Grand Forks, North Dakota, Gets an Olive Garden

Categories: The Interwebs

5773079717_d0f9a39fd6_z.jpg
Photo by Scott Schrantz
Olive Garden provides jobs and a "nice" place to eat in a small town. For those of you who've forgotten what it's like to live in a small town.
Since I first read the Grand Forks Herald article last night -- "Long-awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome" -- it's made its way around the Internet as an object of fascination faster than faked cell phone pictures of Christina Hendricks's breasts.

"An Onion-worthy, rave review of...Olive Garden," wrote Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff. At first glance, the article did seem to resemble a typical clip from The Onion, the 24-year-old newspaper that pokes fun at mainstream America through satirical articles which are just close enough to reality as to often be mistaken for actual news.

Other comments on Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty were not as kind. Former New York Times food critic and culinary luminary Ruth Reichl sniffed of the piece: "Depressing!"

What was so amusing -- or depressing -- about Hagerty's piece? The mere fact that she and her town were celebrating the opening of an Olive Garden. Honestly celebrating it, without guile and with exuberance.

marilynhagerty.jpg
Courtesy of the Grand Forks Herald
Food columnist Marilyn Hagerty, who was interviewed today by our sister paper in Minneapolis, has been reviewing restaurants for close to four decades
It almost functions as a polar opposite companion piece to former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold's review of the Olive Garden this past April, in which the Pulitzer Prize winner described dishes like "a plate of eggplant parmigiana that consisted of crunchy eggplant Pringles bound with leathery straps of mozzarella."

By contrast, Hagerty was effusive about her town's newest restaurant.

"After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February," she wrote. "The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome."

She complimented its "Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway" and marveled at such things as black olives in salads and an offering of raspberry lemonade. She complimented her server, who "was ready with Parmesan cheese," and gave an appreciative nod to the fake flowers in planters that line the walls.

"All in all," she finished, "it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here."

And the Internet erupted in one massive hyena laugh over Hagerty's perceived provincialism, her utter lack of sophistication.

It's kind of sad, really. Not Hagerty, nor her article. But how quick we are to condescend.

When I lived in Waco, the nicest restaurant in town was, in fact, Olive Garden (tied with Red Lobster, of course). Prom dates, first dates, Sunday lunches: all of your "nice" events took place at one of these two options. And Waco -- at the time -- had 120,000 residents. When I was traveling to the small town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, for work, the residents were beside themselves about the new Chili's that had recently opened up.

Grand Forks is the third-largest city in North Dakota, with a population of almost 60,000 people -- 98,000 if you count the extended metropolitan area, which overflows into neighboring Minnesota. You can bet your eyeteeth that an Olive Garden opening in a small town like this is and was a pretty big damn deal.

This is why: When you live in a small town, you and your fellow residents don't get out much. Because there's not much to get out to. And there are rarely any "nice" restaurants; no one is willing to invest the capital to open a nice restaurant in a town where residents do most of their eating at home or in fast-food chains. Remember: Not every city is a Houston or even a New York City, where we spend oodles of disposable income on eating out for nearly every meal.

So when an Olive Garden comes to town -- a place where you can have a dressy-looking waiter, a few glasses of wine at a bar in a town where the other bars only serve beer, "Italian food" that's not from a box, a fireplace -- it doesn't matter that none of these things live up to big city standards of what's classy or what's really Italian food. What matters is that you finally have a place to take a date, to eat Sunday supper, to host baby showers or just to unwind.

Yes, Hagerty's enthusiasm is silly to our jaded minds. We all hate Olive Garden, right? It's the cool thing to do, aside from shopping at organic markets and curing our own meats. We, as foodies, tend to become so far removed from the way the rest of America eats that our initial impulse in these situations is haughty laughter and snark instead of an honest assessment of why the city of Grand Forks would be so excited about the Olive Garden in the first place.

