Roxana Jullapat on the Transformative Power of Baking with Whole Grains | Civil Eats

Roxana Jullapat on the Transformative Power of Baking with Whole Grains

In her new cookbook, the Los Angeles baker urges her readers to champion rye, sorghum, barley, buckwheat—and issues a call for more biodiversity in the food system. 

Roxana Jullapat photo by Kristin Teig.

Roxana Jullapat photo by Kristin Teig.

Hearing Roxana Jullapat talk about grains is hypnotic, and reading her recipes makes you want to go out, buy some sorghum, and start baking.

Jullapat, head baker and co-owner of Friends & Family bakery in Los Angeles, works with regional farmers and millers to source what she calls the eight “mother grains”—barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat—and integrates them into everything she serves.

In her new book, Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution, Jullapat takes readers by the hand and leads them into the sublime world of the grains she loves, combining history, lush description, and a whimsical list of recipes ranging from Blueberry Blue Cornmeal Scones to Figgy and Purple Barley Cake and Chocolate Dynamite Cookies (with rye).

Throughout the book, Jullapat’s commitment to locally produced, small grains is evident, as is her commitment to seasonal cooking, small farms, regenerative agriculture, sustainable communities, and regional mills.

Mother Grains celebrates the full spectrum of freshly milled, flavorful whole grains, which are critical to building healthy farm ecosystems and can now be found at small and regional mills all over the country,” says Amber Lambke, cofounder and CEO of Maine Grains, which mills heritage grains from the Northeast in an effort to relocalize grain production and support farmers and communities.

Civil Eats spoke to Jullapat about her view that ancient grains make for a better future, how the revolution begins at home, and why the time has come to wave goodbye to all-purpose flours.

You write about how our conventional, global flour supply reflects only a handful of wheat varieties, which you say is shocking considering the diversity of grains in nature. Why is diversity in grains important?

Whenever we talk about biodiversity in any context the answer’s the same. Why do we want to preserve biodiversity in Costa Rica, where I grew up? Because it’s relevant, it’s important, and it’s a question that translates to the whole food supply. Imagine if we said the same thing about apples, for example, that Red Delicious and Granny Smith are the only apples people need. We would be missing out on literally thousands of other options.

Not only is diversity flavorful and interesting, it makes agriculture more secure. Nature in a diverse environment is self-regulating. When there’s variety there’s less susceptibility to disease. Biodiversity is worth every fight, from the jungle to the smallest part of the food supply. And let’s not forget the fact that when we’re talking about grains, there are species that have been around forever. You could be eating or growing a rye seed that hails from Viking times.

At the end of the day a grain is a seed. Why lose it? If we do, we are losing history, and we are also losing potential.

You write about your realization that grains are a seasonal ingredient. Can you talk a little bit about that?

In California, we have all this wonderful fresh, local produce, and much of the way we see cooking revolves around seasonality. We cannot escape it; it informs everything we do. The majority of chefs and cooks in Los Angeles follow some sort of seasonal rhythm. I became really aware of the seasonality of grains thanks to my miller, who’s my middleman (or woman). She’s the one dealing directly with the farmers, and my relationship with her depends a lot on her relationship with the farms she’s purchasing from.

So, we’ll have conversations where she says, “Oh, my favorite farmer is planting spelt this summer, so I’ll have tons of spelt later this year.” It brings you into the seasonal rhythms. It also makes you wonder about that white flour you’ve been buying from other vendors—what are they doing to it so that it lasts for years? Fresh-milled flours have a shelf life, just like fruits and vegetables.

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Does it seem to you that certain grains are underappreciated? It wasn’t so long ago when they were said to be the foundation of our food supply.

We have definitely done a good job of making society believe that our food security is dependent on the grains that we have access to [mostly highly processed wheat and corn]. Grains in that context are big business. But what we’re talking about here are grains that are grown at a much smaller scale. I would rather you buy whole wheat flour than white flour—100 percent. But more than that, I want you to buy whole grain flour that was grown in a small or smallish operation observing sustainable agricultural practices, that was milled by an independent mill, that benefits a community, and that doesn’t have an enormous ecological footprint. Those are the grains that we are not exposed to enough.

