Why Marilyn Hagerty gets us

“It would seem the media doesn’t fully understand its own fascination with Hagerty,” the Washington Post declares in its stirring weekend profile of Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty. “Or perhaps more to the point: Many of us just don’t want to admit the reasons behind our obsession with the octogenarian critic.”

Hagerty got some worldwide attention for her famous Olive Garden restaurant review, and got a little more a few weeks ago with a similar one about Applebee’s in Grand Forks.

The Post’s Tim Carman considers the dark side of her celebrity.

I don’t pretend to understand all the motivations behind this recurring effort to maintain Hagerty’s celebrity status. But I do believe that calling Hagerty an “amazing reviewer” is hyperbole at best and disingenuous at worst. Hagerty is not Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times or GQ’s Alan Richman, reviewers with the ability to dissect a meal with prose of extraordinary color and nuance. Hagerty chronicles restaurants in and around Grand Forks, N.D., population 55,000, with a style that’s prone to short, declarative sentences void of nitpicky commentary.

In publishing a collection of Hagerty’s reviews on his Ecco imprint last year, Anthony Bourdain, the hard-scaled traveler with the soft romantic underbelly, offered a more historical and cultural explanation of the critic’s popularity.

What Hagerty has given us, Bourdain writes in the foreword to “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” “is a fascinating picture of dining in America, a gradual, cumulative overview of how we got from there . . . to here.”

“Reading these reviews, we can see, we can watch over the course of time, who makes it and who doesn’t,” Bourdain continues. “Which bold, undercapitalized pioneers survived — and who, no matter how ahead of their time, just couldn’t hang on until the neighborhood caught up.”

This may be true. But this is not why Hagerty has maintained the world’s gaze since her Olive Garden review first appeared in the Grand Forks Herald on March 7, 2012. I don’t believe most turn to Hagerty for insights on chain restaurants or big-picture commentary on the arc of American dining because, to be honest, there’s not much of either in her writings. Some, I think, continue to read Hagerty only to mock her gentle, generally uncritical approach. To these soul suckers of snark, Hagerty exists to confirm their status as intellectual superiors.

I hope this segment of Hagerty’s audience is as small as their hearts.

Oh, just get over your big-city selves!

Hagerty’s popularity comes from her willingness to be faithful to her roots. And ours. Without apology. She understands the delight we take in the ordinary events of our lives. That is to say: She gets us even when we don’t get us.

On that fact, Carman nails it:

I grew up in the Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s. I knew people of Hagerty’s era, folks who came of age in a Great Depression society of deprivation, faith and community. Dining out meant eating a thin navy bean soup on the porch with friends. Their values were shaped by forces that remain abstract to generations more accustomed to prosperity and mass media, the latter of which created a culture of celebrity worship and began to isolate us from our neighbors.

Hagerty does not move through the world with the same uncharitable mien as many of us do. Which is not to say she’s above judgment. She once called her own son, a Wall Street Journal reporter, “full of prunes” for his bogus interpretation of her reviews. Nonetheless, she appears to hold a fixed belief that unloading one’s darker thoughts could unravel the tightknit fabric of one’s community. You can argue against the wisdom of such a philosophy (as I did as a teen, convinced that conflict and criticism were worthy tools to achieve one’s goals). But you can also see the appeal of this low-conflict approach.

Hers is a gift because she’s able to tell a story without creating a “good guy v. bad guy” tension.

The commenters are not charitable.

“Marilyn Hagerty personifies the soft bigotry of low expectations,” one writes.


Related: MARILYN HAGERTY: Minnkota Genealogical Society offers a glimpse into the past (Grand Forks Herald).