The egg recall that’s sweeping the nation hadn’t happened yet when I sat down with Helen McEwen. We met because a mutual friend told me Helen is known for throwing great dinner parties. Our conversation took a direction that seems so much more relevant now: We started to talk about local food—something her family is very much invested in. Her two teen-aged sons, Frank Jr. and Luke, along with help from her husband, Frank, (all pictured above) raise and care for the 1,000 chickens that lay eggs that are sold in Birmingham stores such as V. Richards in Forest Park, Continental Bakery in English Village, and The General Store at Pepper Place. (I love getting that box of assorted white, brown, and blue eggs.) Local restaurants buy McEwen & Sons eggs, too—Helen says Frank Stitt buys many of them. Soon McEwen & Sons will sell locally raised beef in Birmingham.
Helen and I started talking about local food as she told me about her own life in the kitchen.
She grew up in a Greek household, and so she couldn’t help but be a foodie. “We celebrate with a lot of special foods,” she said. And most things were homemade. She remembers she was often given the job of stirring bechamel for pastitsio. “Making something out of a box was not an option.”
She had a culinary epiphany when she lived in Seattle for five years. “There was fresh salmon, wheat berries, vegetables that actually snapped… in five years, I never had a bad meal!” Inspired by the good food in Washington, she bought a few cookbooks and started to cook. Now, at her home in Wilsonville, about an hour outside of Birmingham, she cooks very locally, using ingredients her husband grows in a family garden with health in mind (see her recipe for healthy blueberry muffins below). She says Martha Stewart and Ina Garten inspire her to throw great dinner parties: “I feel like I have to do something special when people come out,” she says.
Just as the Pacific Northwest has its bounty, the South has its own food treasures too, along with long growing seasons—and she believes we can and should do more with food in our own region. “I believe Alabama has to know how to feed itself, that the Southeast has to know how to feed itself,” she said.
I agree. It doesn’t make sense to me that the entire United States of America has to avoid eggs, tomatoes, ground beef, or spinach because of a problem with one producer—or because health officials can’t pinpoint the source. I can’t say that I could honestly ever be a 100% locavore; I love chocolate, wine, and Parmesan cheese too much. But at what point do we get fed up enough with underfunded and powerless federal agencies and a few mega-producers to turn to our neighbors and pay them a little extra for raising food that’s going to taste better and be better for us? I like rare burgers. Fresh tomatoes. Runny eggs.
Days after the egg recall, I cracked a few McEwen & Sons eggs to make homemade mayo for tomato sandwiches. No worries!
Helen adapted this recipe from a cookbook she bought back in the late 80s, Horn of the Moon Cookbook: Recipes from Vermont’s Renowned Vegetarian Restaurant by Ginny Callan. Helen uses all organic ingredients for her muffins. Spelt flour comes from spelt, an ancient variety of wheat that’s made a comeback. I’ve found spelt flour locally at Whole Foods Market in Mountain Brook. If you can’t find it, you can use regular all-purpose flour. As for the flax seed, you can buy it already ground, or you can grind it yourself—some people use a coffee bean grinder or spice grinder just for this. Flax seed is less likely to go rancid, and retains more nutrients if you grind it yourself right before you need it.
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup sprouted spelt flour (you may substitute all purpose flour)
1/2 cup freshly ground flax seed
1/4 cup oat bran
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 farm fresh eggs
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/2 cup local honey
1 cup organic milk or yogurt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Butter a muffin tin and set it aside.
3. In a bowl, mix together the flours, ground flax seed, oat bran, baking powder, and salt.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add oil, honey, milk or yogurt and vanilla. Whisk these ingredients together.
5. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, and stir with a large spoon. Stir in the blueberries. Stir the batter just enough to moisten; do not over mix.
6. Fill buttered muffin tins 2/3 full, and place the muffins in the oven.
7. Reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake 20 minutes or until browned and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. (The time could be less, depending on your oven.)
Updated to change “tween-aged” to “teen-aged”, to add a cookbook credit to the recipe, and to hide some code.