Malcolm Jolley interviews Laura Wright about First Mess, her cookbook and blog.
Laura Wright was born and raised into the produce business in Niagara-on-the-Lake. University and culinary school took her to Toronto, where she ended up finding work in the city’s restaurant scene, including for Jamie Kennedy at Gilead. When romance took her back home to Niagara, she started a food blog call The First Mess, which quickly gained a dedicated following for Wright’s stunning photography and innovative, vegetable-driven recipes. The passion that Wright has poured into her blog has just been distilled and published in her new cookbook, also called The First Mess. It’s a gorgeous and interesting collection of Wright’s cooking, correctly subtitled as ‘vibrant plant-based recipes to eat well through the seasons’, designed to inspire home cooks to reach into the crisper drawer.
I caught up with Laura Wright to chat about The First Mess at her publisher’s Toronto offices to conduct the interview below, which has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Good Food Revolution: Tell me about The First Mess the blog, because your cookbook comes out of it. First Mess the blog is a big deal, but maybe not everyone knows about it?
Laura Wright: That’s true because my blog is a plant-based blog. Its a vegan blog, although I don’t really sell it that way. But it is a vegan blog, so it might not be everybody’s thing. Thefirstmess.com started because I had moved back to Niagara from Toronto, where I had been working in restaurants, and I had just got a job at a new restaurant. I was really excited about what they were doing, but it was a failing restaurant. It was good food, the owner was so nice, but it was definitely failing and I was getting called off of many shifts. So, I had all of this spare time. A friend of mine told me about all these new food blogs and told me people were learning to cook online. People weren’t taking classes they were visiting website by knowledgeable people and she said I could be one of those people. She knew that I enjoyed photography and she just kept suggesting I do a blog as a creative outlet. She would fire off a text to me saying, ‘What should I do with these wild leeks?’ then, ‘You should apply this content to a website.’ She just kept up these gentle, but also over the top, suggestions until I eventually just did it.
I bought the domain for $10, based on a passage from one of M.F.K. Fisher’s books where she talks about ‘the first mess’ of peas in the springtime. I thought that it was so lovely to look forward to the first vegetables of spring that you would have this special word for it, it just evoked an image for me. So, I started the blog and I would just post to it when I felt like it: Oh, I tried these pancakes and they were good. It was very noncommittal. I found another job at a place that was busy. Then Jamie Kennedy opened a restaurant in Niagara and I worked there. But The First Mess was starting to gain steam and I was posting more regularly and gaining some freelance work, which led to more kinds of work and being approached by my book editor. So now this is all I do. But it took about six years.
GFR: When I got your book and I started looking through it, it took me a long time before I realized that it was vegan.
LW: That’s my favourite thing to hear. I don’t really use the v-word on my site or in the book. I say ‘plant-based’. Yes, I eat vegan, but I also own a pair of leather Blundstones, so I don’t really want to go there. For me, it’s just about how plan-based foods make me feel and how good they are. Most of my readers are omnivores, but they cook a ‘Meatless Monday’, or they want to stop having meat and dairy in their lunch. They just want to try one of my recipes and see how it goes. Most of the people who give me feedback, that’s where they’re going from. And I think that’s awesome. I love when people take just a small step, so visually try and package my recipes in a way that people forget that it’s vegan. I try and develop a flavour combination that’s alluring, or elegant and approachable so they notice until later that there’s no cheese. I don’t want people to feel like they’re going with out. I want my food to celebrate so many things that there is no discussion of a lack.
LW: I did an internship at a vegan restaurant in Toronto for three months, but everywhere else I have ever worked there was tons of meat. And I would always get made fun of for not eating it! [Laughs.]
GFR: But you survived?
LW: Oh yeah. It was always in good fun.
GFR: You moved back to Niagara, from Toronto, in part because you met a man. Is it too personal to ask you if your partner is also a vegan?
LW: It’s not, and he definitely is not vegan. He eats all the meats and all the seafood. He loves that stuff. But, he eats about 90% vegan because that’s what I cook. Now, if he really wants something, like roast chicken, I’ll make it.
GFR: That is love!
LW: I don’t mind and he appreciates it. I love how the house smells when I make it, I just don’t eat it. I mean, I learned how to do all that stuff in culinary school and working in restaurants, so it’s not too gross for me. But he loves all the food I make. And he says that too: he doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything or eating overtly vegan food. Again, that’s always the test for me.