By Jeff Girod
Hagerty has been writing about food for 65 years. She’s reviewed more than 1,500 restaurants for the Grand Forks Herald. But it wasn’t until she ordered a helping of chicken Alfredo from Olive Garden that Hagerty became an Internet sensation. (Someone informed Hagerty that her column went “viral.” Hagerty said she didn’t know what “viral” meant.)
Online readers flocked to Hagerty’s column because of its earnestness, describing the Olive Garden as “the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks.”
Other Hagerty highlights: “Instead of the raspberry lemonade [the waitress] suggested, I drank water . . . As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges.”
Hey, I like water and vases as much as the next Grand Forksian, but Hagerty was gleefully mocked for her positive review of Olive Garden by websites including Boing Boing, Fark and Gawker. One critic tweeted: “For a moment I couldn’t decide if that was a parody or not. But I guess in North Dakota a new Olive Garden is big news.”
Not like Hagerty cared. She answered every snarky email with a personal, simple “Thank you.” And she told the Village Voice, “I don’t have time to sit here and twit over whether some self-styled food expert likes, or does not like, my column.”
Speaking of self-styled twits . . . Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold reviewed the Olive Garden for the LA Weekly as an April Fool’s joke. (Not surprisingly, Gold hated his Olive Garden experience, describing it as “abject misery.”)
Is the Olive Garden authentic Italian cuisine? Is Italy shaped like a flip-flop? But Italy is way over there and we’re way over here. Plus Olive Garden offers its own “Tour of Italy” with enough creamy pasta and cheese to build a delectable bridge to Sicily.
I enjoy a night out at a five-star Italian restaurant as much as the next signore. But places like that require gold cards, valet parking and cummerbunds. You could probably crash your car through an Olive Garden pants-less and they’d pour a plate of pasta primavera down your gullet before the ambulance arrived.
Most of us eat our meals out of a box, a sack or a cup. We dine in cars, on phones or at work. So what if Olive Garden’s idea of fine dining is hokey paintings of Pisa and a different utensil for a fork and spoon? Brother, that isn’t even close to my rock bottom.
I have eaten frozen burritos, three for a dollar. A few are permanently welded inside my freezer.
I have eaten things that fell on the ground. I have eaten things for money. I have eaten things I threw on the ground, later picked up and ate for money.
I have eaten things way, way, way past their expiration date. Some may have been for “display purposes only.”
I have eaten an entire day’s worth of recommended whatever at IKEA, Sam’s Club and too many county fairs to confess to an ER doctor.
I have eaten things licked by a dog, a cat and a baby (hopefully not at the same time).
I have eaten donut hamburgers. I have eaten deep-fried Snickers bars. Just typing the last two sentences raised my cholesterol 100 points and gave everyone a cavity.
I have eaten things I accidentally threw in the trash, convincing myself that a thin paper bag/paper plate/slice of cheese provided a magical germ-fighting barrier.
We all can’t be Pulitzer Prize-winning food critics with a bottomless expense account and enough pretentiousness to fill two doggie bags.
Then again, who wants to be? Sure a Pulitzer is nice, but guys with Pulitzers can’t strut anonymously into an Olive Garden for a lunch of homemade soup, salad and breadsticks, pay with $10—and expect change.
I’d rather dine with Marilyn Hagerty. She says she’s going back to Olive Garden to sample the raspberry lemonade once the temperature warms up.
In North Dakota, I figure that’s in five to 70 months.
Contact Jeff Girod at email@example.com.