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Marilyn Hagerty's Olive Garden review now something else entirely

By Tiffany Hsu

9:50 AM PDT, March 14, 2012

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Marilyn Hagerty’s review of the Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D., is hardly about the restaurant’s “warm and comforting” chicken Alfredo or the “attractive” bar area -- it’s the purest gauge of all that is America.

That’s if you believe the snarky legions who bashed the 85-year-old reviewer’s piece last week and turned it viral, the diners who then defended it and the pundits who have since spun it into a touchstone for a feisty debate about the country’s culture.

Much has been made of Hagerty’s March 7 evaluation of the chain restaurant for the Grand Forks Herald.

In it, the veteran reviewer describes visiting in the midafternoon so she “could be sure to get in.” She deems the place “impressive,” calling it “the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks.” She observes the “waiters in white shirts” and the permanent flower displays, orders water instead of the suggested raspberry lemonade and praises the “welcoming entryway”

Quickly, foraging foodies picked up on Hagerty’s seeming earnestness and began sending mocking screeds her way. Others, including food personality Anthony Bourdain, supported her, touting her as an honest voice for the culinary hoi polloi.

The circus continues this week, despite plenty of Hagerty fatigue. She’s inspired an active thread on Chowhound’s forum, where participants this week proclaimed themselves “Team Marilyn!” Her review is being used to illustrate concepts ranging from bicoastal elitism, generational appreciation of food, the role of niceness in fame and the decline of good manners in reviewing.

Her words (shared more than 26,000 times on Facebook) are now being dissected with a scrutiny usually reserved for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Is her intense focus on the Olive Garden’s décor instead of on the quality of the dishes actually a subtle slam on the chain? Is she at the forefront of a new food movement that decries gastronomic overthinking (see Mary Risley’s viral Thanksgiving video in which she exhorts viewers to “just put the [expletive] turkey in the oven”)?

And in a true sign of the Internet times, Hagerty’s notoriety is being parlayed into a savvy and expansive multimedia package on the Herald’s website, complete with blog, Twitter stream, videos and even an e-book and T-shirt.

Hagerty couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. And no wonder: The sudden celebrity has been sent by her publication on a whirlwind tour of New York.

She’s been on the "Today Show" and "Good Morning America." Her son James R. Hagerty, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, serenaded her in a column for the paper. The New York Times is chronicling her hot dog-eating adventures.

She’s already succumbed to one foodie mainstay: food porn. Her blog now features a series of photos of the finely plated dishes she enjoyed at Michelin-starred restaurant Dovetail NYC. Le Bernardin is next up.  

As for the Grand Forks Olive Garden, employees say they’ve had a surge in questions and are keeping busy with customers. But otherwise, they said, things are pretty much the same.

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