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Sun September 1, 2013
Author Interviews

Restaurant Critic Finds Meaning At The Olive Garden In 'Grand Forks'

Originally published on Sun September 8, 2013 1:54 pm

"Can a cholesterol-conscious matron from the west side find happiness at the East Side Dairy Queen?" So begins Marilyn Hagerty's review of the national creamery franchise for her local paper, The Grand Forks Herald, in Grand Forks, N.D.

The 87-year-old Hagerty has reported on food, events, and local profiles at the Herald for more than 25 years, but she earned 15 minutes of national fame last year with a positive review of her local Olive Garden restaurant.

Thousands of people took to the Internet to ridicule Hagerty for her lowbrow tastes. But there followed a powerful backlash of people who came to her defense, tired of elitism among food and restaurant critics.

Now, Marilyn Hagerty has written a book, with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain. It's called Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews. She tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn that when her Olive Garden review went viral, she "didn't even know what viral meant. After the review was in the Grand Forks Herald, I got a message from somewhere saying, your review is pathetic, and I thought, well, okay, if you think so. And I tried to write a friendly response," she says. "I figure if you're kind to people they can't be too angry with you. But anyway, all of a sudden, the nice comments started flowing in."


Interview Highlights

On Anthony Bourdain's involvement

"He said he was one of the first to be snarky about my restaurant review, and then he said, the more he thought about it, he thought it was the story that has been untold about food in mid-America, and in small towns. We go to restaurants like the Olive Garden, we go to Applebee's, we go to Ruby Tuesday's, and they're part of the food scene that has been, maybe, overlooked or forgotten or shoved aside.

"I thought I was doing a job for my newspaper. I'm a reporter, and I was going to different restaurants in our reading area, and I was trying to tell our readers what the restaurant is like, how the food was, what the decor is and how much things cost, so people could make up their minds whether or not they wanted to have dinner there when they came in, shopping in Grand Forks."

On negative reviews

"I'm not going in there to tear down restaurants or to put them down. I figure that the people who operate those businesses are working hard, they're doing their best ... of course, if they're terrible, they're not going to last.

"I've never really raked anyone over the coals, because I don't know how long my restaurant reviews would last if I did that. After all, I live in a city of 55,000 people, and if you want to describe what you can eat in Grand Forks, North Dakota or any town about this size, you almost have to go to McDonald's, and the drive-ins and the truck stops."

On describing the ambiance of a restaurant

"I like to look around and observe. I think that all of this sends a message to the customer about how the owners feel about setting a scene and making it a comfortable place when you're eating. We just this morning had coffee, just in a little Pret [a Manger] here in New York City, and I found myself sitting there looking around, and looking what the other people are eating, and wondering why they ordered it, and watching how much they eat, and the person at the counter was very polite, and told us that she was sorry that it was so slow — and the whole message that you get from a place, to me, it's just fun to observe."

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Transcript

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

Marilyn Haggerty earned 15 minutes of fame last year when she wrote a positive review of her local Olive Garden Restaurant. Hagerty is an 87-year-old restaurant reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota. On the subject of her Olive Garden visit, Hagerty wrote: The Chicken Alfredo, $10.95, was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with parmesan cheese.

Thousands of people took to the Internet to ridicule Hagerty for her low-brown taste. But there followed a powerful backlash of people who came to her defense saying they were tired of elitism among restaurant and food critics. This internet brouhaha led to Marilyn Hagerty's interviews with Anderson Cooper and the "Today Show" and an appearance on "Top Chef."

Marilyn Hagerty has a new book with a forward by Anthony Bourdain. It's called, "Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 reviews." Marilyn joins us from our studios in New York. We asked her about her innocent review that made her famous.

MARILYN HAGERTY: It just went viral and I didn't even know what viral meant. After the review was in the Grand Forks Herald, I got a message from somewhere saying your review is pathetic. And I thought, well, OK, if you think so and I tried to write a friendly response. I figure if you're kind to people they can't be too angry with you.

