Marilyn Hagerty , the 85-year-old woman who's the "Eat Beat" columnist at the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, has been getting an abundance of press since her review of the Olive Garden went viral. Marilyn-mania began with her original review of the popular Italian chain, which had some readers and food-industry critics amused, some entertained -- and some feeling downright snotty. Hagerty seems pretty bewildered by all the attention, but her salt-of-the-earth reviews have continued, and her detractors are looking like a bunch of overly-entitled, pretentious weasels.
Hagerty should enjoy her fifteen minutes of fame since, as she even admits, this sort of thing usually doesn't last. But in the meantime, here are five reasons that this furor has been good for the restaurant industry. Enjoy a side of breadsticks while you read:
5. She shows that life experience is a good quality in a reviewer.
Eighty-five years spent on this shiny blue rock should give anyone enough accumulated knowledge, enough perspective and enough chutzpah to review anything -- including restaurants. Elderly people in American culture are too often marginalized, condescended to or even disenfranchised altogether, instead of being respected for having worked in their fields for longer than most of us whipper-snappers have been alive. The restaurant industry has changed so much that it's valuable to have someone who's been around a long time offering her views.
4. She makes simplicity cool again.
Hagerty's reviews are no-nonsense and no bullshit, and they have a dry humor to them that is refreshing when compared to the pompous, wordy and melodramatic pieces by reviewers in bigger cities. In her reviews, she comes off as a no-frills, cuttin' the crap lady who tells it like she eats it, doesn't cater to trends, could care less about Facebook, Twitter and blogging in general, and has a healthy opinion of herself without coming off like a smug, self-important uber-critic.
3. She reminds us that there is food between L.A. and New York.
We do need the big-britches reviewers to keep the ballin' foodies informed about where to go and what to spend our disposable income on in major urban centers, but some news about where people dine in middle-America is just as valuable to the people who live there, to the folks who are visiting, and to food-fans who appreciate reading about the fare in places they've never been...and may never go. The dining population in the great expanse between coastlines likes to eat in places like Olive Garden, and even if that makes big-city folks snicker, her fresh take on a much-maligned chain store shows that restaurant reviewers in places like North Dakota have the same basic job that reviewers in New York have -- but with far fewer restaurants to review. And if Grand Forks hasn't had an Olive Garden up to this point, then the restaurant is new to them.
2. She makes us acknowledge that chain stores do have good qualities.
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It's easy -- and sometimes quite fun -- to poke (bread)sticks at chain restaurants, but that doesn't alter the fact that they are in business for a reason: because people continue to eat at them. There are few chains that are inherently bad (except Arby's) and they tend to offer diners dependable pricing, convenience and uniform meals. If people want something they know with no surprises, then Lobsterfest or the Never-ending Pasta Bowl have their place.
1. She gives restaurant-industry elites the chance to check themselves.
The term "elite" is subjective, but highly-paid chefs, restaurant employees, food writers and even self-entitled food bloggers occasionally need to check themselves; otherwise egos running rampant tend to make the entire industry seem less about the food and more about being the snob squad. It's normal for people who are used to having their asses kissed with fresh basil-pomegranate reductions on a consistent basis to lose sight of why they do what they do, but Hagerty's interviews since the Olive Garden imbroglio show her to be generally unimpressed with haute cuisine status than with good, well-prepared meals and friendly, efficient service in clean restaurants. This sounds simple to the point of being ridiculous, but foodie fanfare is better when it's earned rather than expected.