewis Schmaltz and Guy Lewis, grandchildren of Pearl and Buster Mead.
Chicken Nook Pan-Fried Chicken
2 ½ to 3 pound chicken
1 pint of whole milk (approximately)
All-purpose flour for dredging
Salt to taste
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.
Dip the 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.
Turn the pieces when golden brown and finish frying the other side.
1 head cabbage
Shredded carrots (optional)
Apple cider vinegar, one splash
Sugar, to taste
Mayonnaise, to taste
Shred cabbage 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.
Mix sugar 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.
Note: This is a slightly different recipe than the one I published in my column several weeks ago.
1 quart mayonnaise
3 ounces sugar
½ pint salad oil
2 ounces apple cider vinegar
1 10-3/4 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.