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 Gawker.com 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 Eater.com 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."