When we spoke with Marilyn Hagerty, she had just come back from a lunch event where everyone in attendance was named Shirley (save for herself and a few restaurant employees, of course). She then told us she planned to spend the evening with her daughter at a nearby restaurant, and how, in the coming days, she was headed to New York City to make the rounds on morning talk shows.
Such is the life of the most popular food writer from North Dakota.
Hagerty became a big name in the food scene back in March of 2012, when a favorable restaurant review of hers, titled "Long Awaited Olive Garden Receives a Warm Welcome," went viral for all the wrong reasons. The internet mocked her for the sincere way she spoke about the food and decor, and they weren't shy about sending their snarky comments directly to her inbox.
"It was sort of amazing," recalls Hagerty. "And to me, it was kind of humorous that this happens this day and age. One message came in telling me my Olive Garden review was pathetic. Someone else called me a dunderhead."
But the 87-year-old reporter — who has been writing the Eatbeat column in the Grand Forks Herald for 27 years — soon saw the tide begin to turn as positive messages started pouring in from supporters around the country. "They don’t like to see an old woman being molested and beaten down," Hagerty quips. "They'd write me and say things like, 'We have an Olive Garden too, and we like it.'"
Her colleagues, too, disagreed with her detractors, and she was soon awarded the 2012 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media this past August — an honor she shares with such names as Walter Cronkite, Larry King, Garrison Keillor and Katie Couric.
Now, a little more than a year later, Hagerty's book is hitting store shelves. "Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews" is a collection of Hagerty's best Eatbeat columns from the Herald, complete with a foreword from renowned chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain. In fact, he did more than write the foreword; he sifted through and picked out the reviews himself.
"When Anthony Bourdain decided to get together a collection of my writings, feeling that it was part of a food story that hasn’t been told, I felt very good about that — and that anyone would look at my work and understand what I'm doing [for] a relatively small town," says Hagerty.
So what is it about Hagerty's writing that draws such devoted followers? For starters, she's extremely polite and detailed. And she doesn't come off like a snobby food critic, because she doesn't consider herself a critic so much as a food journalist.
"I don’t go into very unique flavors and combinations," she explains. "I don’t eat that way. And I don’t go into those nuances of exactly how the dish was put together, and what blended with what spice. I’m not a specialist in food, I’m just a person who likes to eat."
Her appreciation for dining is especially apparent in her most positive Eatbeat reviews, which not only cover what's on the plate, but what's on the walls as well. "It has to be inviting," Hagerty says of a good restaurant's decor. "I don’t have to be in a hoity-toity fancy place, but I do like it to be clean and pleasant. If it’s colorful, if it has an interesting décor, it makes it more fun."
She's got her pet-peeves, too. "If the restrooms are just a god-awful scary mess, that puts off the whole place … and when someone goes through the dining area with a mop and I’m eating, I think, 'Oh, what am I doing here?'"
Even after recounting those horrors, however, the ever-polite Hagerty will only allow herself to describe those less-than stellar restaurant experiences as "pretty mediocre." But when she talks about her favorite dining experiences, she doesn't need to be polite — her genuine joy shines through.
"Eating in Brazil was just something that was … a goal in life," she remembers, explaining how her husband introduced her to a regional dish called feijoada in Rio de Janiero. "I’d always heard about it, so when we took this tour of South America, we had to go back and taste it on Saturday nights."
She recalls an instance in Asia, where "eating was always interesting." "I remember dining atop a skyscraper in Hong Kong, the first time I went there. I ended up going back four more times," she says. "Others told me, 'Ugh, that’s outmoded,' but as a girl from the Dakotas, it fascinated me."
Hagerty speaks highly of plenty regional restaurants too, such as: The Toasted Frog in Grand Forks ("You can’t get in there unless you have reservations"); Sanders 1907, also in Grand Forks ("That would be a top-rated place"); and even Le Bernadin in New York City ("That was probably the finest dinner I ever had").
But for those of us that can't make it Grand Forks or NYC, Hagerty recommends one of her favorite national chains. "I kinda like the Red Lobster for lunch or dinner, because you know what you’re getting, and they have certain things they serve, like those cheese biscuits … They do an excellent job of feeding you and making you feel like a guest." (It's worth noting that her opinion of Red Lobster is also colored by her personal experience with the staff, who frequently allow Hagerty and her friends play bridge in the dining area. "They're very good to us," she says.)
As for tonight, however, Hagerty isn't going to Red Lobster. She's got dinner plans with her daughter, and she's got a few places in mind — Ruby Tuesday, maybe, or local favorites Sanders 1907 and The Blue Moose. "But I’ll sort of follow her lead," she admits. "In fact, I quite often order what she orders, because she knows what’s good."