Marilyn Hagerty: Does Anybody Get the Joke?

Let's give the irony a rest and let Hagerty get back to Red Lobster

It's been an exciting month for legendary heartland restaurant critic Marilyn Hagerty: Betty White has been signed to portray the North Dakota culinary commentator in director James Cameron's forthcoming epic Up the Olive Garden! Kate Spade has announced the impending release of a line of exclusive Marilyn Hagerty notebooks and writing utensils — "so anyone can keep track of their meals in the old-fashioned, pre-digital way, but with lots of panache," says a company spokesman. And if that's not enough, from Stockholm come rumors that Hagerty is on the short list for this year's Nobel Prize in Literature!

Well, actually, none of that is true. But Hagerty, who writes restaurant reviews for the Grand Forks Herald — a newspaper she first joined in 1957, when her late husband, Jack Hagerty, was named the publication's editor — has become something of a household name in hip foodie households this year. A collection of her columns will be published next year by Anthony Bourdain's book imprint for Ecco Press, her newspaper is selling Marilyn Hagerty T-shirts in six colors and in sizes up to XXXL, and Hagerty has been named as the recipient of this year's Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media — an honor previously accorded to such other small-town food writers as Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Larry King, Tim Russert, and Katie Couric.

Hello? Is anybody out there?

I don't want to be uncharitable here. Hagerty is, by all accounts, a very nice person, and has been a journalist since her college days in the 1940s, when she edited The Volante, the school newspaper at the University of South Dakota (one of her staff reporters there was — quel coincidence! — Al Neuharth, some years before he made his mark on American media by founding USA Today), and began reviewing restaurants for the paper in the 1970s. Though she's 86 years old, she still works hard: She writes not only the Herald's weekly Eatbeat column but also a column on local history ("'No baseball on Sundays,' said ministers in 1912"), as well as regular coverage of community news ("Summer worker for city honored as hero," "Bittersweet celebration for grads").

None of this, of course, accounts for her unlikely fame. That's all due to the fact that a review she wrote late last winter went viral. The review in question, published March 7, was of a newly opened Olive Garden in Grand Forks. To say that there was nothing remarkable about the review would be understatement. "My first visit to Olive Garden was during midafternoon, so I could be sure to get in…," wrote Hagerty. "I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water… The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese." That kind of thing.

So why did it go viral? Because some condescending blogger someplace or other (most probably in New York City; The Huffington Post and are among the likeliest suspects) thought it was just hilarious that a little old lady in some state people have hardly even heard of wrote a straightforward review of a mediocre chain restaurant. Pretty soon the review was getting passed around online by the cool and snide, endlessly tweeted and Facebooked (eventually amassing something like 28 million likes in the latter case). The Week called it "almost implausibly earnest," and got in on the joke by noting, "This is probably not the last we'll hear of Marilyn Hagerty. Eater operatives inside the Grand Forks Herald reveal that she may be re-reviewing the Red Lobster soon."

Before you knew it, Marilyn Hagerty had become a celebrity. She was flown to New York, where she was interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan and appeared on The Today Show and Good Morning America. She got squired around Manhattan by the aforementioned Mr. Bourdain, and ate at such non-Midwestern-like restaurants as Le Bernardin, Crown, and Dovetail, as well as — why not? — an outpost of the Olive Garden. (And yes, she reviewed them for the folks back home. At Dovetail, for instance, she found "Halibut as wonderful as that served several years ago at the Golden Hour Café in downtown Grand Forks. Really!")

OK. Hagerty does a good job of what she is presumably trying to do: Write chatty, accessible reviews of the dining options in and around a city of about 52,000 souls in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota. She isn't trying to impress anybody; she isn't writing for the blogosphere; I'm pretty sure she didn't set out to land a book deal with a high-profile culinary celebrity.

But let's be honest here: She is not much of a critic. Bourdain calls her columns "sincere, genuine reportage of food that people don't really see or talk about" and opines that through her "refreshing and heartfelt" approach to reviewing, "she made us all on the coasts look small and bad."

Speak for yourself, amigo. Here are some examples of Hagerty's "genuine reportage": "The salad was not quite crisp but fairly good. Whoever thought of putting mandarin slices in these ready-made salads was on the right track." "The tomato soup I ordered was good. It had that homemade quality with chunks of tomato in a milky base. The meatloaf sandwich was very large and a little too heavy on the salt." "The food at Marketplace is good. The salad bar is all right and not too large. It had some interesting peppers wrapped in thinly sliced ham. The tableware is all right but could be improved."

Refreshing and heartfelt? No. Ingenuous and banal. And by the way, that "food that people don't really see or talk about" is mostly garbage that doesn't deserve to be seen or talked about — not because it isn't trendy and refined, but because it's soulless, mass-produced, based on poor-quality raw materials, junked up with additives, and packed with sodium and fat.

What will a collection of Hagerty's columns offer us? Not lapidary prose, that's for sure. Not any restaurant recommendations that will do us any good, unless we're planning on heading to Grand Forks. Not any keen insights into nationwide food trends or the psychology of chefs or their clientele, much less into real food-centered issues like childhood obesity, the proliferation of genetically modified crops, or the iniquities of the Farm Bill. So what's the point of the book? Is it being produced as some sort of cynical joke gift? Is it going to be something people will buy and give, ironically, to their food-conscious friends, in the same spirit that you might give garish thrift-shop art to an aesthete of your acquaintance, or a bottle of Ripple to the wine connoisseur on your Christmas list? I'd like to think that Anthony Bourdain is not just being some mean-spirited trickster who signed on Hagerty in order to make arch fun of her. But maybe he's making arch fun of us.

Marilyn Hagerty is probably smart enough to realize that she has been elevated into some sort of food writers' pantheon through sarcasm if not outright snark. But does everybody else realize this, too? Does the Marilyn Hagerty affair remind anyone else but me of The Emperor's New Clothes, or maybe Being There?

Hagerty isn't, as some observers have positioned her, an antidote to cynical food blogs and too-cool-for-cooking-school Yelp posts; she — or rather her celebrity — is a creation of them. Let's let this nice old small-town veteran scribe keep doing what she does, and stop pretending that she's Craig Claiborne or Jonathan Gold or even Anthony Bourdain. She isn't viral anymore, so let's just forget about her, at least until the next time we're in Grand Forks and looking for a place to chow down.

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