Fresh perspective from food writer

Many people may remember the Internet attention paid to small-town restaurant reviewer Marilyn Hagerty, an 87-year-old woman who wrote about the new restaurants that came to her town of Grand Forks, N.D. Hagerty wrote a column about the new Olive Garden that came to town that somehow went viral, garnering national attention with many people poking fun at her earnestness and excitement about the chain restaurant, which in turn lead to Anthony Bourdain, famed chef and writer, to come to her defense and to remind many that for a smaller town, a new restaurant coming to town is a big deal.

Bourdain has now collected an assortment of 128 of Hagerty’s reviews in the book, “Grand Forks.” The reviews range from fast food to fine dining, from Oct. 7, 1987, to April 4, 2012. Many of the reviews also contain an afterward to tell the reader if the restaurant is still operating or not. Many, sadly are not.

Grand Forks has a population not too much greater than Parkersburg, so there is some similiarities between our town and Hagerty’s. It is interesting to see how dining culture has changed from the ’80s to present day. Hagerty generally talks about the decor of the restaurant, what she and her husband (called here Constant Companion or CC for short) ordered and how much it was and what they thought of the food. Generally, she finds something nice to say about the place, for as she says in the introduction, “if a place is just too bad, I move on. I don’t write about it.” She goes back to several restaurants again and notes any changes in them, many after a devastating flood went through the town in 1997, causing many businesses to close. It is interesting to track the changes in restauranting through the years. The ’80s shows a lot of salad bars. The ’90s seems to feature a lot of “heart-healthy” or “low-fat” options. And by 2000, many non-chain restaurants have gone away entirely and Asian cuisine seemd to have caught on. Some restaurants you will recognize other than the famous Olive Garden column: she calls Taco Bell “a cool pastel oasis on a hot day,” finds Subway a bit confusing at first (and Grand Forks went from having one in 1989 to 10 at present) seems not to enjoy the latest McDonald’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows – “If you’re tired and grouchy and cold, you might feel like you are in Siberia,” and is thrilled about the new Red Lobster, especially with the biscuits.

Hagerty is a warm, grandmotherly presence whom you wouldn’t mind discussing which restaurant serves the best turkey sandwich and the excitement of a new place opening up. And I was sad when Constant Companion passed away around the same time as the big flood in their town a time when Hagerty quit writing for a while. I always enjoyed hearing his comments as relayed by Hagerty. Don’t read this book on an empty stomach. You’ll be hungry and wishing for a trip to North Dakota, and possibly a time machine. “Grand Forks” is published by HarperCollins. It is $14.99.