Interview for BBC Radio 4 • Sunday, January 27, 2013

Food in the life of Sir Paul McCartney

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BBC: I have this picture here. It’s your kitchen. You’re one of the few people that the National Trust has preserved their kitchen. I wonder what you remember about that kitchen and the food that came out of that oven?

Paul: Well, when you show me the picture, I thought I haven’t actually been back to the house. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether I’m a little worried that it’ll be too nostalgic or there would be a sadness about it that I don’t associate with it at the moment. But I will, I think I will one of these days. And the food that came out of it… Well, it was very traditional, based around meat. Sunday roast would be the big event of the week. And you might get Yorkshire pudding, but in actual fact, my mom used to do it as a dessert…

BBC: Sweet condensed milk?

Paul: Noooo, golden syrup. Although condensed milk, yeah, I did a lot of condensed milk. So, you know, meat and veg, chop, liver. And it was all pretty conventional. I remember vividly tongue arriving and she was sort of trying to vary our diet. And it was like “No way was I going to touch that” because it was a tongue. I mean, the rest of it, there was a certain amount of disguise, but not this tongue.

BBC: Do you think of food being a pleasure in your childhood, or it was just something that was just there…

Paul: Most of the food I liked and I have fond memories of… Desserts were things like a tin of mandarin oranges, with some evaporated milk or, on a good day condensed milk. I was born in 1942. So there was still a little bit of rationing going on. One of our favorite things in my mom being a nurse and a midwife would get condensed orange juice that you were supposed to water down, but we like to swing it straight. And later on when my mom died when I was 14, which was a major tragedy in our household as you can imagine, that it was me and my brother and my dad, just the three males living in this house. In an era when males did not know how to cope. I learned a little bit of cooking but it was only good when my aunties came around. The aunties would come around and they cook a proper meal.

BBC: There’s a story that some of your own gig, your dad came around and chucked a bag of sausages on the stage. I don’t know if that is true…

Paul: It’s true. You know, we were at the cabin that was in the city centre of Liverpool, and he worked at the cotton exchange, he was a cotton salesman. So he would do that, he would pick up some sausages, and he would come around and he would drop off a few sausages for tea that night…

BBC: Between 1957 and 1966, The Beatles made more than 600 concert appearances. And life on the road came with food and counters few Britons then had experienced…

Paul: Certainly when we became the Beatles and started touring, it was generally just a few moments that stood out… When you first went to America, the size of the steaks. You know we could have all eaten from the warm steak that hung over your plate. Then it was kind of over the top, that’s all we thought really. These Americans they do it bigger than we do.

BBC: When the touring finished in 1966 travel of a different kind became possible. In February 1968 The Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in India in the foothills of the Himalayas, a Hindu holy city, a strict vegetarian destination. Famously, Ringo Starr left early finding the diet too challenging. The experience took George Harrison to an early path to vegetarianism, but not Paul.

Paul: I think it introduced us to a different culture, as you say. The food there was vegetarian. It certainly wasn’t a great lavish meal of some exotic curry or… Again, though, I think we kind of thought, or I think I thought of it as fuel. You know, I probably missed my cornflakes in the morning. Just the simple sort of things like that. But it was fine. I didn’t really think about it. We were there really to learn meditation. So the food was secondary. But it did introduce me to that. And I suppose those were little things that later you think “oh yeah, I know about vegetarian food”.

BBC: From the radical art galleries of the 16th London scene to poetry readings with Allen Ginsburg, Paul McCartney was the Beatle who most enthusiastically embraced the counterculture and the underground, but he wasn’t interested in the food politics of the time. Across the Atlantic in the America of overlapping steaks, there were people trying to engage a new generation and the idea of a meat free diet.

Paul: […] Cranks. That’s what people thought vegetarians were, I didn’t really know much more than that. It wasn’t anything that particularly interested me. It didn’t really fit in my lifestyle. And it was only after I met Linda, who became a great cook, because she was raising a family and she loved food. You know, she’d been brought up the same way as I had. So we were eating a normal, traditional meat diet. But it was really just one day when we happen to be in our farm in Scotland. And it was lambing season. And we were looking out of the window, watching the lambs playing around, just the sheer vibrancy of a new life. And then we looked and we thought, oh, we’re eating a leg of lamb. And it just became obvious. And we looked at each other and said, you know, should we maybe try not doing this. And so that was when we became vegetarian.

Paul: So then it became easier because of that feeling to be vegetarian. The challenge was what to eat. The food was always around the central piece of meat. So for us, it was the hole in the plate, which we gradually filled.

Paul: We started having a lot of fun with the whole idea. You know, wait a minute, what can we do for Christmas? I wanted to be able to do things like traditional father things. Here I was, newly married, with a new family on the way. So Christmas, I wanted to carve something. Always we didn’t have a turkey, we didn’t have a roast. We invented stuff, invented kind of a macaroni Turkey. There’s like a macaroni cheese that we let it go cold. And then you pull it out in a heated off night slice it, you know. So we we had some pretty goofy things. But you know what? It was good fun. It was great. We enjoyed it. It tasted good. And so it allowed us to, you know, enjoy the whole thing rather than just think we’re vegetarians, no, lifesaving.

