MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: "God's Waiting Room"

After moving to Michigan, I quickly learned the Bill Knapp’s demographic: lots and lots of seniors, enjoying traditional comfort food, and taking advantage of Bill Knapp’s legendary birthday discount: 1% off for every year of your age. Live long enough – beyond 100 - and they would pay you for eating there. Thus the infamous nickname, “God’s waiting room.”

Alas, some marketing genius bought the Battle-Creek-based chain in 1998 and tried to woo a younger crowd. They painted murals on their buildings, hung colorful shower curtains between booths, and abandoned recordings of Bill Crosby crooning “Happy Birthday” in favor of loud rock and roll. Needless to say, their “That was then, this is WOW” campaign was a dismal failure.
By the time they tried to regain the magic, it was too late. The last of Bill Knapp’s 69 restaurants closed in 2002.

I loved Bill Knapp’s. My go-to dish was ham croquettes and au gratin potatoes. Some joked that these dishes were soft enough that they could be gummed; no matter. Those ham croquettes with chicken gravy would never fail to satisfy.

A friend and dedicated food blogger, Cynthia Hodges (, recently tried to hunt down that ham croquette recipe, as part of her effort to preserve as many Michigan restaurant recipes as she can. Incredibly it was not possible to find. Bill Knapp’s had a commissary model, so much of the food was not prepared in the restaurants themselves. Cynthia did her level best, even joining a Facebook group for ex-Knappers, with no luck.

So with lots of ham in her freezer and Easter coming up, Cynthia decided “It was time to experiment.” I’ll let her take it from here.

“On the internet, I found lots of recipes. I didn’t know it, but ham croquettes aka Croquetas de Jamón are a popular tapas dish. They are also known as Cuba’s national appetizer. I found one really lame recipe that claimed to be Bill Knapp’s but it used Crisco and sounded pretty bland. I found another that was from a 1960s Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook that used curry powder, which sounded interesting.”

However, Cynthia’s source, who worked at Bill Knapp’s, was adamant that the restaurant did not use curry. No matter – Cynthia went on to put her signature stamp on the recipe, serving her croquettes over buttered noodles with peas and chicken gravy. Cynthia reports that they were delicious with and without the optional curry powder.

Bill Knapp’s Style Ham Croquettes

3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (optional)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup milk
1 T prepared mustard
1 lb cooked ham coarsely diced
1/4  onion coarsely diced
2/3 cup dry bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons water
Oil for deep-fat frying

In a saucepan, melt butter; stir in curry powder and flour. Gradually add milk. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat.  In a food processor, process ham and onion until meat is chopped very fine. Add to saucepan and cool thoroughly.  With wet hands, shape mixture into 10 balls. Roll balls in bread crumbs; shape each into a cone. Whisk together egg and water. Dip cones into egg mixture; roll again in crumbs. Heat about an inch of oil in a dutch oven to 375°. Fry croquettes, a few at a time, for 2 to 2-1/2 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels; keep warm. Serve with chicken gravy.

In the meantime, enjoy your wait. Until God calls, there’s lots of good comfort food to be had.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC in Ann Arbor. He also has many years of restaurant and catering experience, has taught cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at