The Universal Luxury of Not Having to Cook for Yourself
Forget Thanksgiving. I decided to theme November “Food Month” based on my discovery of a book called Grand Forks—a collection of restaurant reviews by the prolific Marilyn Hagerty, whose food column “Eatbeat” has been a staple in local paper The Grand Forks Herald since the mid-1980s. Hagerty gained some notoriety in 2012 for an Olive Garden review that went viral, a word previously outside her North Dakotan vernacular. “Thousands of people took to the Internet to ridicule Hagerty for her lowbrow tastes,” NPR reported. “But there followed a powerful backlash of people who came to her defense, tired of elitism among food and restaurant critics.”
I imagine this attention played at least a partial role in her deciding to compile her reviews into this collection of food reviews, which spans from 1987 to 2012. Anthony Bourdain, who initially scoffed at the Olive Garden review, wrote a flattering foreword that hopefully made any highbrow critics of her work second-guess their elitism. “Ms. Hagerty is not naive about her work, her newfound fame, or the world,” writes Bourdain. “She has traveled 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.”
Hagerty’s reviews are concise and indiscriminate, covering everything from Taco Bell to some place called the Bronze Boot where she celebrated her 42nd wedding anniversary with a lobster and steak special ($12.50) and barbecued loin back pork ribs ($8.75). She likes to include prices, describe the restaurant’s ambience, and remark on the waitstaff’s friendliness (or lack thereof). “My goal with the Eatbeat is to tell readers of the Grand Forks Herald what is available in restaurants and how much it costs,” she writes in the introduction. “How clean it is, and how the service is. And yes, the condition of the restroom, because it sends a message.”
The reviews sometimes read like how-to instructions for people who have never been out to eat. But, for many of us, that’s necessary. I don’t go out to eat often, and when I do, I meticulously research my restaurant choices. I want to know how much I’m about to spend, how long I should be prepared to wait, whether I’ll be drinking wine or gin, if they can cater to my food allergies, if I’ll make happy hour, etc. I am not spontaneous, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the minority. I am also typically more concerned with the above aspects than I am with some critic’s opinion on the relative abstractness of the aioli.
Hagerty’s book reminds us that you don’t need to be a foodie to appreciate food. Her reviews celebrate the joy of going out to eat, which—essentially—is the universal luxury of not having to cook for yourself. Beyond that, her collection gives life to the gastronomic community of a small American city. She often interviews the restaurant owners, and almost always includes the name of the server (she appreciates nametags). “The lone waitress on duty that day was Kristy Speckman, who was helping out temporarily during the holidays,” writes Hagerty in her review of a VFW Diner. “She was moving around at a steady pace, taking care of everybody but not breaking any speed records.” These intimate details often left me lingering in the middle of Anywhere, USA, wondering things like: where is Kristy Speckman right now?
While that question won’t be answered (unless, of course, Kristy Speckman is reading this…), readers are informed post-review of each restaurant’s current status. Sadly, most of the smaller, family-owned businesses have closed, while the Taco Bells and Dairy Queens of Grand Forks soldier on. What remains is a sort of restaurant graveyard, a testament to the sad reality that chain restaurants continue to replace those bizarre, unique diners you discover on road trips, establishments that seem to exist outside of time, where salad means Iceberg and coffee means Sanka and the corners of bound laminated menus are capped with ornamental golden tips.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call Marilyn Hagerty a cultural anthropologist whose work is both utilitarian and meaningful. Do her reviews make me want to eat at Red Lobster? Not really. But they do renew within me an appreciation for the simple pleasures of lowbrow dining. It’s all going to the same place anyway.
Watch Late Night Lit for more (inebriated) musings on food.