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Reviewer gives mediocrity a good name

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/8/2013 (1450 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE average critic, who longs for truth and beauty, has a different agenda than the mass audience, which just wants a good time.

The exception would be Marilyn Hagerty, the ageless wonder of the Grand Forks Herald, who enjoys the distinction of being in perfect harmony with the great unwashed.

At 86, she is still going strong, apparently writing five columns a week, one of them being her Wednesday Eatbeat restaurant review.

This head-scratching trade paperback, which collects 128 Eatbeats since 1987, marks her first book with a big publisher. One is never too old for fame and fortune.

"There are so many choices at Wendy's it makes your head spin," Hagerty observed on March 24, 2010.

"When I went there recently with friends, we decided that the combos were by far the best deal."

Hagerty earned her book deal on the strength of her March 2012 thumbs-up to that paragon of high cuisine the Olive Garden, which she called "the largest and most beautiful" restaurant in Grand Forks.

The review struck some food snob with an Internet connection as unintentionally hilarious. Soon it went viral, and Hagerty was signed to the HarperCollins imprint of New York chef Anthony Bourdain, who says in his foreword here that she "kills snark dead."

Reading this book from cover to cover kills something, most likely one's appetite. Hagerty eats an endless succession of clubhouse sandwiches, baked potatoes and chicken salads. Everything she tries is "tasty" or "good."

Any single review, taken in isolation, might be charmingly folksy. But taken together, they're like gorging on bags and bags of potato chips.

"Canned green beans taste good to me," she writes in a 1991 review of the Royal Fork Buffet in the Columbia Mall. "I've always like them, so I piled a big helping on my plate, along with some spaghetti."

The book's type is set in two narrow columns per page, the font a variant of Times Roman, to suggest ephemeral newspaper copy.

Parochial to a fault, she never takes the short drive north across the border to visit a city with real restaurants.

True, in March 2011, she mentions a Winnipeg businesswoman, "Pam," who has asked her to recommend a decent lobster bisque in Grand Forks now that the landmark Whitey's has closed.

"I told Pam," she writes, "I had a pretty good lobster bisque at Red Lobster on 32nd Avenue South and Columbia Road."

As much as Bourdain and HarperCollins might protest, there appears to be but one reason for this book -- to mock Hagerty as a hick from North Dakota.

Even as service journalism, the book has little value, because half the restaurants she writes about have closed their doors -- many casualties of the 1997 flood.

In her defence, Hagerty claims to be a reporter, not a critic. But she is closer to being a stenographer or a PR agent. A reporter, at least occasionally, reports something that makes somebody uncomfortable.

At least her title, Grand Forks, is witty, and not just for the amusing contrast between her city's name and its gastronomic tedium.

It calls to mind the famous Coen brothers black comedy Fargo, named after that other prime North Dakota destination. In Hagerty's homespun prose, you hear the flat vowels of the movie's heroine, prairie policewoman Marge Gunderson.

These women are soulmates, right down to their cast-iron stomachs. The only difference is that Marge solved crimes. Hagerty is still committing them.

Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.


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