Paul: Meanwhile, we had for ourselves in a way and for our friends and relatives, Linda had started a food company. And the aim there was to give a lot of our friends who said “why do I do? Well, yeah, I don’t know what to do”. You know, it was often their kids who would bring home a friend who was vegetarian. And the mom would say, we’re not going to do. And so Linda thought, Well, you know, if I bought some products, I can say here, just send it around. And just as they tried to stick these in your freezer, for when a veggie comes around. So and then the aim there was… the first aim was that it should taste good. Because you’re not going to persuade people by giving them a lousy meal. I had a great moment when the American comedian Steve Martin was at our house. And I was cooking a barbecue, another of the sort of traditional dad things that I wanted to be able to do. So I was cooking this food. I opened it up. I said, “you want one of these, Steve?”. He said, “Oh, no, I’m sorry, I can’t turn vegetarian”. So this is all veggie, and it were burgers and sausages. And he went crazy, “Where can I get this?” You know, you’ve never seen this kind of thing. So that became the aim was to make this stuff really available, but mostly for it to taste good.

BBC: An increasing part of the world can’t imagine life without meat, even as that world changes. And along the way, Paul McCartney’s vegetarianism has changed. After a conversion based on compassion, came political engagement, lobbying world leaders and giving evidence at the European Parliament on meat and climate change.

Paul: In Sweden, now they’re starting to label food to show the customers the environmental damage rating. So it’s giving the people a choice.

Paul: Yeah, well, quite early on, we thought the only reason we’re doing it is compassion for animals. But is that the only reason we’re doing it? That people said, “Why are you doing it? Why?” You know, a lot of our friends didn’t understand. So you gradually introduced the health argument, because you’d hear about this from doctors, there would be people putting forward the view that a lot of red meat wasn’t that good for you, that started to enter into the picture, the idea of the health issue. So now you had two things really. Much more recently, the idea of the environmental thing has become stronger and stronger. You would learn, for instance: the vegetarian argument was that you should eat for directly rather than processing it through a cow, which is very inefficient. And you could feed 20 times the people on earth, and with the starvation that’s going on in certain parts of the globe, this would go some way to helping the problem. So you know, we would write to politicians and point this out. “You are seriously worried about feeding people, take a look at this idea, and think about it”. That’s all so we asked, but much more recently, actually it was in 2006, when there was a report from the United Nations, where I was shocked that they had done the research that was indicating – not totally proven -, but indicating that a lot of the problems with pollution, with greenhouse gases, was caused by animals, by the livestock trade. And I saw it once. More recently, I was traveling down through Texas, and I went near El Paso and on the motorway there, both sides, it’s cattle for about 20 miles, and it’s the same cow. It’s a brown white cow in paddocks. But there’s billions of them, billions, it never stops. And you just think, “Wow, now I get it”.

BBC: […] We’ve met meat producers who are a world away from factory farming, who respect their animals and believe they’re preserving a tradition. […] I asked Paul McCartney, if that’s a form of meat eating, he can accept?

Paul: Well, you know, I have a lot of sympathy, because not only did they feel that way it is their living. And you know, I don’t want to take anyone’s living off them. But times do change. And you can’t always do what you have done in the past. But as I say, for me, I started off with the compassionate argument that these animals are born on this planet, just like we are. And I kind of liked the idea of letting them live. I live on a sheep farm. So we shear the sheep, but they die of old age. And you know what, it’s kind of embarrassing. Because none of the other farms have got old sheep. They’ve all gone before they’re old. There’s only one alternative – to send them off to the knacker’s yard.

BBC: What do you do when they’re old?

Paul: They just die. Just die like we do. And you know, it’s life. It’s death. It’s what happens. We just give them a good life. And I take the wool from, but it can be embarrassing. You know, these people said “God, look at the state of your sheep”. Yeah, they’re very old…

BBC: You’re in a fortunate position that you talk, people listen, you write to the Dalai Lama, you’ve spoken to the European Parliament. What difference do you think it makes when you engage in this way?

Paul: I do it because I’m morally sort of driven to do it. There’s something inside my brain that says, “You’ve got a voice, people will listen to you, so therefore, you should share your opinions”. It’s going to alienate some people who say, “Well, he’s just a pop singer, what does he know?” But then I’d say, “Well, I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, I read, you know, I live and I have an opinion, just like anyone else”. And so I do think, if something really moves me, I think it’s perfectly fair for me to write to someone ring someone up and say “Look, you know…” And if I’m lucky enough that people, because of my celebrity, might take the email, might look at the letter, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

BBC: In recent weeks, there’s been more campaigning. Last month the UN held a climate change conference, Paul wrote to key UN leaders on the links between intensive meat production and global warming. This month, he’s rerecorded one of his early solo songs to support Linda McCartney’s legacy. For meat free brand of meals is now worth 21 million pounds annually. But what next? Perhaps Asia is the place for the next campaining gig?

BBC: Do you get depressed sometimes when you see the spread of fast food? I mean, fast food is usually meat food. All over Asia, the growth of fast food chains, 1000s and 1000s of them, taking on the factory farming models of the United States. Does that ever send you into a…?

Paul: Yeah… I think I’m not alone in that. I think all of us looking at China and India particularly. It was an Indian Health Minister who said “We are just entering the hole that you’re just coming out of”. And it was scary. It was like, Yes. But again, you know, you’ve got to hope that as this Western model takes hold, that some of the better sides of the Western model… Okay, so go for all that fast food, but then you learn that it’s not the greatest thing. They’ve got to learn. So hopefully the other bits of our philosophies that we’ve learned later, will kick in later. And hopefully after the fast food, comes the good food, and let’s face it, China and India have already got it, they got the good food, they got the best food. So I think hopefully it’s a fad and they return to their greatness.

Last updated on February 4, 2021


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