Reporter's Notebook

Our week with Marilyn

North Dakota restaurant critic's Olive Garden Review goes viral

Fascinating — that’s the only word that describes the brouhaha that continues to surround Marilyn Hagerty one week after social media plucked her from obscurity and made her a star.

Hagerty, an octogenarian reporter at the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, on March 7 published a review titled “Long-awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome” that quickly went viral as readers either balked at or embraced her folksiness.

So far hundreds of thousands of people have reportedly visited the newspaper’s website to read the review.

And from there, bloggers have weighed in, Twitterers have tweeted, and other media has descended. Hagerty has appeared on CBS and NBC news shows and her son, a Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a sentimental piece for his own paper about losing his mother to the media whirlwind.

Yesterday, Hagerty touched down in New York, where she no doubt will be followed by a mob of reporters as she spends time with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Anderson Cooper at the Olive Garden.

The attention is both absurd and delightful, with even Hagerty, who has written restaurant reviews for nearly 40 years, wondering why this and why now. I have a theory: It’s what happens when the present and the past collide in our hyperlinked, 24/7 world.

The review itself is charming, but unremarkable, and many turned to questioning its tone — was it intentionally ironic or not? As one industrious blogger proved, many others have published equally “unironic” reviews of Olive Garden in recent years. Hagerty’s review was unearthed, and led to the unearthing of others, because thanks to Google and other search engines, we now can find and turn anything into something to sound off on.

Which is exactly what happened. Given the snarky nature of social media, some people found humor in Hagerty’s decision to drink water instead of the raspberry lemonade recommended by the server. They mocked her description of the breadsticks and the “comforting” nature of the chicken Alfredo, thinking that surely no one could take seriously a review in which a chain restaurant was deemed “impressive.”

So wrong. America is filled with small towns and a lot of people grew up in them. A restaurant opening can be big news — even if it is a chain restaurant. My parents live near a small town in upstate New York where the debuts of Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway were widely discussed and celebrated. In fact, it was pretty big news when Steak ‘n Shake and Panera recently opened in Manhattan. Many writers rushed to Hagerty’s defense, some professing love for Olive Garden and others their appreciation for a small-town sensibility that puts things in perspective.

And then, of course, there’s Hagerty herself — nonplussed and unafraid to speak her mind. She couldn’t care less that she’s the moment’s media darling. She has bridge to play, deadlines to meet, and in her words, no time to read all of the “crap” others are writing. She exudes old-fashioned apathy when the rest of us are obsessively seeking our 15 minutes of fame and fawning over those who have found it. She’s the stern grandmother — or at least reminds me of mine — who tells you to stop being vain and find better things to do with your time.

For its part, Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, has been fairly silent throughout the cacophony. The huge visibility is a double-edged sword — talk about ironic — as various people herald and deride chain restaurants, and a woman who embodies where we are from reminds us that where we are may not really be so cool after all.

Contact Robin Lee Allen at robinlee.allen@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @RobinLeeAllen

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