Anthony Bourdain, the globetrotting chef and adventurer, died on Friday. He was 61. Bourdain became famous for his TV shows, where he visited foreign lands and learned about exotic cultures and food. His reputation for always being on the go became legendary, and he had the honor to meet people who are larger than life, including former President Barack Obama.
But perhaps Bourdain’s best attribute was his willingness to reach out to fans and fellow food lovers. His most famous was with Grand Forks, North Dakota, restaurant critic Marilyn Hargety, who became the target of online ridicule for her review of the Olive Garden which had recently moved into town. Hagerty wrote of the chain establishment as if she was in Florence, Italy. And Bourdain admired that.
He eventually wrote the foreword for her book, “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews”.
Below is that foreword:
If you’re looking for the kind of rapturous food porn you’d find in a book by M.F.K. Fisher, or lusty descriptions of sizzling kidneys a la Liebling—or even the knife-edged criticism of an AA Gill or a Sam Sifton—you will not find it here.
The territory covered here is not New York or Paris or London or San Francisco. And Marilyn Hagerty is none of those people.
For 27 years, Marilyn Hagerty has been covering the restaurant scene in and around the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, population 52,000. She also, it should be pointed out, writes a total of five columns a week, about history and local personalities and events, in addition to her writing about restaurants and food. As one might expect, she knows personally many of her subjects. Given the size of her territory, it is not unusual for her to write about the same restaurant two or more times in a single year. In short, she is writing about a community that she is very much a part of.
If you knew her name before picking up this book, it was probably because of her infamously guileless Olive Garden review which went viral, caused first a tidal wave of snarky derision–followed by an even stronger anti-snark backlash–followed by invitations to appear on Anderson Cooper and The TODAY Show, dinner at Le Bernardin, an appearance on Top Chef, an Al Neuharth Award, a publishing deal–a sudden and unexpected elevation to media darling.
Why was that?
What is it about the 86-year old Ms. Hagerty that inspired such attention and affection?
Why should you read this book?
Of the 7,000 pages of articles and reviews I read while assembling this collection, there is little of what one would call pyrotechnical prose. Ms. Hagerty’s choices of food are shockingly consistent: A “Clubhouse sandwich,” coleslaw, wild rice soup, salads assembled from a salad bar, baked potatoes. She is not what you’d call an adventurous diner, exploring the dark recesses of menus. Far from it. Of one lunch, she writes:
“There were signs saying the luncheon special was soup and a Denver sandwich for $2.25. In places where food service is limited, I tend to take the special. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
She is never mean—even when circumstances would clearly excuse a sharp elbow, a cruel remark. In fact, watching Marilyn struggle to find something nice to say about a place she clearly loathes is part of the fun. She is, unfailingly, a good neighbor and good citizen first—and entertainer second.
But what she HAS given us, over all these years, is a fascinating picture of dining in America, a gradual, cumulative overview of how we got from there… to here.
Grand Forks is NOT New York City. We forget that—until we read her earlier reviews and remember, some of us, when you’d find sloppy Joe, steak Diane, turkey noodle soup, three bean salad, red Jell-o in OUR neighborhoods. When the tuft of curly parsley and lemon wedge, or a leaf of lettuce and an orange segment, or three spears of asparagus fashioned into a wagon wheel, were state of the art garnishes. When you could order a half sandwich, a cup of soup. A pre-hipster world where lefse, potato dumplings and walleye were far more likely to appear on a menu than pork belly.
Reading these reviews, we can see, we can watch over the course of time, who makes it and who doesn’t. Which bold, undercapitalized pioneers survived—and who, no matter how ahead of their time, just couldn’t hang on until the neighborhood caught up. You will get to know the names of owners and chefs like Warren LeClerc, whose homey lunch restaurant, The Pantry, turned down the lights to become the sophisticated French restaurant Le Pantre by night. And Chef Nardane of Touch of Magic Ballroom who, in his 6,200-square foot ballroom, served cheesecakes inspired by Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, and envisioned an exclusive private membership club with frequent celebrity entertainment. And Steve Novak of Beaver’s Family Restaurant, who when Marilyn visited his establishment, spoke of reviving his beaver act, complete with costume, for birthday parties.
And you will understand why the opening of an Olive Garden might be earnestly anticipated as an exciting and much welcome event.
Ms. Hagerty is not naïve about her work, her newfound fame, or the world. She has travelled widely in her life.
In person, she has a flinty, dry, very sharp sense of humor. She misses nothing. I would not want to play poker with her for money.
This is a straightforward account of what people have been eating—still ARE eating—in much of America. As related by a kind, good-hearted reporter looking to pass along as much useful information as she can—while hurting no one.
Anyone who comes away from this work anything less than charmed by Ms. Hagerty—and the places and characters she describes—has a heart of stone.
This book kills snark dead.