Heritage tomatoes with their odd shapes and color but superior flavor began appearing in mainstream markets about a decade ago. Now other heritage foods are becoming popular among them, wheat. Smithsonian Magazine ran an article on the rise of artisanal wheat that you can read here. Last weekend I joined about a dozen others in harvesting two varieties of heritage wheat at Ramona Farms near Sacaton, just south of Phoenix. The farm is owned by Ramona Button, who is half Pima and half Tohono O’odham, and her husband Terry, who is all farmer. The wheat wasn’t ripe, but we wanted to get it at the green “milk” stage.
Wheat was brought to Sonora, Mexico, and eventually to Southern Arizona by Father Eusebio Kino and other Catholic missionaries in the sixteenth century. It was a hit with the local inhabitants because wheat grows through the winter and gave the Native Americans something to eat in the spring when they had used up their wild foods stored in the fall and were going hungry. They didn’t wait for the wheat to all ripen, but began eating it as soon as the berries were plump. When they roasted the grain heads over a fire, the hulls blackened, but because the inside was moist, the grain itself just toasted. Then they rubbed off the black part and ate the delicious, smoky-flavored interior. The name of this food was dagivin, which translates roughly “to prepare it by rubbing.” Middle Easterners also prepare wheat this way and call it freekeh.
Jeff Zimmerman, who runs Hayden Flour Mills in Phoenix, produces flour from heritage wheat grown in Arizona. Here he and his son-in-law work on roasting the wheat over a fire. The story of how and why he began the business of stone-grinding heritage wheat in 2010 is fascinating and you can read it here from a story in the Arizona Republic.
Interested in more heritage recipes? Check out my book Cooking the Wild Southwest for delicious recipes for 23 easily recognized and gathered southwest plants. Find out how top restaurant and resort chefs are using traditional Southwest foods in new and exciting ways in The New Southwest Cookbook. For a short video on some of the interesting plants you can gather, click here.