Instead, Hagerty's enthusiasm should also serve as a reminder that what we take for granted is something special -- no matter how absurd it may appear -- to someone else. Even if it serves bad Italian food and warm wine.

Because who's to say that a meal at Olive Garden wouldn't inspire someone to explore Italian food even further, to figure out how to make eggplant parm themselves at home, no matter how inauthentic? Any broadening of horizons is a good one.

Regardless of anything else, until some intrepid chef steps up to create a French Laundry or El Bulli in Grand Forks, let those people enjoy their pasta in peace.



Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords
My Voice Nation Help
53 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
CameronByars
CameronByars

I feel sorry for that lady that the internets are making fun of her :(

Colin
Colin

I suggest we all feel suitably humbled. How lucky we are to live in a giant metropolis such as Houston, Harris & surrounding Counties. We must be careful where we place our own personnel "bar". Too high and we achieve nothing, too low and we make fun of small town America celebrating Darden Restaurant's sustainable corporate expansion. The local Dairy Queen had betta get their sh*t together there's a new gathering place in town.    

Reginadepuis
Reginadepuis

I've really loved personnel bars! At the moment, Katsuya has my vote and I've got bids on several of the hostesses and waitresseses. Pornolicious!

Marty
Marty

THANK YOU. I read a scathing article about this on Gawker that makes me not want to return to the site any time soon.  I grew up in the smallest of small towns, and the Olive Garden in the big city 40 minutes away was considered Very Nice.  Perspective can change everything, and I completely agree with the fact that broadening one's mind to any new food can be a positive thing.  Olive Garden could do just that for some young, impressionable future foodie in the greater Grand Forks area.

carrie
carrie

my thoughts exactly when i saw all the mean-spirited stuff that went around about this.

Matthew
Matthew

sure, olive garden isn't anywhere close to authentic italian food, but what's NOT to like about all you can eat salad, breadsticks, and cheese covered pasta with tomato sauce? sometimes you just need to pig out on something you know isn't good for you, and maybe not even that good, period.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

People go inexplicably ape over salad and breadsticks.  Salad and breadsticks.

Corey
Corey

I don't get it either.. Starch and iceberg lettuce? I'd rather consume air.

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

The small East Texas town of Newton, where both of my parents were from and where I visited regularly growing up, was severely limited as far as good food was concerned. If my Me-Maw didn't feel like cooking the best chicken 'n' dumplins in the world, we might just all pile in the car and head on down to Three Flags, a dreadful diner / truck stop in Burkeville that always had new racist graffiti on the restroom walls and was the first place I ever saw "This gum tastes like rubber" scrawled on a condom dispenser. But it was reasonably clean, the food could be halfway decent if you ordered the right thing, and they had a salad bar. I didn't know how bad it was until I was much older; my grandparents thought it was special, and the whole family got together to go there, so I did, too. It would be easy to poke fun at us and condescend because we didn't know any better. But tell me you never thought something was special in your youth that turned out not to be so great, and only remained special in your memories. It WAS unique and therefore special to that part of the world, at that time. And when a truly great restaurant called Pickett Fence moved into Newton years later, it seemed like it had the best food in the world.

Sometimes a place isn't great because of what it is. It's great because of what it meant to you.

BM
BM

i grew up in Jasper...when jack in the crack moved into town a year ago you couldn't get near that place for 4 months, not that I'd want to unless I was drunk. You should have seen the epidemic when Lowe's moved into town

Bruce R
Bruce R

"This gum tastes like rubber."  Classic.  That should be required reading for all the kids out there.

Megan
Megan

I'm annoyed that I can't like this a thousand times.

FlaubertT
FlaubertT

Like Parker Posey and Christopher Guest in 'Best in Show', Foodies often crack me up with their condescension and insularity. They miss the point that eating is about connection.

donnie
donnie

Thank you Katherine for coming to the defense of small townies who think an Olive Garden is the cat's meow.

Loud Noises!
Loud Noises!

Ricky Craig wonders why more restaurant critics can't be more like Marilyn Hagerty.

