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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2012

Critics take knives to Grand Forks column

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Now I can say I have a newspaper friend who wrote a column that went viral and who was a guest on the Piers Morgan TV show in New York.

When I heard about Marilyn Hagerty's instant claim to national fame on the Web a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure what "going viral" meant. But I wasn't embarrassed, because Marilyn didn't know the meaning either. When she called her son, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, to tell him about the onslaught of emails and telephone calls following her folksy restaurant review of the Olive Garden in her North Dakota city, he told her the column had gone viral.

"What does that mean?" she asked. She told a national news service, "I've been a lot of things, but never that."

In Marilyn's world, as in mine, matters of the Web, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are not priorities. After all, we started writing on typewriters and transmitting stories by Western Union. Moving to computers and the "send now" button were serious advancements.

To bring me up to speed on how Marilyn's world exploded into Internet fame I opened Google and typed in her name. There were five updated news reports for Marilyn Hagerty, Grand Forks, N.D.

Monday night I was on the edge of my chair waiting for her to appear on national TV. Jane Lynch, who to my disappointment was subbing for Piers, told the viewers, "everybody's talking about her and now you can meet her."

Marilyn was on the "Only in America" segment for about five minutes and she said the Internet experience had been "overwhelming, wild, crazy. It seems like a dream and I will wake up and it didn't happen."

In the brief TV appearance she asked Jane, "Have you ever been to the Olive Garden?" The answer was "yes, but I never had chicken Alfredo."

Marilyn explained that she isn't a food critic who "dissects the meatballs" but is a reporter who writes about the restaurant and the menu as a guide.

Marilyn is a veteran newspaper writer with more than 60 years at the Grand Forks Herald. At 85, she still turns out five columns a week. "Eatbeat" is her restaurant column. The "Dear Shirley" column is written to her sister. There is no doubt that her readers can expect a New York restaurant review soon.

When the calls and emails came pouring in, she was perplexed. "I don't get it. I was sitting here minding my own business and trying to get my Friday column finished so I could go play bridge. All of a sudden all hell breaks loose," she told the Associated Press.

Marilyn and I were roommates on a food study trip to the Big Island of Hawaii several years ago, learning about macadamia nuts and Hawaiian chocolate. We also tried to hula. I usually like my own space while traveling, but sharing a room at the Hilton Hotel with the North Dakota writer worked out fine. We had a lot in common and by the end of the week we were good friends and shared a lot of laughs.

But there was nothing funny in the review of the chain Italian restaurant in January. Everything was to her liking. She told the readers about the soft, warm bread sticks, the chicken Alfredo that her waitress had recommended, and the salad greens. She praised the Tuscan farmhouse style of architecture, attractive bar area, and that olive branch designs on the menu denote low fat dishes. She didn't order the raspberry lemonade that was suggested because it was 20 degrees below zero in Grand Forks that day.

"It is the largest, most beautiful restaurant in the area. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here," she said.

The next morning after the column was published there were 290,000 hits on the Herald's Web site followed by many interview requests. Most of the responses criticized Marilyn for reviewing a chain restaurant. Big city food critics usually ignore chains.

In past columns Marilyn had reviewed Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Subway, and KFC, and nothing happened. Needless to say, the blast of publicity has been good for the Olive Garden chain and also for the newspaper.

But what about Marilyn?

Did any of her critics stop to think that Grand Forks is not a big city? With a population of 52,000, it is no doubt ripe territory for national chain restaurants. Marilyn's beat is anywhere her readers go to eat and if it's the Olive Garden, or Ruby Tuesday, so be it.

I don't question that it is the most beautiful restaurant in the area. A company with 750 restaurants has the money to make a beautiful statement. It's good that the chains can afford to invest in smaller cities. It is also good that people like Marilyn Hagerty appreciate soft bread sticks and chicken Alfredo.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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