An Alphabet for Vegans: Laura Wright on The First Mess Cookbook

By Chloe Chappe

Laura Wright is the creator of the Saveur Magazine award-winning blog The First Mess. She hails from southern Ontario, Canada, where she still lives and cooks, in her creative and striking style. Laura crafts mostly vegan and gluten free recipes, packing in as much flavor, warmth, and nourishment as she can. The First Mess Cookbook, out March 7th, features many of her unique, innovative recipes, including  Creamy Quinoa and White Bean Risotto with Crispy Brassica Florets, as well as a Earl Grey Tiramisu. We discussed the stress of working on a cookbook, the community in the wellness cooking blog world, and her lineup of female culinary idols.

CHLOE CHAPPE: I’m a huge fan of your blog. Any time I need inspiration, I look to your recipe index. How do you manage to work with the limits of dietary restrictions and still be so creative and incorporate so many flavors and colors into your dishes?

LAURA WRIGHT: I think fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, seeds, legumes, all of that – there’s so much variety in that. Especially if you look at it from a seasonal standpoint. I don’t even know where these ideas come from. Like sometimes I eat at a restaurant, and I have a certain flavor combination in the dish that I’m served — maybe it’s a salad — and I think, Wow, maybe this combination would be really good if I turned it into a stew with some lentils and turned it into a main course. So sometimes the inspiration is as easy as that. Other times I’ll be watching a movie or I’ll be on a hike and I’ll think of something — maybe it’ll smell like pine and I’ll want rosemary or mushrooms. It just comes to me at random times. I never cook the same thing twice so I’m always just eating different flavors, different seasonal produce. When you’re really excited by stuff like that I think it just hits you in unpredictable — and sometimes inconvenient — ways!

Especially because you’re in Ontario, so you don’t have year-round options.

Right. You really start to appreciate it. I do use imported stuff, because I am totally plant-based and I don’t want to eat cabbage and potatoes for four months. So we get stuff from California or Mexico, just to supplement. In the late spring we start getting homegrown vegetables and that’s really amazing — the difference in the taste of lettuce that’s grown locally is stark.

You never cook the same thing twice?

Not really. There are few dressings and sauces I really love that I make all that time. And sometimes with a stew recipe I’ll have a base that I always use, and then I change it based on what I have. But I don’t follow recipes to a T — unless its baking, because you just have to.

Do you have any favorite recipes?

I do have some favorites. Especially in my book, I have a few that I’m really proud of. I have this one recipe for brownies that is grain-free, gluten-free, no sugar added at all. And they turn out so fudgy. The base is basically just cocoa powder and nut butter or seed butter, and I added my various other ingredients and a bit of melted chocolate. And they’re reasonably healthy, for a brownie! And they taste good on their own, even without that qualifier. I love that recipe. Anytime I can come up with a particularly inventive main course I feel really jazzed about that. Those are always my favorites, because they tend to be more challenging with plant-based eating.

Is cooking your favorite part of the day?

It depends. When I was working on my book, making dinner was not fun — after cooking and doing dishes all day, when it came to dinner time, I was just burnt out on my own food. I just really wanted pizza! But now that I have some distance from it and it’s not as intense — it is. Obviously if I’m making something for the blog, I’ll spend my time doing that during the day. But if I’m just at home, making a pot of beans or something, I enjoy that so much.

What was your family’s approach to cooking when you were growing up? 

My dad owns a local foods produce business that has been in his family for years. We grew up with seasonal produce, and he has a huge hobby garden, so he grew a lot of our food. My mom cooked from scratch every night. We would go out for dinner here and there, but we all ate together every night. I learned later on that that was slightly unusual — but we just grew up with cooking and eating seasonally. I became vegetarian when I was in eighth or ninth grade, my brother was a really picky eater, my dad was kind of a picky eater, so my mom kind of became this short order cook. (Laughs.) Part of me felt bad; I wanted to learn how to make my own food and kind of fend for myself, and to help my mom out.

