N.D. writer takes viral fame (and snark) in stride

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2012 - 5:32 AM

Longtime Grand Forks columnist Marilyn Hagerty is "in a dither" over all the fuss about her Olive Garden review.

Marilyn Hagerty's review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, N.D., published in the Grand Forks Herald, has made her a sudden celebrity.

Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty had no idea what kind of fuss she was about to kick up when she e-mailed her latest Eatbeat column to her editor this week. After all, she writes five columns a week. And at 85, she's been doing this for decades.

But her thumbs-up review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks -- with its "two long, warm breadsticks" and "yes -- several black olives" in her crisp salad -- struck a cyber chord that's reverberated across the Internet nearly as fast as her well-dressed waiters brought out her chicken Alfredo and water.

From snooty East Coast foodies to homesick nostalgic small-town transplants, her column has been shared, mocked and re-tweeted, turning this grandmother of eight into the latest online overnight sensation.

"I'm kind of in a dither around here," Hagerty said Friday in a phone interview. "My e-mail has been going crazy and my phone has been going crazy and I just don't get it."

Websites such as Gawker, Fark and BoingBoing embraced her down-home sweetness and the column has attracted more than 300,000 page views, outpacing by 60-fold the Herald's second-most-read story, about the university's Fighting Sioux nickname.

"I had never heard of 'going viral' before and I didn't know what that means," she said. "So I'm just taking it all in my stride."

She realizes much of the buzz is coming from New York elitists making fun of her simple North Dakota palate, but she insists: "I'm greatly amused."

"Some of the people who e-mail me say they're kind of snobby there," Hagerty said.

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, on Twitter, admitted as much: "Very much enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included)."

In today's media, with the satirical Onion and Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," Hagerty's straight-on prose seemed to tickle the cyber cynics: "My booth was near the kitchen, and I watched the waiters in white shirts, ties, black trousers and aprons adorned with gold-colored towels," she wrote, unabashedly calling the chain restaurant "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks."

There goes the bridge game

Incessant phone calls interrupted her latest card game, but she thanks her bridge partners for being "very patient with me."

A widow whose newspaper editor husband, Jack Hagerty, died in retirement during the Grand Forks floods of 1997, Hagerty said her grandkids love all the attention she's getting. Many of them, including fledgling North Dakota journalist Carrie Sandstrom, grew up joining her on Eatbeat trips, including a trip to Taco Bell seven years ago.

"All I remember is Carrie mixed three different pops at the machine," Hagerty said. "That was the only interesting thing I could find at Taco Bell."

Her editors at the Herald are now talking about sending her to New York, which she has visited several times, to review some fancy eateries.

Hagerty has worked at newspapers and radio stations across the Dakotas, from Pierre to Bismarck to Aberdeen. She went to work at the Herald when her three children were school-age.

"I didn't get the job because my husband was the editor," she said. "They were desperate for help in those days."

She was dispatched to find feature stories amid North Dakota's stoic farmers.

"I told my husband that there aren't any interesting people up here," she recalled. "But little by little, I started filling up notebooks with interesting stories and one idea led to another."

A book of her columns has been published and she's dined twice at the White House. And despite all her newfound fame, she had a Sunday column to polish up Friday about a retired boat captain with whom she recently spent a day sailing along Florida's Gulf Coast. A houseguest was coming from Winnipeg and Hagerty said she planned to spend the weekend "bumming around" with her friend.

That is, if the phone would stop ringing.

For a link to some of the Internet chatter she's fueled, go to www.startribune.com/tabletalk.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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