Mary McCartney: Being vegetarian has never been about being righteous

Photographer turned cookbook author Mary McCartney talks to Metro about carrying on her mum Linda’s legacy through her vegetarian food range.
Mary McCartney is skinning a stick of celery the way one might a rabbit. Dainty slivers are gathering on the immaculate steel surface. As she skins, she chats – extraordinary multitasking to those less blessed chefs (ie me) who are incapable of cooking and talking at the same time.
‘To be honest, I’m making it up as I go along,’ she says airily, chucking the celery into a pot along with some baby leeks and checking the chilli bubbling away on the stove. ‘Really I ought to be writing this recipe down.’
McCartney, sister of Stella, daughter of Macca, is, like her late mother, a photographer by trade but has reinvented herself in recent years as the public face of Linda’s food legacy.
Linda, as you probably won’t need reminding, promoted vegetarian food through the Linda McCartney Foods company and several vegetarian cookbooks at a time when salad leaves were considered an exotic luxury. Her frozen ready meal business is now run by the entire family – summoning up images of Sir Paul discussing the merits of soya mince for the family’s Meat Free Monday campaign in between strumming Hey Jude – but it’s Mary who is leading the company’s latest move into chilled meals.
‘It’s a range aimed at anyone, it’s not specifically for vegetarians,’ she says, fishing out the PR bumf on the new dishes, which include vegetable hot pots and lentil-based cottage pie. ‘They are hearty, convenient and give you two of your five a day.’ (Macca is doing his promotional bit too, by the way – he’s written a song with Mark Ronson to accompany the TV advert.)
McCartney, who published her own cookbook, Food, last year, may be channelling her mother’s family- centric food legacy but in today’s very different, cosmopolitan food scene, she is quietly promoting a minor food revolution of her own.
She hates the proselytising image of holier-than-thou vegetarians and the preconception that it’s a fussy, time-consuming way to cook. Her principles – reflected in the McCartney food range – are a mix of Jamie Oliver bish-bash-bosh and her mum’s down-to-earth New Yorker background. In other words, a belief in easy, nutritious food that just happens to ensure you won’t end up mistakenly eating horse.
‘My mum would do these great custards, pestos, sauces – big tomato dishes such as lasagnes and cheesy oniony pies, which I love,’ she says, chucking smoked chilli powder into the saucepan. ‘She used to call herself a peasant cook, her style was very tactile. It was all about gathering round the table. The kitchen was the centre of the house. I have a strong memory of her caramelising onions – the smell was amazing. She hated to be alone while she cooked.
‘But it was never about being a righteous veggie. The animal welfare and environmental facts are important but there’s no point bashing people round the head with documentaries like Food Inc and The End Of The Line. Far better to entice them with a good meal.’
To be fair, Paul and Linda McCartney’s decision to turn vegetarian while Mary was still at primary school was precisely motivated by ethics: they were tucking into a plate of lamb in a restaurant when they spotted lambs frolicking in the sun; later, they were driving behind a lorry stuffed with caged chickens.
But McCartney says vegetarianism was never an edict. She and her siblings were allowed to eat meat if they wanted to – although McCartney didn’t take advantage of this until she moved out. She ate a tuna sandwich, didn’t like it and went back to being vegetarian.
She agrees it’s much easier to be vegetarian now than in the 1970s. But doesn’t the continuing ghettoisation of vegetarians irritate her? It’s still pretty hard to get a decent vegetarian meal in a restaurant that doesn’t include goat’s cheese and risotto.
Esteemed reviewers still take schoolboy delight in dismissing the country’s piteously few vegetarian restaurants with tired clichés about hemp bracelets and hessian smocks. Even the term veggie has vaguely insulting connotations.
‘Yes, but there is much less of a sense of them and us these days,’ she says, mashing leek soup. ‘People care more about where their food comes from. And you can get good vegetarian food in restaurants. I often ring ahead. Often the chef will suggest something if you do that.’
Leaving aside the fact that calling a restaurant to see if they can cook a meal is a bit like asking a hotel if they are able to provide beds, McCartney is right to pinpoint localism, fresh produce and a greater interest in the origins of food – be it meat or vegetables – as powerful modern food trends. She recalls the moment she realised where food actually came from when, as a child, she ‘stole’ fresh peas from the garden at her parents’ Scottish home and discovered, for the first time, what a potato looked like.
‘Being a city kid, it’s easy not to see vegetables actually growing in the ground,’ Mary says, ‘although there’s a lot of that around, of course. Kids grow up not knowing how to peel an onion.’
For her, the key to eating vegetarian is not viewing vegetarian food as a side dish but as a proper replacement for the meat at the centre.
‘Mum’s real skill was in using vegetables the same way you would meat, like making sure you dressed it in amazing sauces,’ she says. ‘I remember our first meat-free Christmas: my parents were determined to replace the turkey with something you could slice and came up with this baked macaroni cheese roll. My mum was always excellent at knowing what would provide flavour.’
 Mary McCartney shows off her veggie cooking expertise with these recipes created especially for Metro.
One pot wonder chilli Mary McCartney
Mary McCartney’s One Pot Wonder Chilli is simple to make (Picture: Metro)
One Pot Wonder Chilli
2tbsp vegetable oil or olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
200g green beans, topped, tailed and chopped
1 x tin kidney beans, drained
100g veggie mince
1tsp chipotle paste or 1/2tsp chipotle powder
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
4 tbsp water
1tbsp Worcester sauce
1tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander or parsley
sea salt and black pepper
Step 1
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium to large saucepan, add the chopped onions and gently fry for 5min. Stir in the finely chopped garlic and chopped green beans, and gently fry for 2min. Increase the heat slightly, then stir in the drained kidney beans and the veggie mince and cook through for a minute.
Step 2
Stir in the chipotle paste or powder, then stir in the tinned tomatoes, water, Worcestershire sauce and soya sauce. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 30min, checking and stirring occasionally.
Taste the mixture and add more seasoning as necessary. If you prefer it more spicy, add an extra pinch of chilli flakes. The sauce should be rich and thickened. Add the fresh coriander or parsley and cook for a further 5min.
Step 3
Nice served with rice, or mashed potato, with a dollop of sour cream on top and the watercress and avocado salad.
Watercress and avocado salad Mary McCartney
Mary McCartney’s Watercress and Avocado Salad goes well with the chilli (Picture: Metro)
Watercress and Avocado Salad

1 x bunch (approx 100g) watercress, washed and dried
1 x hass avocado, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Dressing: 2tbsp extra virgin olive oil ♦ 1tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice ♦ sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
Firstly, remove any tough stalks from the watercress. Then put the watercress and avocado pieces in a medium salad or mixing bowl. Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over the salad then season with a pinch of sea salt and a little bit of fresh ground black pepper.


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