When I went to university I decided to go vegan, and that was when I decided that I really wanted to learn to cook more on my own because I missed certain desserts and dairy-heavy things. So I knew I just had to learn how to do this myself.

There is such a high level of commitment in vegan cooking and baking. For example, in your recipe for Za’atar roasted carrot salad with cashew labneh, you create your own fermented cashew labneh. In another for raw chocolate birthday cake with earl grey mousse, you crack open coconuts and soak walnuts in water for a few hours. What is your advice to someone who is a little intimidated by these methods?

Just skip them entirely! I don’t know if that’s bad advice, but those are definitely more adventurous projects for me and I certainly do not do them all the time. Most of my meals are so easy, they’re just things like brown rice, roasted vegetables that have turned brown, and some other brown ingredient… (Laughs.) But I would say to pursue those if you have time, and if you’re interested in doing those kinds of projects. They’re fun, but you can buy non-dairy based yogurt that you can turn into labneh. Or you could just do something easier; like if you want a creamy component of a salad, you could make some sort of creamy dressing out of cashew butter — you don’t have to make your own labneh. I always say: just start slow. And then if you have the time, those projects are a lot of fun. But they’re not definitely not necessary!

Your blog has three specifically powerful components: the visuals, the recipes, and the writing. You manage to make them all equally important. In creating your cookbook, did you find that any of those three elements became more or less dominant?

 I think because of the nature of a cookbook, the writing was less dominant. I wrote a pretty large introduction — I would describe it as “heartfelt,” in a way. It wasn’t just, “I eat a lot of vegan food. Here’s how I cook it.” It was more about my story, how I grew up, things like that. I talked about that a lot — my family and my personal experience. But I would say the recipes and photography were the focus. Ultimately, you need to sell this cookbook. People see the photos, are tempted by the recipes, and then they read it later, once they’ve bought it. And I don’t want to say it was totally guided by that, but it was weighing heavily on me.

 Did the process of creating the book feel similar to your blogging practice?

They were totally different. For the blog, I capture photos as I go along, and I try to create a mood with the post. But with the cookbook recipes, it’s just one finished photo. So in that respect, it was different. It also felt like there was so much more pressure with the book. Once it’s printed, it’s done. You can’t go back and make changes. And also, on the blog, if someone has a problem with the recipe, they can just leave a comment. Nobody can leave a comment on the book — so this felt like the only chance to make it right.

Was that very stressful for you?

A little. And sometimes I would think: “Is this recipe too simple?” Whereas with my site, I don’t mind putting those up. I like putting up really basic recipes, for a bit of a break, or to show how diverse my cooking is. But with the book, I wondered things like: “Should I include this iced tea method? That feels a little weird.”

That’s interesting. There are so many cookbooks now that are so specific — someone once gave me a book of different flavored butters. Did you end up including the iced tea recipe?

I did end up puting it in! How many recipes were in the butter book? I’m curious.

There were at least 25 in there. Recipes for chocolate butter, chive butter, passion fruit butter. Stuff like that.

The title of your blog comes from M.F.K Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets, which I love. Fisher paved the path for women in the culinary autobiographical tradition. What role does storytelling play in your food writing and cooking?

That’s a great question. I always try to tell some kind of story with my photos. I think it draws people in, even with the simpler recipes that you don’t necessarily need a recipe for. I think people like to be brought into a different world for a few minutes. And I do, to some extent, talk about how I came to the recipe — sometimes it’s really boring, like: “ I was craving a broccoli and cheese pasta so I did this!” And sometimes I’ll make something specifically for my partner, thinking about what he enjoys or grew up with, and I’ll work through how I can replicate that and make it healthier. Whenever I come up with a recipe I do think of a narrative around it, because I know I’m probably going to be talking about it on my site or even on Instagram. I want there to be some kind of backstory — a mood, or a feeling, a time and place. It makes the food so much more interesting, and people understand me better. I try to put myself into these recipes, in a way.

 In your post for chickpea, spring onion, and Tuscan kale salad, you wrote about bridging the gap between food donation and food education. What do you think about the state of food justice in the the world currently?