But anyway, all of a sudden the nice comments started flowing in. People from all over the country telling me they too had an Olive Garden in their city and they liked this, that or the other thing about it.

GOODWYN: I know that after you went to New York and you've had a chance to eat at some of the city's finest restaurants there, what did you think of what you ate and has it affected how you see things back in Grand Forks?

HAGERTY: Well, it was fun to be able to go to Le Bernardin and other fine restaurants here in New York. I have in my lifetime been able to travel quite a bit and I have traveled with the American food writers and we have visited restaurants in Hawaii, China. We've been to Mexico. I've eaten in London and Paris and Hong Kong. So it was certainly fun, enjoyable, but it wasn't as if I had never eaten in a fine restaurant.

GOODWYN: Did the initial response that, you know, involved a lot of putting down of you and your writing, did it hurt your feelings?

HAGERTY: Well, I've been in the newspaper business writing local news for a long time and if you just act very gracious and you thank them for their comments, there's not much more they can say.

GOODWYN: Then Anthony Bourdain came to your defense. What did he say?

HAGERTY: Well, he said that he was one of the first to be snarky about my restaurant review and then he said the more he thought about it, that he thought it was the story that has been untold about food in mid-America and in small towns.

GOODWYN: Could I read a little bit of your reviews?

HAGERTY: Oh, please do.

GOODWYN: Of The Pantry Restaurant in 1987 you wrote: My suggestion would be to have the waiters and waitresses slip into aprons and pink pinafores to lend a more professional look. On the positive side, The Pantry is like a gym. It adds one more option to the variety of eating places in downtown Grand Forks. Marilyn, it's almost like you're giving advice to your grandchildren who were in the restaurant business.

Sounds like you're always trying to say something nice.

HAGERTY: Well, I'm not going in there to tear down restaurants or to put them down. I figure that the people who operate those businesses are working hard, they're doing their best. Of course, if they're terrible, they're not going to last.

GOODWYN: Did you work in a restaurant?

HAGERTY: I did. It was the first job I had. I washed dishes, I watched the chef, the cook, I peeled potatoes. I got promoted to be a waitress.

GOODWYN: Do you know what you like and what you don't? Have you ever raked a restaurant over the coals?

HAGERTY: I've never really raked anyone over the coals because I don't know how long my restaurant reviews would last if I did that. After all, I live in a city of 55,000 people and if you want to describe what you can eat in Grand Forks, North Dakota or any town about this size, you almost have to go to McDonalds and the drive-ins and the truck stops.

GOODWYN: In fact, you reviewed Subway Sandwiches, I don't think, even if I was a restaurant reviewer, it would have occurred to me and you wrote: My salad was fine. I thought I could do as well at home for less, but the point is, I wouldn't.

HAGERTY: Well, I've reviewed Subway Sandwiches several times over the years, which I tend to do. One time I wrote about the string of Subways across Grand Forks because I think they had something like a dozen different outlets. I like Subway.

GOODWYN: I like Subway. In a lot of your reviews, you not only talk about the food but about the ambience. You wrote about the restaurant inside your local Holiday Inn called Pear Tree and you said that you think placemats and dainty pink and mauve silk flowers. Are these decorative touches an important part of the dining experience in your view?

HAGERTY: What they are to me, I like to look around and observe. I think that all of this sends a message to the customer how the owners feel about setting a scene and making it a comfortable place when you're eating. We just this morning had coffee just in a little pret here in New York City and I find myself sitting there looking around and looking at what the other people are eating and wondering why they ordered it and watching how much they eat. And the person at the counter was very polite and told us she was sorry that it was so slow, and the whole message that you get from a place to me, it's just fun to observe.

GOODWYN: Marilyn Hagerty wrote the Olive Garden Restaurant review heard around the world. Her New book is called, "Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews." She joined us from our studios in New York City. Marilyn, score one for the good guys, huh?

HAGERTY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOODWYN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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