Last year, when all the other food writers were going to chef-driven restaurants and writing ecstatic poetry inspired by artisanal table salt, Marilyn Hagerty was telling it like it is at the new Olive Garden in East Grand Forks. The Grand Forks Herald reporter — who, at age 87 has worked for the paper for 50 years — still writes five columns a week, including the weekly EatBeat restaurant review. Hagerty’s Olive Garden review, a straightforward report describing the food and scene, quickly went viral, although really, that column was no different from her others. But everyone knows Olive Garden, and no one else has thought to cover it, and somehow, people thought that was funny.
“Trouble is, in a town of this size, about 55,000, you soon run out of fine eating places to write about,” said Hagerty. “So I decided, why couldn’t I just write about all the places where people eat?”
So she wrote about Subway, Taco Johns and Taco Bell, and made an occasional run across the border to Minnesota restaurants. The snotty kids of the Internets laughed at the respect she paid these low-brow eateries, but her tone and consideration harken to the golden age of local journalism, which is alive and well in Grand Forks. These restaurants, generic though they may be, are the reality of the community’s food scene. Local people eat there, so they matter.
Hagerty’s new book, “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews” (Anthony Bourdain/Ecco), features a selection of her columns over the decades (and a foreward by Anthony Bourdain), and in her straightforward way, she chronicles the evolution of the way we eat. The early years describe roasts, club sandwiches, pot pies, malts, and rich food she calls “the way we used to eat at home.”
Hagerty also ate her share of krumkake and rosettes at the numerous Norwegian restaurants that used to cater to the immigrant population. In more recent columns, she eats Indian, Thai and a lot of fast food. Over 128 reviews, you get an idea of what she likes: That would be olives, clean bathrooms, and servers who don’t hover and ask how the food is “99 times.” At the end of each column is an update, and, sadly, most of them read like this: “Mr. Steak in no longer in business.”
MinnPost: You are an incredibly hardworking columnist. Why didn’t you retire?
Marilyn Hagerty: I like to work. Some people grow flowers, some people play golf, I write. And I need to be out with people. I am a widow and I don’t have local family, and my work keeps me in the community. It’s good to be busy. And I figure, I’m going to eat anyway, so I might as well write about it.
MP: Columnists have a notoriously high burnout rate. How do you stay inspired?
MH: Well, I have a lot of freedom in the five columns I write every week. I do the food, a historical piece for the editorial page, I write a letter to my sister in Arizona every Thursday because a lot of people here winter in Arizona. I follow the local news, and there’s always something going on. Today I’m going to a gathering of Shirleys — women named Shirley, there are 30 or 40 of them here in town, and people don’t name their kids Shirley anymore, so I thought it would be neat to get them all together. We’re meeting at a place called the Green Mill. People like it, they have a bar, Cobb salads. It’s not great, refined food but it’s well-presented and well-done.
MP: You’ve watched the way we cook, eat, and go out change over the years.
MH: Well, eating out has just sort of become a way of life. When my children were growing up, we maybe went out once or twice a year, for a celebration. Now people go out all the time. It’s a time when families can sit down and talk to each other. They could do that at home, but they don’t. It’s kinda nice, the way we have it now. But the food is so different than what we ate years ago. We’d take the kids to a drive-in. Or we’d go to a place downtown called the Golden Hour, where they made wonderful halibut. If a kid graduated from high school we’d go out to dinner, but we wouldn’t go out on a lark.
MP: You referenced the Golden Hour in several columns, and I sensed a real nostalgia for that particular place. You’ve seen so many places come and go. Is that hard?
MH: That was a very special restaurant. It was an old-fashioned cafeteria, the kind you don’t see anymore. Sadly, I think the chain restaurants that came to town slowly replaced all the local restaurants. They just have so much help from the corporation with advertising, purchasing foods, training the staff. Local businesspeople can’t keep up with all that. Those that stick with it are really amazing and they are to be treasured. Even the small town cafés are going away. I was at Park River earlier this summer and they had this nice little café on Main Street that was just so, so good. That restaurant closed up, so the people of this little town now have no restaurant and that was just the heart of their downtown.
I was at another restaurant in Aneta, North Dakota, and they had the neatest little restaurant and they have only 200 people in that town. But they have a contract with the federal food program and they make meals for the elderly, so that keeps them going. The city owns the restaurant because the city wants a restaurant, and this woman puts up the meals for elderly, takes orders from farmers to make meals for the harvest hands, she does everything. She’s the subject of my next EatBeat.
MP: How did the flood of ’97 change the local restaurant scene?
MH: You know, we were without a restaurant for all that time. The flood started in April and people weren’t back in their homes till late May, so we had all that time without a restaurant. Not one. Finally, the first one to open was the Village Inn. They used paper plates, but there would be some place you could go. The Salvation Army and Red Cross were bringing food too. The city has come back and it is amazing. We were worried that people would leave town and never come back. Our newspaper burned to the ground during the flood, but the reporters kept working. [The staff of the Grand Forks Herald worked in the offices of the St. Paul Pioneer Press; the two papers were owned by Knight Ridder at that time.] They won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. Not because of me, though. I think it was the St. Paul paper that kept us going.
[Note: In the weeks after the flood of 1997, Marilyn Hagerty lost her husband, Jack Hagerty, retired editor of the Grand Forks Herald.]
MP: The newspaper business and the restaurant business are both pretty tough, as you well know.
MH: Oh yeah. I have a son in the newspaper business [James Hagerty of the Wall Street Journal] and we talk about that quite a bit. It’s very hard for people who work in those businesses. Our paper has become one of the Forum company publications. They bought it from Knight Ridder. As a Grand Forks person, it pained me to see that happen, but on the other hand, things are going well. I liked it better when we were a Knight-Ridder paper. I liked it even better when we were a home-owned paper. But changes come.
MP: When your Olive Garden column got national attention, what did your son say?
MH: I was sitting here at my computer and things started going crazy, and all these comments starting coming in. And at first they were pretty insulting, but then they got a little nicer, and then someone said, ‘Do you realize what’s happening to you? You’ve gone viral.’ And I messaged my son, and said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘It’s just like, when you’re sick, and it spreads.’ And I said, I don’t really know or care what it is, I’ve got to go to bridge club at one o’clock. I don’t have time for all these emails and phone calls. But it just turned into a wild, wild, wild, unbelievably wild affair. I had two TV trucks in the driveway one night, and all my neighbors just got the biggest hoot out of it, they thought it was so funny. Here I was being treated like a celebrity, but I’m just plain old Marilyn on Cottonwood Street.
MP: Is this book going to change your life?
MH: Well, I am going to New York, where I guess I’ll be on “The Today Show” and Fox and places like that. But before that, I’m going to be judging a pie-eating contest in a town a few miles away from here.