Maybe you have noticed that Marilyn Hagerty, the North Dakota restaurant critic who became a cultural curio after her Olive Garden review went viral in 2012, has been making the media rounds again. Her recent column on Applebee’s, in which she heaps praise on the chain’s oriental chicken salad, has been excuse enough to jump-start Marilyn Mania, which began more than two years ago with insights like these:
“As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.”
The 88-year-old Hagerty accepts the media fixation with humility, continuing to insist she doesn’t understand why a retired features editor who writes a weekly restaurant review merits this kind of international attention. “I just don’t get it,” she told Piya Chattopadhyay, who recently guest hosted “Q,” a Canadian radio show.
“What don’t you get?” Chattopadhyay responded. “You’re an amazing reviewer. You got this great personality, and you go to the places that lots of Americans and Canadians go to. What’s not to get?”
It would seem the media doesn’t fully understand its own fascination with Hagerty, either. Or perhaps more to the point: Many of us just don’t want to admit the reasons behind our obsession with the octogenarian critic.
I don’t pretend to understand all the motivations behind this recurring effort to maintain Hagerty’s celebrity status. But I do believe that calling Hagerty an “amazing reviewer” is hyperbole at best and disingenuous at worst. Hagerty is not Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times or GQ’s Alan Richman, reviewers with the ability to dissect a meal with prose of extraordinary color and nuance. Hagerty chronicles restaurants in and around Grand Forks, N.D., population 55,000, with a style that’s prone to short, declarative sentences void of nitpicky commentary.
In publishing a collection of Hagerty’s reviews on his Ecco imprint last year, Anthony Bourdain, the hard-scaled traveler with the soft romantic underbelly, offered a more historical and cultural explanation of the critic’s popularity.
What Hagerty has given us, Bourdain writes in the foreword to “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” “is a fascinating picture of dining in America, a gradual, cumulative overview of how we got from there . . . to here.”
“Reading these reviews, we can see, we can watch over the course of time, who makes it and who doesn’t,” Bourdain continues. “Which bold, undercapitalized pioneers survived — and who, no matter how ahead of their time, just couldn’t hang on until the neighborhood caught up.”
This may be true. But this is not why Hagerty has maintained the world’s gaze since her Olive Garden review first appeared in the Grand Forks Herald on March 7, 2012. I don’t believe most turn to Hagerty for insights on chain restaurants or big-picture commentary on the arc of American dining because, to be honest, there’s not much of either in her writings. Some, I think, continue to read Hagerty only to mock her gentle, generally uncritical approach. To these soul suckers of snark, Hagerty exists to confirm their status as intellectual superiors.
I hope this segment of Hagerty’s audience is as small as their hearts.
No, I think Hagerty’s appeal is based on something far more frightening to the garden-variety hipsters who haunt craft breweries, seek out underground supper clubs and Instagram every last small plate for their equally obsessive friends of chef-driven food. Hagerty purposely chooses the community over the individual. She doesn’t feel the need to be relevant in a culture that prizes celebrity. She regularly swallows her criticisms and intelligence for the so-called greater community good, in contrast to, say, Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner, who has been accused of scolding Big D restaurants for not measuring up to their peers in other cities.
“I don’t see any point in writing a very negative review about a restaurant. What good does it do?” Hagerty told Chattopadhyay. “These people work hard for a living, and I see no purpose in running down a restaurant.”
I grew up in the Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s. I knew people of Hagerty’s era, folks who came of age in a Great Depression society of deprivation, faith and community. Dining out meant eating a thin navy bean soup on the porch with friends. Their values were shaped by forces that remain abstract to generations more accustomed to prosperity and mass media, the latter of which created a culture of celebrity worship and began to isolate us from our neighbors.
Hagerty does not move through the world with the same uncharitable mien as many of us do. Which is not to say she’s above judgment. She once called her own son, a Wall Street Journal reporter, “full of prunes” for his bogus interpretation of her reviews. Nonetheless, she appears to hold a fixed belief that unloading one’s darker thoughts could unravel the tightknit fabric of one’s community. You can argue against the wisdom of such a philosophy (as I did as a teen, convinced that conflict and criticism were worthy tools to achieve one’s goals). But you can also see the appeal of this low-conflict approach.
Hagerty finds value and enjoyment almost everywhere she eats. It could be Applebee’s in North Dakota. It could be Le Bernardin in Manhattan. Her critics argue that she doesn’t speak the truth, that she doesn’t give readers an honest assessment of the restaurants under consideration. This is no doubt true. But these critics, I suspect, don’t understand the mentality of a certain generation of Midwesterners raised to be thankful for what they have, no matter how meager. They embrace life on its own terms, not on how they wish it to be.
So you could argue Hagerty is an artifact, as relevant as her lead observation about Ruby Tuesday in a February review: “I found grazing through the salad bar created a pleasing, healthful lunch.”
Or you could argue that she has been touched, to borrow a phrase from the ultimate Midwesterner Abraham Lincoln, by the better angels of our nature. She’s a friend and neighbor first, a critic second. A distant second at that. This, I think, is what we admire about Hagerty: her self-sacrifice and loyalty to others, qualities that seem so old-fashioned in a world where millions strive to carve out some notice-me-now niche on the Internet. Hagerty achieved fame without desiring it or even fully understanding it, a guilelessness that is almost impossible to grasp for anyone younger than 65.
But more than that, I think we both admire (and, likely, loathe) Hagerty for her ability to appreciate what life places on her table, day after day after day, without complaint. This is a kind of grace that few of us will ever possess.