When he took a job writing copy about the wonders of chicken eggs, Howard Helmer could never have imagined he’d still be at it 42 years later. “I’m 72 years old,” says Helmer, now the board’s senior national representative, “and I’m still hustling eggs!” But his reign as the Incredible Egg Man is coming to a close. Helmer is retiring at the end of the year.
It’s hard to imagine this exuberant man with gray hair, a goatee and a near-constant smile slowing down. For the past four decades, he has promoted eggs at county fairs, restaurant conventions and culinary schools, at symposiums abroad, on national television, over lunches with magazine editors and on the White House lawn at Easter. Over the years, he’s gotten to know famous chefs, taught movies stars how to make omelets and traveled the world. And he’s managed to hang on to two Guinness World Records: He made the fastest omelet, in 39 seconds, and once turned out 427 omelets in 30 minutes. “They were very moist omelets,” he admits, “but they were all eaten!”
If he hadn’t landed the gig with the Egg Board, he muses, “I might have aspired to be a Broadway star, or anything that would garner me an audience. I think one of the things that has made me successful at the Egg Board is that I love the attention.” And his audiences — from the hoi polloi at the Grand Prix in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to culinary students in Cancun, Mexico, to housewives in Tokyo — love him.
“He’s all about entertainment,” says Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food & Wine. During her 25 years at the magazine, she and Helmer have shared many a meal together; she can’t remember a time when she didn’t know him. “He hasn’t changed a bit,” she says. “If anything, he’s gotten a bit more outrageous. It took a little time to get used to him. I thought it was an act, but then I realized he’s a magical creature.” (You can see what she means in his video archive.)
The early days
Helmer, a Russian immigrant, grew up with his parents in Chicago. “We arrived broke,” he says. Unable to help himself, he adds an egg anecdote: “My grandmother would make dinner one night and then we could count on that, whatever it had been, to be served the next day but with eggs to stretch it.”
When he was about 30, he took a job working for the American Egg Board in Chicago, writing copy to go with the recipes and black-and-white photos that were sent out to newspaper editors. “I had more superlatives in my mind than anyone,” he remembers. Those who know him would say he has more superlatives in his life than anyone.
A promotion brought him to New York in 1967 where he quickly befriended another new arrival, Jacques Pepin. “Together we met Helen McCully, the former food editor of House Beautiful,” Helmer remembers. “She was what we called one of the grandes dames. She took us by the hand and introduced us to all the food editors of the magazines.” Their careers took off in different directions, but the two men have remained friends ever since. “I’ve learned from him,” says the celebrity chef, “to be happy about what you choose to do in life.”
Recently, in a post on his highly amusing (and informative) blog, Helmer wrote, “I have 32 magazine food editors that I stay in touch with regularly in order to try to influence them to feature recipes using eggs on their food pages.” And try he does. Custards and frittatas and Hollandaise sauces are always scattered throughout the pages of Food & Wine, says editor Ujlaki, but still, Helmer persists. “I tell Howard we can’t possibly do more on eggs!”
Sharing the egg love
Helmer has traveled the world for his work, covering Australia, England and Malaysia, among other countries, and also tackled Brazil, the nation with the world’s lowest per capita egg consumption. “There’s a stigma attached to eggs in Brazil,” Helmer explains. “If you can’t afford to feed your family, you can still give them eggs.” So, the Brazilian Egg Production Board invited Helmer to make omelets at the Sao Paolo Grand Prix in the mid 1990s. The idea was, he says, that “the international beautiful people would be photographed eating omelets, and the mainstream audience would see that singing sensation or this movie star eating eggs” and want to eat them themselves.
Helmer also helped out in Japan, the country whose residents eats the most eggs, though rarely at home and rarely in omelets. He conducted hands-on demonstrations with Japanese homemakers, teaching them how to make quick and easy omelets with fillings that appealed to them. “We used thawed frozen mixed veggies, the lima bean and carrot mix, and cheddar cheese. Then they’d all drown the omelets in ketchup. Everyone did that, without exception. And that’s OK with me.”
Reflecting on his international experience, he notes: “It’s curious how I was addressing the people with the highest consumption and the lowest.”
Getting the Brazilians to eat eggs and the Japanese to make omelets at home were one thing but dealing with what Helmer calls the “cholesterol debacle” was another. “I try not to allow the negatives to creep in,” he says, shutting down the conversation. There’s a line in “The Wiz” he likes: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news.” “My brain is focused on the wondrous qualities of eggs,” Helmer says. “If there’s an egg beside my frying pan, I’m happy.”
He’s not taking his upcoming retirement as bad news, either. Jeffrey Saad, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and is a runner-up on season five of “The Next Food Network Star,” has already been hired as a spokesman for the egg board, giving the two some time to work together before Helmer’s final day. “Jeffrey is the perfect successor,” Helmer says. “Most everything I do is geared to the mainstream cook. Jeffrey might want to bump that up.”
As for Helmer’s personal future, he has a plan: “I’d like to take up landscape painting and smoking cigars,” he says, “like Winston Churchill.”
Photos: Howard Helmer has been breaking eggs to make omelets for 42 years as part of his job with the American Egg Board.
Credit: Courtesy of the American Egg Board
Howard Helmer and his successor Jeffrey Saad, a runner-up on season five of “The Next Food Network Star.” Credit: Courtesy of the American Egg Board