Jeff
Jeff

And boom goes the dynamite.

Corey
Corey

 Cleveland that you?

gwf
gwf

"Ricky Craig wonders why more restaurant critics can't be more like Marilyn Hagerty."

Underrated post

Bradg
Bradg

Take THAT Ruth Reichel!  Pffftttt!!!!!

Tara Burkholder
Tara Burkholder

I lived in Grand Forks, ND, for a year for grad school (and moved back home to Houston when UHCL got a similar degree program). They're acting like there are no restaurants in the town which isn't true.  There aren't many chain restaurants. What they do have are local places which I found refreshing. 

Ed T.
Ed T.

People stick their noses in the air over a positive review of an OG - then they go bat**** crazy because OMG AN IN 'N OUT BURGER IS GOING TO OPEN HERE!!!!!1

~EdT.

Sam Brown
Sam Brown

Oh my GOD is an In-N-Out going to open here?  **shits pants**

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Well said, Katharine.  It's so easy for us to turn up our noses at places that aren't up to our sophisticated foodie standards.  But the bottom line is that the restaurant business is about making your target audience happy, and it sounds like this Olive Garden (and other Olive Gardens across the country) are doing just that.

ypman
ypman

I can totally understand Ms. Hagerty's enthusiasm for their new restaurant.  I am not an OG fan, but for a period of time I lived in rural Montana and would have loved it if one were nearby.  Our town was only 600 people and we had to drive more than 60 miles to a city of any size.  Having grown up here on the gulf what I missed the most was seafood.  We could get great trout etc. up there but not shrimp or crab.  What I would have given for someplace like Red Lobster.  No they are not award winning seafood, just like OG is not award winning Italian, but sometimes it is better than nothing. 

We did have some good places, in particular Chico Hot Springs which is quite well known, however price prohibited it from being a regular stopping place. 

People need to get off their high horses and let others enjoy what they enjoy, even if they think it is an abomination.  

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

I don't disagree with anything in your write-up, but I gotta ask... earlier, didn't @eatingourwords re-tweet the Onion comparison to your followers the same as some of the commentators you're critiquing?

I mean, I know a re-tweet is not necessarily an endorsement but surely there were classier ways of bringing attention to the issue...

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

You said it, just like it says on our Twitter page: "a re-tweet is not an endorsement." I RT things all the time from the EOW account that I don't necessarily agree with as a means of bringing interesting and/or controversial topics to our followers' attention.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

Ah, I didn't know that was your official policy on re-tweets (I was just speaking in general in my original comment). Good to know.

Lecantu
Lecantu

We shit our pants when we got a chilis in rosenberg like, 10 years ago. People died I think.

Erik Mattheis
Erik Mattheis

It's OK to be jaded and amused about the appearance Olive Garden enthusiasm regardless of where it is. One doesn't need to search the Interwebs to safely assume that actual good food can be found in every slightly urban area these days  ... and a microbrewery and brewpub if City Hall allows it. Possibly with the exception of everything sort of close to DFW.

Corey
Corey

The only so called Italian restaurant I know that is afraid of REAL garlic. Even in the Dakotas they should be aware OG is a total sham.

Ted Stickles
Ted Stickles

That is complete horseshit. I can recall a meal at Olive Garden where I enjoyed an extremely garlicky dish; I farted gargantuan gobs of garlic gas for the next two day so I know that was some real ass garlic. 

Corey
Corey

 Garlic powder my friend, is not garlic. Garlic has paper, oils, and tastes like something other than dried out sawdust. My former room mate was a "chef" there  and they do NOT carry real garlic there. Don't believe it, ask them..

Corey
Corey

 And you're defending Olive Garden? haha..

Doc
Doc

 You're an unlikable snot and all your friends hate you.

Corey
Corey

Very authentic I know..

Jeff
Jeff

OH NO! GARLIC POWDER!!! DEAR GOD! SAVE US ALL!!!!

