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Tu-Uyen Tran, Published August 24 2013

Columnist Marilyn Hagerty headed to NYC to promote book

GRAND FORKS – Marilyn Hagerty was having lunch at Gramma Butterwicks here this past week and bemoaning the fate of the city’s mom-and-pop restaurants, many of which survive only in the memories of their patrons and old restaurant columns that she wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

Among the restaurants in her new book, a collection of her Eatbeat columns, Gramma Butterwicks is one of the few to have survived to the present day despite the competition from chain restaurants.

Hagerty is best known around the country for her column about one of those chains – her Olive Garden review shot to Internet fame overnight when the Herald published it in March 2012 – but her heart seemed to be with the mom-and-pops.

“As the years have gone on, the homegrown restaurants ... can’t compete with places like the Olive Garden and Applebee’s, you know, because Applebee’s and those places, they have their national advertising, they have their buying power, and the poor individual owner has really got to struggle to keep going,” she said as she waited for her chicken cordon bleu sandwich at Gramma Butterwicks.

“That’s why here in Grand Forks, and everywhere else, these kind of places are fading from the scene – and it is so sad,” she said.

But Olive Garden is what brought her the attention of chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, whose imprint Ecco is publishing her book. It’s called “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” and it comes out Tuesday.

Readers will find in it reports about diners like Gramma Butterwicks, truck stops that serve lutefisk, a small-town sausage-making festival straight out of a Lake Wobegone tale, Taco Bell and, yes, Olive Garden.

Disliked by some

The Internet’s first response to Hagerty’s Olive Garden column was negative. One of the first emails she got just said “pathetic.” Many more leapt to her defense, and, it seemed, they were charmed by her unpretentious style, Bourdain among them.

“He’s just a delightful man, very well-mannered,” she said of her meeting with him. “He likes to put on this gruff outer appearance. … He’s just a nice man to be with.”

Hagerty said the initial response to the Eatbeat column, which she began writing in the early 1980s, wasn’t all that positive either. There were a few calls and letters to the editor, questioning her choice of restaurants to write about and her writing style, she said, most of them from “professor types” at the University of North Dakota.

But the publisher liked it, and that was good enough for her to keep writing.

Hagerty expresses no pride in the Eatbeat. In lieu of describing exactly how she felt, she asked her interviewer, “What is the most mundane thing you do in your work?”

It began when she was editor of the Herald’s features section, which tends to be more read by women. She wanted to get more men to read and, learning from a food writer at a convention that men like to read about restaurants, she wrote about restaurants.

Bourdain acknowledged in his foreword to the book that the writing is not fancy and entertainment is not its top concern. “But what she has given us, over all these years, is a fascinating picture of dining in America, a gradual, cumulative overview of how we got from there ... to here.”

History of eating

When she began writing the Eatbeat, Hagerty said, she decided she would not write about just the fancy restaurants. There were few in Grand Forks and she would soon run out of subjects, she said.

This is why, unlike her big city brethren, she’ll write about Taco Bell and Dairy Queen, not just once but multiple times. Gramma Butterwicks, a homey family restaurant, has been written about eight times since it changed its name from the Crestwood Restaurant in the late 1980s.

She called Taco Bell a “cool pastel oasis on a hot day” in August 1989. Like Olive Garden, it, too, was long awaited. It was so busy when it opened that June that she said she waited two months to pay a visit. She enjoyed the chicken fajita ($1.49) and the bean burrito (79 cents).

But Hagerty proves her omnivorous interests time and time again.

In August 1993, she reviewed an Indian-Pakistani restaurant called Noel’s Cuisine. Noel Singha was the owner and chef. “The food is so authentic that it is drawing raves from people who have tasted it in the past month.”

It was destroyed by the 1997 flood, and the Singhas left town.

In January 1996, Hagerty attended a sausage-making contest at the Harvey Street Saloon in Minto, N.D. “Around 11 p.m., after a cracker-eating and whistling contest, winners of the bologna competition were announced,” she wrote. “(Merlin) Feltman, a bachelor farmer, was surprised to win after several unsuccessful attempts. Like many competitors, his recipe is a family secret.”

The saloon is still there after all these years.

“It’s not anything that I or, I don’t think, anyone else will sit down and read right through,” Hagerty said of her new book, seemingly intent on downplaying it. “It’s kind of a book that you sit and kind of glance at and stop and think and look at and maybe, like, sometimes, when you’re eating a meal, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have another chapter here.’”

She said she has “riffled” through her new book, mostly to see what Bourdain decided to put in it.

Hagerty said she has appreciated all the fun that came with her Internet fame – she’s returning to New York on Monday to be interviewed on TV about her book – “But I can take it or leave it.”

“I basically was taught when I studied journalism, and people that I worked for, that we’re supposed to be in the background,” she said. “It’s not about us. So, I sometimes feel strange being the subject of the activities. It’s just what happened.”

But Hagerty never refuses an interview. She knows what it’s like to be a journalist.