I just read today’s AP story about Marilyn Hagerty, the 85-year-old North Dakota food critic whose review of the local Olive Garden has made her an Internet sensation, and not necessarily in a good way.
The review, which characterizes the Italian chain as the finest dining ever to hit the greater Dakotas, is no-nonsense and amusing. Hagerty prides herself on resisting the lemonade suggested by the waitress and ordering water instead. She’s quite complimentary of the two “long, warm breadsticks” she sampled and calls the new OG the “largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks.”
I get why it’s funny, obviously, and I realize that the hubbub as much about the earnest 85-year-old reviewer as it is about the restaurant she’s reviewing. But this issue touches a bit of a nerve with me.
Several years ago, I came across a blog written by a smug New York Citian. It was dedicated to finding restaurant reviews written in small towns and ridiculing them for their unsophisticated simplicity. I found a review authored by a former Eagle colleague on the blog, and I was steaming mad.
Wichita isn’t New York City. And neither is Grand Forks, N.D. The arrival of Olive Garden IS big news in cities with smaller populations, no matter how much those of us who consider ourselves foodies would prefer to pretend it isn’t. Just look at the lines of people waiting nightly for tables at Wichita’s Olive Gardens. Year after year, those lines never get any shorter. Even sophisticated Midwestern diners enjoy an occasional meal at Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse and Chili’s, where the food is consistent and the price is right. With some exceptions, those who pretend they don’t are… pretending.
Sometimes I’m self-conscious reviewing chains and places that are less than gourmet, but I consider it a part of the job. Diners and restaurants in Wichita get more sophisticated all the time. Many of us would prefer to dine local, and we have more fabulous places to dine local every day. But Wichita’s dining public is still a long way from being above wondering how the new Cheddar’s is and whether we’ll ever get a Joe’s Crab Shack or Cheesecake Factory… or another Olive Garden.
We are who we are. And I’m fine with that.