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Emma Zimmerman, Hayden Flour Mills
Issue 34: On the work of The Mill, the heirloom grain movement, and her new cookbook, The Miller’s Daughter, which is out today!
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Hayden Flour Mills is an Arizona-based farm and mill that is working to revive forgotten native grains. It was originally founded in 1874, and the father-daughter team of Jeff and Emma Zimmerman are reviving the business and focusing on non-GMO, low-water, and carbon-negative heritage and ancient grains.
They, along with a few others, have worked to revive White Sonora Wheat, a soft wheat that is particularly adept at growing in the semi-arid climates of Northern Mexico, Arizona, and California. Part of the native and Mexican diets for centuries, the wheat has become a staple of modern-day Southwest cuisine.
I chatted with Emma Zimmerman about the work of Hayden Flour Mills, the heirloom grain movement, and her new cookbook, The Miller's Daughter: Unusual Flours & Heritage Grains: Stories and Recipes from Hayden Flour Mills, which is out today!
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about your background and work with Hayden Flour Mills.
Emma Zimmerman: My dad and I started the modern revival of the business together. It was kind of his crazy idea — I was working on a PhD program at McGill and wasn't loving it as much as I thought I would. I moved back home and taught cadaver labs at a community college. It was a very low point.
I started helping my dad with the business and it got a lot of traction. We started working with Don Guerra early on as a partner and I think a lot of people had been looking for local wheat for a while. The timing of it was really good. We moved our mill into the back of one Chris Bianco’s restaurants downtown and got our start there. He was really generous. From there, we moved out to the farm with one of our growers. We could probably expand again now, but we just make it work with the space we have.
When we started milling, we got this mill from Austria, but we didn't actually have anything to mill. So we had to find a farmer to grow these grains. And then Native Seeds SEARCH helped us track down a large quantity of White Sonora Wheat to get started. We had originally called them about the White Sonora Wheat and they were like, "Oh, how many packets do you want?" We got like 2,000 pounds.
Gary Nabhan was also a catalyst in helping restart The Mill. He helped connect the pieces for us, guiding us toward which heritage grains to grow and connecting us to others in the space.
They were the original people that helped us get the seed, understand the history of it and the importance of it, and set us in that direction of heritage, ancient varieties as our defining feature.
Brianna Plaza: Was there a reason that you started with White Sonora Wheat versus anything else? Besides the history of it in the region, I'd be curious if there was anything else driving your choice.
Emma Zimmerman: Something that I hadn't really thought about until recently with heritage ancient grains is that they are very nutrient dense and they have all these qualities that have been lost among other varieties. But they're also free — no one owns them — which is a really big difference between how industrial flour is made and grown.
A lot of modern varieties are owned by a seed company. And so you have to rebuy your seed every year because they’re always putting out new varieties and they don’t have high yields. So it's a completely different model.
We do buy our seed, but we are able to buy our seed just one time, or sometimes, trade it or give it away. We can buy it and we can save it and replant it.
It’s just a whole different philosophy of a food sovereignty model where you own your food, someone else doesn't own the intellectual property of your food, which is so weird. It's really old seed that no one owns — they’re in the public domain. In other cases, you could be eating bread that Bayer/Monsanto owns the intellectual property for. Heirloom varieties really set our company apart but I don’t think we could even afford to buy their seeds.
Brianna Plaza: How do you see the heirloom grain movement changing as we think about things like climate change?
Emma Zimmerman: What we've done from day one is keep climate change in mind, but more specifically, water usage in Arizona. We’re seeing the trend of mismanagement of our water resources, and thinking of the future, we need to feed ourselves with foods that require less water. Water is such a complicated issue, so it's not a solution, but we believe in building resilient food and a localized food infrastructure.
During the pandemic, it was very obvious that the global wheat supply was very disrupted, but our infrastructure wasn't touched, except our reliance on getting packaging.
Building a resilient local food system, I think, is really important to our future. It's hard to speculate but I wish I had more influence in how we use our water.
Brianna Plaza: You talked about working with Don Guerra for the last 10 years. As his notoriety has grown, have you seen interest in your work change?
Emma Zimmerman: Don's been great because he's such an educator around these grains and why he uses them. And he's so committed to it. So many bakers that we’ve worked with eventually grow to a certain point and they have to return to using cheap commodity flour.
But for Don, that's part of his DNA. He started ordering our flour and I would drive it down to him every other Friday. He still orders from us and he really spreads his dollars throughout Arizona, which I really love. He’s just a real champion of the movement in a very authentic way. He’s been such a great ambassador for small grains.
When we started, there weren't that many mills, and now, there are so many small mills. Listing all the mills as a resource in my cookbook was really fun to do.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about your cookbook and how it came about. Who is the book for?
Emma Zimmerman: It was very fun to make. It was a long time dream because I really like writing, so I wanted a chance to write a little more long form. There are four essays at the beginning: sow, grow, harvest, mill. It goes through how we create our product, but also, tells the story of the business, and then, my personal journey. It's a little bit of a memoir, a little bit educational.
Then, it's divided by grain type. So, it has 10 different grains, also including legumes and corn, not just grains. Pretty much everything we do at the mill, and then, eight recipes per grain. It's actually not a baking book because I don't really bake. It's got a lot of recipes for what you can do with grains that aren't bread or baking. Really letting the grains show off and what they’re capable of.
There are really simple things like pancake waffles or blondies, but also sprouted grain salads, cracked grains, toasted — all the different ways that you can take a grain and transform it. Each chapter has different variations on the grains: cake but with chickpea flour, a purple barley lemonade, purple barley pierogi. It's really showing the breadth of grains that's beyond just bread.
Also, a bread book is just so brown. This book has a lot of color and the photography is very southwest. My photographer was so great, and he really captured the vision. I have always wanted to do something to show people what to do with the grains. Answering that question: what do I make with these?
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk a little bit more about why you decided to not go the bread route and focus on grains in a non-baking capacity?
Emma Zimmerman: Well, first of all, there are so many great sourdough books right now. It was a bit about not wanting to necessarily compete in that space.
I think it's the way that I use our grains. I realized that I would use our grains a lot more in savory applications and not just in baking. I really had to learn a lot about baking for this book. I mean, we eat what we make. We just end up cooking a lot and loving food and trying all these things.
The philosophy of our business too, I think, is letting the flavor and grains speak for themselves — you can taste and see that these are different.
If I could have you over and make you some polenta, then you'd be like, oh my gosh, this is so good, this is different. It's that opportunity to taste it and realize, oh, wow, this is so different from commodity white flour without necessarily going the route of directly saying that white flour is terrible.
I could say a lot of bad things about white flour, for sure, but we'd rather elevate grains and get people excited to try ours.
Brianna Plaza: Did you work with a recipe developer, or did you do all of this work yourself?
Emma Zimmerman: Like I said, I'm not a really talented baker. I have a friend who helped me with some of the baking recipes that stumped me. She would help me take my idea, and really, make it work. So, that was really, really nice. She probably helped me with a dozen recipes.
Otherwise, it was a lot of testing. And then, a lot of people were working from home at the time, so I'd have my neighbors taste it and give their feedback. I ended up crowdsourcing recipe testers, which was interesting. It was really fun. Not super helpful, but fun.