Making Sense of the Whole Marilyn Hagerty Olive Garden Review Fiasco

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Restaurant reviewer Marilyn Hagerty. Photo: courtesy Grand Forks Herald

Following in the footsteps of Internet sensations like Eduard Khil, LOLCatz, and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" sign, the latest novelty snatched from nowhere to achieve sudden fame on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else the kids are using these days is an 84-year-old freelance writer named Marilyn Hagerty. The story of her Olive Garden review and the way in which Internet sentiment toward it shifted over the course of a single workday offers a fascinating picture of the way social media can spread something rapidly, and just as rapidly carry the herd mentality first in one direction, then in another. First, there was just the review. Unintentionally funny reviews of mediocre restaurants happen every day online, we're sure, but there was something just pitch-perfect about the way this one from the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald sang the praises of the essence of middle-American food kitsch with a practiced, straight-faced professionalism.

My first visit to Olive Garden was during midafternoon, so I could be sure to get in. After a late breakfast, I figured a late lunch would be fashionable.

The place is impressive. Its fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.

The resemblance to the Onion's made-up tales of mid-American mediocrity and suburban flatlands tedium was unmistakable imagine living in a place so dull the Olive Garden is "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating"! (Of course, many of those now living in cities and working in hip professions can imagine growing up in such places all too well, hence the Onion's powerful resonance for such people.) The Huffington Post says that Blogger Zero was apparently a blog called The Denver Omelette, which posted it sometime on Wednesday; by mid-morning Thursday the piece seemed to be everywhere. If someone you knew first tweeted it after 11 a.m., they seemed hopelessly behind the times.

It might have remained merely a joke shared among the hip, but nothing in this age does that any more, and by early afternoon the author, Marilyn Hagerty, had been tracked down by a couple of sources including the Village Voice. Feisty, instilled with the tireless work ethic you'd have to have to scratch a living out of North Dakotan soil, and frankly contemptuous of people who have nothing better to do than look for goofy shit on the Internet, Hagerty gave as good as she's got in the interview:

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.

This Marilyn was, frankly, a far more appealing character, a tough newspaper cookie with a much sharper and more interesting voice than the sing-song phrases of the review would suggest, and quickly sentiment went in her direction. Anthony Bourdain tweeted:

Very much enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included)

A writer at NowPublic.com argues that, actually, her Olive Garden review says it all between the lines, comparing it to another of her reviews:

In the second review, Hagerty focuses on the food. With the Olive Garden, she focuses on the decor. You could easily argue that Hagerty wrote a gently negative review of the Olive Garden, and not a positive review at all.

But Hagerty herself explained why, even if Olive Garden didn't wow her personally, she considered it important to her readers in this town of 98,000:

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.

By mid-afternoon the tide in social media had turned against the snarkologists. Kevin Pang of the Chicago Tribune tweeted:

Good for her, I say. She wrote honestly from her viewpoint. And isn't that the job of all of us?

And Time Out Chicago editor Frank Sennett tweeted:

I'm annoyed at putdowns of Marilyn Hagerty over her Olive Garden review. Lifelong reporter, giving readers in her small town info they use.

So who's right, the Snarkies or the New Sincerists? On the one hand, it's impossible not to admire Hagerty's gumption and old-school dedication to her job, forged in an era when your words were actually poured into lead type and a newspaper saw part of its mission to be an uplifter of its community. But on the other hand, the gulf between the sparky real woman in that interview and the somnolent prose she put in the paper cannot be ignored. Hagerty's don't-say-anything-bad review shows the kind of small-town everything's-swell attitude Garrison Keillor's line about all the children being above-average is poking fun at. (The town slogan of Grand Forks is "a place of excellence.") Having grown up ourselves in a place home to every chain restaurant on God's Earth, we understand the feeling, but we also spent our snotty teenage years wishing there was media that would let rip on mediocrity once in a while and tell the truth how this place sucks, man. And even those who found much to admire in her old-school approach ... mainly found it when she turned sarcastic and snippy on her detractors.

Ultimately this is maybe less of a snarks vs. sincerists story, or even a new media versus old story, than a generational one. Hagerty, whose career must date back to at least the Eisenhower era, is on one side of the sixties, while those mocking her review grew up in the aftermath of that era when absolute truthfulness and letting it all hang out came to be prized over the social cohesion and repressive high-mindedness of the fifties. Blogging, tweeting, and Facebookery all come out of the attitudes of that later era, but as this shows, just because we all bare our neurotic self-indulgent me-decade souls in media today doesn't mean we can't feel that there's something admirable and stiff-upper-lippish and even kind of selfless in Hagerty suppressing her own opinions. She doesn't write her restaurant reviews for herself, but for her readers. Whatever she thinks personally, for the good of her town, she knows how to Keep Calm and Carry On.