Corey
Corey

 Oh and sorry for your gas, we all know that sucks..

Sarah I Harrelson
Sarah I Harrelson

So I grew up in Houston, but after I graduated high school in the 90's my parents just happened to move to Grand Forks, ND.  No joke.  I've spent a lot of long weekends and spring breaks there ever since.  It's a small town for sure, but I've had a bunch of memorable meals there at sophisticated locally owned restaurants.  There was a place called Lola's that closed down that gave me some of the best meals I had in college.  The folks in Grand Forks get out plenty often, are generally well traveled (at least to the Twin Cities which has a thriving restaurant scene), and can appreciate good food.  Yes it's true that it's totally snotty of idiots in L.A. to make fun of the Olive Garden review, but it's also pretty condescending to assume that The Olive Garden is some kind of fancy restaurant to the people in Grand Forks.  They are just as aware of the fact that it's a better-than-average chain restaurant - and no more - as we are and they do have and appreciate better local options.

Dave W.
Dave W.

Thanks Sarah,

I grew up and spent 18 years living in Grand Forks, and I can honestly say that as a college town it's much more sophisticated than people think.  The University of North Dakota is located in Grand Forks and has a vibrant downtown with culture, arts, awesome hockey, great restaurants (locally owned and delicious), and a large international contingent of students and professors.  Marilyn's views do not reflect the views of everyone in Grand Forks.  As you can see, she is quite old and is no longer paid by the Herald.  I actually think they are afraid to fire her, due to the backlash that may occur among the local elderly who still buy the paper.  People need to give the lady a break and quit being so smug.  Besides, I have found ignorance traveling the world and in the big cities I have lived in...Even in big ole cities like Houston and NY.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

In Katharine's defense, I don't see anywhere in the article where she mentions "fancy". Instead, she writes "What matters is that you finally have a place to take a date, to eat Sunday supper, to host baby showers or just to unwind."

I'm assuming most Houstonians don't know much about North Dakota, but even if her sentiments don't necessary apply to Grand Forks, there are plenty of other towns where they do apply. Katharine mentioned Waco, and it was totally that way in one of the places I grew up (Sierra Vista, Arizona). Cut her some slack!

Megan
Megan

It was this way in my hometown of Ottawa, IL when the Cracker Barrel opened up, and we had the advantage of several courthouses, including an appellate court (i.e. lawyers coming to argue cases from 20 surrounding counties).  I have to assume it would be the same in several of the small farming communities my husband lived in growing up (Devils Lake, ND, Burlington, CO and Pecatonica, IL). 

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I certainly didn't mean to come across as condescending, but if I did I apologize.

Jack_Around
Jack_Around

Given the rancor exhibited recently in our "Big City" blogosphere, I applaud your magnanimity here, Ms. Shilcutt.

Sam Brown
Sam Brown

This isn't so outlandish as we might think.  People flipped shit out in Sugar Land when the Olive Garden opened.  There are still people waiting in line-- often before the place even opens-- after church on Sundays to pack their asses full of fried ravioli and endless bread. 

Which brings to mind a larger issue:  What sort of culinary armbar does The Olive Garden possess over suburban and small town America?  A number of ladies I worked with go into conniptions over The Olive Garden.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

Alaskans were similarly enthused a few months ago when OG headed north, and there was dismay in Fairbanks earlier this week when the Chilis there (and elsewhere in AK) closed suddenly due to what were described as franchise issues.

People like chains, and they feel comfortable there, and I don't see anything wrong with that. The Internet is so mean!

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

Hear, Hear, Shilcutt! It's good to see you coming to the defense of small town life. I was a little embarrassed to see the twitter feeds this morning discussing Mrs. Hagerty's review. Especially after I went and read the article for myself. She obviously is excited about the new place and actually gave it a well written review.

It really is sad, as you mention, that sometimes the masses can't see the forest because it's being blocked by all those damn trees...TA

Jen
Jen

Thank you. 

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

Loading...