On any given night, Capitol Hill’s vegan Plum Bistro is the kind of restaurant where Seattle’s progressive food values come sharply into focus. It’s not a place for the steak house set, so check your meat and potatoes at the door. It’s a place for innovative flavors and textures, regionally sourced organic fare--and lots of vegetables.
Such attitudes towards cuisine, though--and willingness to forgo meat, for a myriad of reasons--have historically taken root at the fringes of society, and this is evident at Plum with its diverse patronage of mixed race families, queer couples, artists, hippies, Rastafarians, and Buddhists. Living outside the American cultural paradigm cultivates an open way of thinking about everything from lifestyles to religion to diet. In this way, Plum is a great snapshot of a range of people looking for something different.
That is, until I spotted Mike McGinn at Plum owner Makini Howell’s cookbook launch party.
Mike McGinn is the mayor, yes; but on the topic of the American cultural paradigm, you also wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking him for comedian Jim Gaffigan, a dude so pasty he makes Ewan McGregor look like Antonio Banderas. In my experience--including the teasing of my dad and brother--white men are the most resistant to the idea of a vegetarian diet (if you need further proof, just take a quick poll in our newsroom).
Yet there he was, this pale, white man in a sea of vegan foodies, smiling and nodding amid the throng while shoveling down a bowl of kale salad (he would later go back for seconds).
McGinn has ties with Howell (as a business owner she advocated for Seattle’s paid sick leave ordinance and he signed the legislation into law), but his sturdy frame doesn’t exactly scream veg-curious; Manwich is a better descriptor. I caught up with him at the buffet table.
“Mr. Mayor, what do you think of all this vegan food? Are you vegetarian?”
“It’s wonderful. I’m not vegetarian, but I try to eat as many vegetables as I can. I never say no to vegetables.” His tone was warm, and he continued eating.
“Do you come here often?”
“I’ve actually never been here before. I’ve been to Plum Market at the Armory, I can ride my bike there. It’s great.” He pointed out he’d lost 50 pounds.
Before I could ask whether he attributed vegetables to his weight loss or about the future of the vegetarian food scene in Seattle, he was whisked away by Howell’s mother (the vegan restaurateur who started Tacoma’s Hillside Quickie and raised her family on a plant-based diet) and was soon swept up in photos.
I bought a cookbook and started to leave, but not before I asked Howell to sign it for me. Over the chattering crowd, I told her my name and she inscribed the volume: “To Glen.”
It was an easy mistake.
So too, perhaps, are my assumptions about who finds the vegetarian lifestyle appealing and why. Sure, it was good PR for McGinn to make an appearance at the event (during a speech, he also talked up some of his other progressive achievements), but he didn’t just show up for photos and leave (like I once saw Rob McKenna do at a restaurant bash). He mingled with guests. He loaded up on food. He seemed genuinely hopeful for the success of Howell’s Plum franchise (4 restaurants, a cookbook, and a food truck on the way) and what it means for Seattle.
As I left the party I spotted him, kale salad in hand, peeking over the shoulder of the DJ and nodding in approval. (Whether he was trolling for new music or just positioning himself closer to the spread was unclear.) And though the mayor might not be the face of a new food revolution in Seattle, as plant-based menus and vegetables quietly do their work (aided by the boundless creativity of chefs like Howell), we’ll be seeing more faces like his on the scene, fueled less by Gaffigan’s favorite snack--Hot Pockets--and more by kale.