McEwen & Sons’ stone-ground grits are a favorite among home cooks and chefs, from local legend Frank Stitt to as far away as Seattle. These Alabama-made grits also healthier than most store-bought versions because the old-fashioned grinding process leaves nutrients intact. The mill at Frank and Helen McEwen’s farm supply store in Wilsonville grinds about a ton of organic corn a week during peak demand, producing not only grits but also cornmeal and other ground-corn products. Frank feeds the leftover corn husks to beef cows he raises. Frank and his sons — Frank Jr., 25, and Luke, 24 — also sell eggs; many end up in desserts at Stitt’s restaurants, made by James Beard Award winner Dolester Miles. We chatted with Frank to find out what goes into his process.
How does your grist mill work?
It’s got two 20-inch stones with grooves. You pour dried corn in a hopper and it goes into a cleaner and then between the two stones. The stones are spinning but never touch. If the stones touch, then you’ve got problems. Ground grain comes out the bottom and into a cauldron. An augur takes it to a sifter with three sets of screens. The finest screen takes off the meal. Grits fall through the larger and largest screens.
What’s the difference between stone-ground grits and those from the grocery?
Stone-ground grits don’t go through a heat process, so the germ is still alive. The ones in the store go through a metal cracker, which heats them.
Why do stone-ground grits take longer to cook?
They’re not pre-processed. The coarser they are, the longer they take to cook. Grits that are extra-coarse need 45 minutes to an hour to cook. The longer you cook them the better they get. A lot of the grits in a restaurant, they put them in early and let them simmer throughout the day.
How many restaurants do you reckon use your grits?
We probably had 100 in the good years, but we’re down to about 20 now. It’s strange, with this COVID thing my Internet business (for home cooks) is four or five times what it was. And the grocery business picked up too.
What are some of your favorite dishes from restaurants that serve your grits?
I love that grits appetizer at Highlands Bar and Grill (a baked souffle served with Benton’s country ham and mushrooms over a creamy white wine-vinegar sauce seasoned with thyme). That’s hard to beat. And then the [cheese] grits and collard greens at Saw’s are awful good, with the barbecue.
How do you like to eat your grits at home?
However my wife makes them. She serves them as a breakfast kind of thing with eggs. Or she’ll often do polenta with grits and seafood — white fish or salmon, something like that.
You also sell eggs. Why are chicken eggs different colors?
It depends on the breed. White eggs generally come from White Leghorns. A lot of the brown eggs will be Rhode Island Red or Dominiques. Welsummers will be dark. Ameraucanas lay easter eggs – blue and green.
(Q&A edited for length and clarity)