Marilyn Hagerty isn’t the first person to review the Olive Garden — in fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jonathan Gold did that very thing in the LA Weekly last April — and she won’t be the last. But for some reason, her very factual review of the “long-awaited” franchise in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a town with 50,000-55,000 people and approximately 100 licensed kitchens, has caught Internet fire within the last 24 hours. It doesn’t make any sense to the retired columnist, either.
Marilyn, who is “the same age as the queen of England,” has been writing Eatbeat for decades. The chain-food reporting is just one of five columns she writes for the Grand Forks Herald, where she was previously lifestyle editor until she retired. (“I kept writing my columns at the invitation of my colleagues at the Herald,” she explains.) We caught her on deadline this morning in her home office, where she found a few minutes to talk. For the record, she doesn’t give a twit what you self-styled food experts think.
Your Olive Garden review has been getting a lot of attention on the Internet.
Yeah, I don’t get it.
When did you notice the review getting attention?
When I open my laptop every morning, I always check my messages. I’ve been writing the Eatbeat for 30 or 40 years. Some people don’t like it, some people do like it, blah blah blah. But the bottom line is that my publisher many years ago told me, “Marilyn, I like what you do. I like the way you handle this.” So that’s the way I handle it.
I was lifestyle editor of the newspaper [before this] and I went to many national meetings of newspaper food writers, traveled with them, then I’d hear the people from Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and Seattle talk about their food restaurant reviews. We’re a city the size of about 50 to 55,000. We didn’t have a restaurant review. If you were going to review the fine dining here, you’d be done in three weeks — there’s only about three places you could call “fine dining.” And the rest is lots of restaurants and lots of fast-food places.
So I decided I would write news stories about restaurants because people in our area read the paper. They come into town to shop. They need to know what’s available and what it costs.
Was the Olive Garden opening really such a big deal?
Oh, it was one of the biggest deals in ages. The rumors had been floating around for a decade. [Whispers] The Olive Garden is coming to town. For some reason, people go to the Olive Garden in Fargo and they think it’s just wonderful. So it was greatly anticipated. The rumors went for several years.
You also reviewed Taco Bell.
Oh, that was a long time ago.
I may sound a little on the defensive to you today because of the emails I’ve received. One was kind of snotty. But the other four or five were kind of friendly. But my daughter tells me I should go on Facebook and read all this crap. And I do not have time to let myself be bothered or read all that stuff. I have a Sunday column I’m doing now about a completely different subject. I don’t have time to sit here and twit over whether some self-styled food expert likes, or does not like, my column. The publisher likes it.
You said you got a snotty email. What did the person say?
It was just one word: “pathetic.”
Are you serious?
Yeah! So I responded, “Thank you for your message.” That’s all I say to any of them. But then there were four or five very complimentary messages. I haven’t checked lately because I’m in the middle of writing a Sunday column, and I hit the wrong key, and it flew away, and so I had to start all over again.
When is your deadline?
I’ve got another hour. I’m almost through it again now.
Oh, I should let you go. It’s awful to hear that someone was snotty in a message.
I don’t care whether they are or not. If anyone’s got time to sit out there and nitpick, I kind of feel sorry for them. Get a life.