This is one of the only things I get Google alerts for: food accessibility issues. There is an issue with donation recipients not knowing how to cook a lot of the food that is donated. And also there’s a lack of understanding about how people are equipped in their homes. For some people, the only cooking device they have in their house is a coffee maker. So you can provide the healthy food, but ultimately what is going to get the person to actually eat it?

There’s also the issue of the kind of food that turns up in food banks — I don’t want to call it junk food. There was a really good article over the holidays in a Toronto-based publication, with a title something like “Stop Giving Us Your Canned Goods.” Often they are loaded with sodium, but also they are so expensive to transport and move around because they’re so heavy and they take up so much space, and the money spent on them could be better used to provide fresh food instead. There’s a lot of good intention, like I’ve been saying, but there has to be education to follow it up. There has to be an awareness of what true nourishment is. 

Your cookbook collection and admiration for fellow female cooks is big part of your blog. Are you always reading a new cookbook? How do they influence your creations and open-mindedness in cooking?

I am always reading a new cookbook. I get stuff sent to me all the time, but I also buy cookbooks. And yeah, its definitely a strong female contingent. My first cherished cookbook author and food personality was Ina Garten. I really identified with her worldview — that food is a vehicle for community. It was about being with people you love and showing them that you care. I have all her books.

These days, when another blogger I know comes out with a book, I get their book. And since we’ve been working at the same time, it’s just so fascinating to see the final product. I take a lot of photo inspiration from cookbooks, just to see how a photo is cropped or how a certain dish is styled. Like sometimes a stew or a particularly beige recipe, I’ll fluff it up with a garnish or something like that, and recently I saw someone do something similar, but they didn’t garnish it or try to hide it, they just glorified it in its simplicity. I thought: “Why didn’t I do that?”

Which cookbook was it?

It was Nina Olsson’s Bowls of Goodness. Her blog is called Nourish Atelier. It’s coming out in North America soon, I have the European copy — it’s really good. The visual side, especially; I feel like I learn something new every time.

Are you reading one right now?

I have my friend Jessica Murnane’s book called One Part Plant, and it’s amazing. It’s truly accessible.

Is there a community in the blog world? How do you all meet each other?

Yeah, there definitely is! I communicate frequently with bloggers, just by finding their site and commenting — maybe that leads to following each other on Instagram, and then we start messaging each other on Instagram. It happens in such a casual way. That’s what happened with Jessica. I linked to her site on my blog because I was really into it, and then we started emailing. And now we’re buddies! And I have friendships, too, with people who aren’t necessarily wellness bloggers, people who use bacon and butter and everything else, but I appreciate that they also value seasonal food. I appreciate anybody who’s trying to be creative and trying to promote seasonal, wholesome, from-scratch cooking.

You mentioned Ina Garten already, but do you have any other female food heroes?

Another one is I really love Amy Chaplin, her book is At Home in The Whole Food Kitchen. Her style is incredible. There’s a simplicity, its really beautiful. I don’t like using the word pretty, but it is pretty! She finds way to make every dish so special seeming — spectacular, but simple at the same time. She has really strong awareness of flavor combinations in terms of using seasonal ingredients. She’s very adventurous, but at the same time the recipes have the same kind of crave-able quality. I really admire her, I always have. Her book is my favorite book — it will always be on my kitchen bookshelf.

I really love Jessica Murnane, as I mentioned; I really admire her approach. Sarah Britton from My New Roots, I’ve admired her for so long. Her blog was probably the first one I read consistently. She’s just so inventive, and her enthusiasm is real. Her writing and love of nutrition facts is so genuine. Those are the core four — especially Ina, she knows how to celebrate life. And a newer one to me — I just got her book — is Julia Turshen. Small Victories is her cookbook.

I have that one, too!

There’s meat, there’s dairy, there’s everything — but I love that book! There’s a lot of great ideas, and you feel like she’s really rooting for you. The love is really felt in her recipes, and how she guides you in the recipes feels so personal. It’s like your friend is there helping you through a recipe.

 

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