Mary McCartney begins her Waitrose Weekend interview with an unusual confession: ‘I’m not a cookbook writer,’ she says, cheerily. ‘It’s not really my area of expertise.’
This is not, it’s fair to say, how conversations with people promoting their recipe books usually start. But then Mary McCartney is no ordinary cookery writer: she’s less celebrity chef, more standard-bearer for the world’s most famous family of vegetarians. One of who also happened to be in The Beatles.
McCartney describes At My Table as ‘a personal journey, bringing to life the wonderful memories of those special occasions when family, food and friends mean everything’. Featuring family photographs both past and present, it’s an unusually intimate cookbook, as much in love with the idea of food as emotional glue as it is a source of sustenance. But as someone who was literally born famous – Mary arrived less than six months after Paul and Linda McCartney’s marriage in 1969 – is there a part of her that hesitated before opening the family album to the world?
‘Yes, my first instinct is to keep it really private,’ she admits. ‘But with the food I thought it was relevant. I’ve dedicated the book to my mum and dad because they were really inspirational around my food memories. I felt, by not including them, it wouldn’t be an honest representation. But I definitely use them sparingly, and try not to bang on about it too much.’
Linda introduced Paul to vegetarianism in 1975. Famously claiming she would ‘never eat anything with a face’, Mary’s mother went on to launch the hugely successful Linda McCartney Foods vegetarian range, which was later acquired by Heinz. All the McCartney’s children – Mary, fashion designer Stella and musician James – are vegetarians and animal rights activists.
‘As a child, we lived in the city but in the summer we would go to Scotland,’ McCartney recalls. ‘That’s where my parents had a vegetable patch, and that’s where I first saw carrots being pulled out, and a highlight of the holiday would be when the potatoes were ready to dig up. When you’re a city child, that’s all quite exotic and exciting. I used to hide in the peas at the bottom of the garden and eat them out of the pod. I have a lot of good memories like that.’
More specifically, McCartney’s upbringing inspired At My Table’s mission to provide meat-free alternatives to the traditional ‘celebration’ meals. ‘My dad, in particular, was very keen that we didn’t lose those special occasions,’ she says. ‘When you have celebrations, that’s the time when people catch up and they laugh and they bicker and they cry. I think most people have memories about being with loved ones and eating.
‘We were really keen not to feel like we were missing out, just because we didn’t eat meat, so we still did Sunday lunch and we still do a big Christmas dinner. I keep those traditions going, and we very much want something – a good, sliceable piece of protein – at the centre of the plate.’ Hence such tempting At My Table menu options as festive roast (made from lentils, quinoa, buckwheat flour, eggs), black bean burgers and herb and cheese soufflé.
For all her modesty, McCartney is hardly a kitchen novice: she contributed to her mother’s cookbooks in the late 80s and early 90s, and continues to act as a consultant on the Linda McCartney range, while her first solo effort, 2012’s highly acclaimed Food, was an international bestseller.
But her trade remains photography – another passion she inherited from her mother: just as Linda spent the 60s photographing the likes of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, so her daughter’s portfolio features the likes of Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne.
In 2000, she also took the first official portrait of Tony and Cherie Blair with their new son, Leo. There was something about this that seemed highly appropriate, as McCartney was on the other side of the camera for one of the 20th century’s most iconic baby photos – peeking out from inside her father’s jacket in a picture, taken by Linda, that appeared on the back cover of Paul’s first solo album, released in April 1970.
‘I love that picture,’ says McCartney, 45 years on. ‘As a photographer, I love the daylight, how it was taken at the end of the day with that real warm, sunset light. I think it’s a really sweet picture. The reason I’m in there is because they used to go horse riding and he just used to put me in his jacket and ride out like that. You’d never do that now.’
McCartney describes her childhood self as ‘a daydreamer’ who would spend hours roaming in the woods, building camps or riding ponies. Now a mother to four boys – Arthur and Elliott, from her nine-year marriage to television producer Alistair Donald, and Sam and Sid, with her husband, the director Simon Aboud – she laments this loss of innocence. ‘It’s not so easy for kids to have that freedom now,’ she says. ‘You kind of need to know what they’re doing all the time.’
With such a strong emphasis on family tradition – in both her philosophy and her career – Weekend wonders if McCartney ever went through a rebellious phase?
‘As a teenager, I was a bit embarrassed by it all,’ she admits. ‘I kind of wanted my family to just be normal, and they’d turn up and be brightly dressed and a lot more flamboyant than other people’s parents. But when you’re a kid you don’t really appreciate it. When you’re older you realise how cool your parents are, and how good they’ve been. Now I’m proud of it. My family has really accomplished a lot, and I think,’ she adds, showing a certain gift for understatement, ‘that my dad is really talented.’
In 2001, McCartney produced a TV documentary about Wings, the group her parents formed with former Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine in 1971, and whose Mull of Kintyre went on to sell six million copies. Weekend asks her what she thinks of Alan Partridge’s assertion that ‘Wings were the band The Beatles could have been’.
‘I’m a big fan of Wings because that’s my era, and it’s the music I grew up with most,’ she says. ‘I like the rawness of the music and the fact it’s not overproduced – there’s a lot of character to it, and a lot of great songs. So I think Alan Partridge has a point. But, you know, The Beatles were pretty amazing as well.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 14, 2015
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