Like everyone else patrolling the interwebs, I laughed snarkily at Marilyn Hagerty’s review of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota. As the media frenzy developed, however, I started to feel anxious about it. Smart-ass media folks think it’s just fine to mock people with “inferior” taste. That’s what this whole thing boils down to: publicly mocking a person for being uncool, even when that person is a hard-working elderly woman who’s just doing her job. And I felt guilty about that.
Luckily, Marilyn Hagerty turned out to be someone who doesn’t take any crap from anybody. Here’s a summary of the Hagerty/Olive Garden phenom, in case you’ve been spending the past couple weeks doing something constructive.
- Marilyn Hagerty, who is 85 years old and has been writing for the Grand Forks Herald for decades, published a mild-mannered, deadpan review of the popular new Olive Garden in Grand Forks. “At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.” Admittedly, that is hilarious, in context.
- People began re-posting the column, implying disdain that anyone could be so idiotic as to write a serious review of a chain restaurant like Olive Garden. It went viral instantly. Some food bloggers realized that Hagerty’s review, by virtue of its absurdity, was likely to get more hits than anything they could ever hope to write; Emily Weiss of City Pages saluted it as “the greatest restaurant review ever written.”
- Hagerty’s phone started ringing off the hook. One of the first to get to her was Camille Dodero of the Village Voice, who asked Hagerty what she made of all the attention. This is where Marilyn’s celebrity really began: it turned out that she was sort of a Betty White character. When Dodero expressed false surprise that people were making fun of Marilyn’s review — as if she herself weren’t doing just that — the unflappable Hagerty replied, “I don’t care whether they are or not. If anyone’s got time to sit out there and nitpick, I kind of feel sorry for them. Get a life.”
- Boom! She’s on CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN’s “Piers Morgan Show,” “Anderson,” and so on. She’s got a quick response for every dumb question they ask her, and it turns out that she’s actually pretty cool.
So, it’s a funny story. And yet, I find the whole discussion sad. I think this is why.
- For many people, going to the Olive Garden is a special occasion. They’re pleased about eating there and they enjoy the food.
- Other people — “the elite,” perhaps — look down on people who like Olive Garden.
- The people who like Olive Garden may not be aware that they’re a target of mockery.
- The viral response to Marilyn Hagerty’s review suddenly made the mockery public.
- It’s hurtful to find out that other people are making fun of something you value.
- Therefore, we have class warfare.
It seems that people who enjoy Olive Garden are in a different demographic from people who sneer at Olive Garden. But it can’t just be about money. The entrees at the Olive Garden are about the same price as at fashionable little spots like Blackbird or Tilia. It must be about something else: let’s call it “sophistication.” People who wouldn’t be caught dead at Olive Garden consider themselves more sophisticated than people who like it.
What makes one person more sophisticated than another? Socioeconomic class? Geography? Education? Remember how Rick Santorum (M.B.A., J.D.) got a huge round of applause when he called the President a snob for valuing college education? If “sophistication,” even when it comes to trivial opinions about restaurants, is a result of education, or at least of being in the know about what snotty blogs to read, then the opposite of sophistication is anti-intellectualism. And we all know where that leads.
Okay, maybe the intelligentsia’s condescending response to Marilyn Hagerty won’t lead directly to Cambodia-style anti-intellectual mass murder. Our salvation may be that many of us in the middle classes have one foot in some trendy cafe and the other in the Olive Garden; that is, we’re not strictly from one class or another.
If you’re visiting Aunt Gertie, for example, and she says, “Honey, I’d like to do something nice for you, so I’m going to take you out to lunch at the Olive Garden!”, you’ll probably feel a little conflicted. You’ll go to Olive Garden, and she’ll say, “Isn’t this nice?”, and you’ll want so badly to agree, but at the same time you desperately want to go tweet something sarcastic, and then you’ll feel guilty and wish you’d never been to any other restaurant so you could just enjoy the oversalted, unimaginative food and be grateful to Aunt Gertie without thinking about your long and painful road to achieving the kind of pointless “sophistication” that’s now making you feel like an idiot for eating at Olive Garden.
The point is, no one likes to be mocked. “Sophisticated” people like to mock “unsophisticated” people. The atmosphere fills with hatred. And for what? We’ve all got to eat. Marilyn Hagerty trumped the elitists by acknowledging their mockery but never pretending to share their condescending attitudes.
Maybe you’re thinking I’m making too much of this. Maybe sneering at Olive Garden is just what city mice do to country mice; it’s not not a pitched battle between classes or a harbinger of anti-intellectual genocide. In fact, there was no uprising of pissed-off unsophisticates in Grand Forks — not yet, anyway. Maybe you think this is a stupid article and you’re going to mock me for it. Fine. If you’ve got time to sit out there and nitpick, I kind of feel sorry for you. Get a life.