Marilyn Hagerty: Olive Garden & the Overnight Social Media Darling

A new meme that’s been exploding over the Web in the last week or so has given a solid foundation to the intersection between Social Media and foodie culture.  Food Writer Marilyn Hagerty, a 30-year veteran with the Grand Forks, North Dakota Hearld, has seen her recent review of the newly opened Grand Forks Olive Garden become a viral hit seemingly overnight.  The review eventually garnered over million page views, and a combination of 55,000 shares between Facebook and Twitter, which compelled her son James Hagerty, a writer for the Wall Street Journal to tell her about the overnight success, to which she responded: “Could you tell me what viral means?”

From there her instant fame kept growing larger by the hour.  A few days after her review was posted she was invited by The New York Times for a whirlwind food tour that included sampling her first taste of a NY style street dog, and decidedly more elevated fare at the Michelin star restaurants Dovetail NYC and Le Bernadin, which she adoringly detailed in her weekly “The Eatbeat” food blog, even calling her meal at Dovetail “probably the best meal I’ve ever had”.

There are so many interesting components of this story that you almost couldn’t have made up if you wanted to.  One day she was sending in a rather glowing review of the newly opened Olive Garden praising that their “…Chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day“, and a week later she was being whisked away on a big city tour getting to eat at and socialize with some of the world’s most renowned chefs (including Eric Ripert of the New York French haute cuisine institution Le Bernadin).

Food Bloggers immediately caught on to the review both for its simple and folksy prose, and in an ironic, self-detached way that poked fun at the very concept of even reviewing an Olive Garden in the first place.  For the most part though, her meme experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  She even received praise from the self-declared “snarkologist” himself Anthony Bourdain on his twitter feed.  The only real detractors she’s encountered are from the hyper-sarcastic corners of the web that view every single meme with an air of haughty condescension.

She’s really become an endearing and successful example that shows Social Media isn’t all bullying and one-upmanship.  Hagerty has been reviewing her hometown restaurants for over thirty years, and as she stated in an interview with the Village Voice, there just aren’t enough fine dining restaurants in her locale, and she wanted to review places that everyone would go to and enjoy.

The culture clash aspect of this story is really interesting in how it’s being interpreted across the Web.  Social Media has an uncanny ability to break down cultural and economic barriers to create an even playing field that illustrates the most captivating stories will rise to the top of the heap.  It’s almost too easy to just denounce her praise of what most consider at best a sub-standard homogenized franchise; in the context of her article it’s probably completely accurate.

As she explained after being interviewed by her son following the success of her review “I’m working on my Sunday column and I’m going to play bridge this afternoon, so I don’t have time to read all this crap”, referencing the thousands of comments she received on Facebook and Twitter after the article went viral.  She seems like she’s already accustomed to the immediate snark that encounters most viral sensations, and she’s ready to fight back with a salad fork in one hand and a breadstick in the other.

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