The Food Column: Olive Garden reviewer to speak here


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This 87-year-old journalist is not taking any guff.

Marilyn Hagerty of the Grand Forks Herald, who rose to sudden fame in March 2012 when her review of an Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, N.D., went viral, will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Mt. Lebanon Public Library in a presentation titled "Going Viral at Age 85: Adventures of an Accidental Food Star."

Ms. Hagerty was roundly mocked on the Internet for reviewing a chain restaurant. But she's had the last laugh, having recently published "Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews," a collection of 30 years' worth of her reviews with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.

She's also made the rounds on the talk show circuit, landing interviews on the "Today Show," Fox News, National Public Radio and more. She has fielded phone calls from Jay Leno and a gaggle of television and newspaper reporters. And her son, James R. "Bob" Hagerty, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Pittsburgh, wrote a witty column titled "When Mom Goes Viral," which made the Journal's front page.

She refuses to apologize for her restaurant reviews, unorthodox though they may be.

"I'd go to national meetings and hear people talk about their food reviews," she explained. "And I thought, 'We're only 50,000, but we could do that here.' But I knew we'd have to go to the truck stops and all the little towns around here," reviewing any restaurant that happened to come to town, including chains. Olive Garden was the one that brought her fame, but she's reviewed McDonald's and Taco Bell, too.

And if readers object to that, well then, they can just stuff it.

"People either love it or hate it," she said. "And I like it if they don't like it. If they're complaining, you know they're reading."

Her ability to stand up to her detractors was forged long ago, when she first dreamed of a newspaper career.

While still in high school, she began working for the Capital Journal in Pierre, S.D. She then majored in journalism at the University of South Dakota.

"But remember, I'm 87 years old," she said. "When I graduated, women in journalism were not highly regarded."

She longed to work for the Associated Press, but a male friend who worked there told her, "Marilyn, we do a lot of our news coverage in hotel rooms late at night, and that's not a place for you." After college, she was one of three new hires at a newspaper; the two men got plum assignments, and she got the desk women were always foisted off to: society editor.

"I screamed and kicked my heels, and they did give me better assignments" eventually, she said.

Over the course of her career, she has watched as "women have taken their rightful place in the newsroom, and I'm very pleased to see that."

She moved in 1956 to Grand Forks with her husband. James, who took up the post of editor of the Grand Forks Herald. And she began writing stories that focused primarily on interesting characters of the area.

She rode as a passenger in a grain truck to Duluth and a fruit truck to Winnipeg, using the road time to conduct interviews with the drivers. And she recently wrote about a 103-year-old woman who was restarting her bowling league.

"I like to do things with people that tell me about them," she said.

Ms. Hagerty also covered the education beat for many years and rose to the post of features editor before "retiring" in 1997.

Except she hasn't really retired at all. She still writes five columns per week for the Herald, including her Wednesday "Eatbeat" restaurant reviews. She just does it mainly from home. She sits herself down every Sunday afternoon for a "staff meeting of one person" when she decides what she'll write about in that week's columns.

The work-from-home gig keeps her writing from getting in the way of playing bridge and attending University of North Dakota basketball games.

Mimi Ingalls, senior library assistant, said her appearance here is a coup for Mt. Lebanon Public Library. Ms. Hagerty will be in town to visit her son, Bob, who covers manufacturing for The Wall Street Journal's Pittsburgh bureau and serves on the library board.

Mr. Hagerty learned his craft at his parents' knees, often accompanying his mother on interviews when he was young.

"I always knew my mom was special; now the rest of the world has figured that out," he said. "I think this proves that even when you're in your 80s, surprising things can still happen to you."

For information about Ms. Hagerty's library appearance, call 412-531-1912 or e-mail events@mtlebanonlibrary.org.

Holiday meals

Let the Men Cook: Enjoy a three-course meal prepared entirely by men who volunteer as cooks while their women shop at Sewickley's annual Light Up Night. 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley. $15 for adults; $5 for children 12 and under. sweetwaterartcenter.org.

Alumni and Friends Santa Breakfast: Holiday breakfast, music, crafts and a visit from the jolly old elf. 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at MAP Cafe, Grove City College. 724-458-2300.

Beverages

Tea 'n Tidbits: Three types of tea are served with foods that complement the tea flavors; enjoy your tea with conversation. 2 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at Springdale Free Public Library. $3. Registration required: 724-274-9729.

Holiday Beers from Around the World: Tastings of eight craft beers and a selection of light hors d'oeuvres. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13, at Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown. $25. 1-814-629-9201.

Cookies

Cookie Walk/Soup Sale: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at Waverly Presbyterian Church, Regent Square. 412-242-0643 or waverlychurch.org.


Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.

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