How did you settle on the eight grains you chose for the book?

It goes back to a moment in time when a lot was happening. Right here in my neck of the woods, a local farmer had just gotten a seed grant and was growing Sonora [an heirloom white soft wheat] and Red Fife, [an heirloom hard red wheat], as well as barley and rye. The rye was the nicest thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

Around the same time, a friend who’s super nerdy about buckwheat was doing work with Washington State University, which hosts a big grain event once a year and is home to the Bread Lab. Buckwheat is grown in Washington, but it has also been grown in the Northeast for generations.

I started to dissect it all. How old is buckwheat in America? Turns out, it goes way back to the first Amish settlements. Rye, similarly, had a very East Coast history. Barley we know is so important, it crosses industries, it’s used for malting beer. Then there’s rice, we can’t neglect rice. It has a long history in the South but also in California. And, of course, oats had a similar East Coast trajectory, although it had been grown mostly in the Midwest.

And then there’s the lonely child: sorghum. Sorghum is a Southern staple and has deep roots in the American South. It came here with enslaved people from West Africa. As for the present, and the future, sorghum is incredibly valuable for food security. It’s super weather-resistant and very nutritious, and it’s also efficient because it doesn’t require much acreage. So, in a time of climate change when we’re losing agricultural land, we have a grain that grows well in arid areas and improves the soil. If I were in food policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I would be [assigning] food research on sorghum.

What about corn? It has a pretty checkered past (and present).

We know for a fact that corn is grown at the expense of other crops. And that certain varieties of [patented, genetically engineered] corn are grown at the expense of smaller growers and smaller varieties. In the U.S., corn is subsidized, we export it, and local economies are forced to buy American corn because it’s so cheap, which leaves them with no incentive to grow their own. It’s hard to ignore those things, but for the purposes of this book I didn’t want to dive into it all. So, the corn we talk about in Mother Grains is artisanal—smaller farmers, smaller mills.

You mentioned the environmental benefits of sorghum. Do any others have similar benefits you want to talk about?

A grain that I love and value tremendously is buckwheat. It [can be used to] fix the soil, it has a short growing cycle, and here in California, it can be grown all year round. But typically it’s used as a cover crop, it’s not cultivated. Can we give regenerative farmers a reason to maximize and monetize that buckwheat they’re planting as a cover crop? I’m just one baker with a tiny bakery, but these conversations are worth having, because if we trend that way, we’re promoting practices that are great environmentally and financially for our farmers. And we’re also increasing the diversity of grain for everybody.

Is there anything else you want to share about the health benefits of these grains?

Each grain has its own individual benefits. For example, buckwheat is rich in rutin, an antioxidant that may lower the risk of cancer. Whole grains as a group all share the same characteristics: They offer benefits to digestive health, they’re nutritious, and because they’re digested slowly because of all the fiber they contain, they help regulate your glycemic load.

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What singular message would you like to get out there?

It’s very simple. I just want you to change your flour and bake. Because if you’re using all-purpose flour, you’re going through a robotic process that promotes other robotic processes. If your baking just moves a little bit toward the [locally produced], whole-grain end of spectrum, you will promote an entirely different kind of agriculture. That alone is transformative. The one thing you can count on is that the all-purpose stuff you see on the shelf comes from a big factory. I don’t want to sound elitist. The point is that if we promote attitudes that encourage people to use flours made from ancient grains, they will become more available. I want you to change your flour so that we can change the flour [available] for everyone.

You’ll also be doing something really nice for yourself and your family. You’ll go on this tiny, little journey in an afternoon, in your house. What’s the worst that could happen in comparison to the magic that can happen? It’s a small investment for what could potentially be an incredible return. You can do it. Just grab some good butter and a bag of fun flour. It really is that simple.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Hilary Macht is a New York-based freelance writer covering health, science and environment with focus on the relationships among food, food culture, environment and health. Her work has appeared in dozens of media outlets including The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Prevention, MORE, Essence, NRDC’s Amicus Journal (OnEarth), EndocrineWeb and others, and she is a contributing writer for Everyday Health. Read more >

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