For Laura Wright, founder of the plant-based food blog The First Mess, the concepts “local” and “seasonal” are practically innate. “I ended up working in what I grew up with,” she says, referring to her father’s local produce and foods market, which was established by his father before him.
As someone whose kitchen is her office, Laura’s home/work life balance is subject to an ever-evolving introspection that is reflected in her writing and “high-vibe” recipes. Her connections to what we eat, when we eat, and where food comes from—including ingredients native to her hometown of Thorold, Ontario and the surrounding Niagara region—have become her livelihood.
It’s a sunny winter morning in small town Thorold. At her house I’m greeted with the excitable barks of her adorable pup Cleo and the scent of something warm and sweet drifting out of the kitchen as we sit to discuss recipe-development, being your own boss, and making a debut cookbook. In person, Laura’s voice is surprisingly husky, and laughter punctuates every other sentence.
It begins with a feeling…
I cook exactly what I want to eat in the moment, and go with what I’m feeling. I never really cook the same thing twice, so my blog reflects that, too.
I never want food to be fussy, whether I’m cooking for myself and my boyfriend, or if we have people over. My goal is always to have familiarity with a bit of something special. I like when food is comforting, when you can recognize the dish and the flavors. I cook with the season a lot. It can be kind of repetitive in winter because there’s not much variety; we’re roasting vegetables everyday and seeing how we can incorporate them in soups and stews, things like that. We freeze some vegetables in the summer and we also preserve a few things.
On gardening and #daddeliveries
My parents have an acre and half of land in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so they have a lot of space. Their yard is huge, and my dad has a really big vegetable garden in the back. A lot of it is taken up by raspberry bushes; they bloom twice in the summer so there are always two good rushes. I have a freezer full of raspberries downstairs. In the introduction to my forthcoming book, I write about how my first job was picking raspberries when I was a kid, and how that taught me to connect with food in a way aside from eating. The raspberries were so warm and jammy. We would pick them for $2 for a half pint to sell at the store but we would end up eating them all.
My dad is really talented at gardening—everything he grows turns out perfectly. He doesn’t use pesticides. He brings me produce all the time in the summer, a mix of what he’s growing and what’s at the store; whatever is in season and really good. The store is open throughout the year because they also sell imported stuff, so even in winter, if there’s really good produce I’ll open my door and it’ll be waiting outside. He has a feel for what I really like.
I still have some stuff in the garden because it’s been so mild out—kale and Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and leeks. People ask me for gardening tips all the time on Instagram and my blog but I’m like, “I don’t know, I just water it and leave it!” I enjoy it, it’s a hobby I really like and I got it from both of my parents. My mom is an expert flower gardener—her garden is stunning. They were both always doing it when we were kids. I would be like, why are they outside all day? Why are they doing this, it’s so boring! But now I really like it.
The First Mess
I was working in food while I was in school and realized it was what I really enjoyed. At the time I was also oscillating between being vegetarian and vegan, and when I made this commitment to be vegan I was cooking a lot more for myself. It was so new and interesting and I was learning all these different things about getting protein, baking without eggs and things like that. I was really jazzed on it. It became obvious after a while that this is what I should be doing.
I always wanted to start my own business but I wanted to build up more experience. I didn’t want to be a line cook. I had been doing that in Toronto and it was fine, but it just didn’t feel like the right fit for me at all. So I started serving at restaurants again to make money and began the site in my spare time. I was working at a restaurant that was definitely failing at the time and I was getting maybe two shifts a week, so I was like, I have this time, I might as well do it—and then it just spiraled into something else.
On developing her first cookbook
My mindset at first was, if Ina Garten were to eat vegan, what would that be like? Would Ina eat this? Would she serve this? I strayed away from that a little bit, but that was my initial thought—what would a Barefoot Contessa high-vibe vegan cookbook look like? So in that respect the recipes are classic; each is a recipe that in its basic form is really good, but then you can adapt it seasonally or however else you might like.
I didn’t maintain my blog at the same time I was making the book. I posted every other week, sometimes every three weeks. I really thought I could keep it up but when you’re developing recipes and then photographing them, and then also writing the book—it was a lot.
You don’t want to feel like you’re competing against yourself. For the last couple of months my book felt like that. I would cook and clean and photograph all day, and then be like, [whispers] “Let’s just get pizza.” I was getting so tired of it, feeling like I was competing against myself, going against what I wanted my whole life to be like. The two were merging a little too much. Obviously I work from home, but I’ve always been good at separating my work and my life, and in the last phase of the book I was not good at that.
I’ve always thought that I’m this huge control freak, that I have to be in charge of everything creatively that represents me, and if I lose control of any aspect then I’m slipping and I can’t let that happen. But when I was doing this book, when I was in the thick of doing the photos, I realized I wouldn’t have minded having a stylist or a second opinion, or collaborating with another photographer. I realized that it would be advantageous not to leave everything up to me.
How blogging has changed her relationship to food and herself
It’s not the blog so much as it is the micro-blogging that changes the way I cook. Like, I’ll garnish something because I know I’m going to take a picture of it for Instagram where otherwise I’d never do that! Sometimes our dinnertime becomes research, which is fine because we have to eat anyway. But the blog is very much an expression of what we eat every day, and I don’t ever want to break away too much from that.
When I am working I feel very in tune with myself. I don’t do my creative work if I’m not in the mood. I never force myself to do anything because I know the product will just be crap, so I feel like when I’m mentally ready, I will do the work and I can really get in my element and stretch and make something good. That’s when I feel most like myself, for sure.
Essentials of a plant-based kitchen
A selection of whole grains and whole grain pasta form the foundation of every meal that I eat. Oats, brown rice, etc., are my kitchen staples.
Nuts, seeds, and spices to make a recipe interesting.
Canned coconut milk is huge. You can make any dessert, you can make anything taste rich if you have it.
A selection of oils and vinegars. I think with more traditional cooking you can get away with less, but the variety is important because with vegetarian/vegan food, you really want to nail the combination of acidity, saltiness and a little bit of sweetness—not to make the dish taste sweet, you’re just using it to make other things taste good.
A Vitamix. I have one and I know it’s really expensive but it’s changed the way I cook. I’ve had mine since 2008 and I use it every day. It will change everything you do—you can make your own flour, peanut butter, amazing smoothies with no green traces if you’re making a green smoothie, soup, everything. I use it like crazy.
Dixie Gong (@atlastsight) is a writer living in Toronto.