The Lessons of Marilynsanity

America, what did it all mean?

In the early morning hours of March 8, I logged on to email to find a message from a food-critic friend. “You see this?” Jesse wrote. “This” was Marilyn Hagerty’s now-immortal review in the Grand Forks Herald, “Long-Awaited Olive Garden Receives Warm Welcome.” By day’s close, Hagerty was a meme. Nearly two weeks later, the octogenarian from North Dakota has been tattooed onto America’s consciousness nearly as large as the Obey giant. But what has a two-week case of national Marilynsanity actually taught us?

Since the morning nearly two weeks ago when we lost our collective shit over the Hagerty story, we’ve seen her meaning change. She was an object of fun at first, a symbol of the banality food critics and other journalists fear. Hagerty made professional food writing look about as flaccid a career choice as typewriter repairman: One day you’re deploying food reviews with blistering turns of phrase for an alt weekly, a couple decades later you’re faithfully documenting a chain restaurant’s color scheme for the Weekly Advertiser.

But by day’s end on March 8, Hagerty was the antidote to everything trendy and ego-driven in the upper reaches of blue-state food culture. On Twitter, Ruth Bourdain wielded Hagerty against food media’s A-list like a vendetta: “Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty is no Frank Bruni. Meant as a compliment.”

Hagerty became this generation’s Clara Peller, who, if you’re young to know or never watched I Love the '80s, was the white-haired commercial pitch lady for Wendy’s 25 years ago. In the same way that, to some, Hagerty exists in opposition to gastronomy’s bullshit, Peller’s famous catchphrase—“Where’s the beef?”—tempered the go-go ’80s like a folksy quip by Ronald Reagan.

The New York Times immediately trotted out Hagerty to taste Manhattan street dogs, the video camera closing in to catch the slightly bewildered look in her eyes, her face wrinkled like an Appalachian apple doll’s. Blog editors trolled Olive Gardens in their towns, looking for something to piggyback off.

There were thoughtful stories, too. Grub Street Chicago offered a schematic of Hagerty as shifting signifier, in the language of semiotics. And USA TODAY quoted a social scientist, Michael Mario Albrecht, who sees Hagerty as an artifact of America’s culture wars (“The diverse reactions…to the Olive Garden speak to a great deal of larger cultural/political tensions that characterize the country right now”), even if it’s unclear whose side she’s on.

But yesterday on Anderson, Anderson Cooper’s daytime chat show, thoughtfulness gave way to sheer spectacle. The nation got to watch CNN’s silver fox present the honey-washed gray lady of Grand Forks with a plate of that same chicken Alfredo she so famously reviewed. It all seemed like a case of elder abuse, until you realize that Hagerty has been complicit in her rise, giving the fame monster a grandmotherly peck on the cheek. For Anderson, she showed up and played for the cameras, comparing the place to Olive Garden a couple of times in her adorable Upper Plains accent.

She’s even lent her blessing to official swag. The Grand Forks Herald is now selling T-shirts with Hagerty’s image and the quote, “I’ve been a lot of other things, but never viral!” You can order a piece of Hagerty in colors like Sky, Daisy, and Orchid ($20, plus $5 for shipping, with part of the proceeds going to the ALS Association). “Be a part of Marilyn Mania!” reads the paper’s pitch.

It’s getting harder now to recall what Hagerty ever represented, but here's the point: It doesn’t matter. In America, watching someone blow up to be famous is the ultimate spectator sport.

Image sources: Top, AndersonCooper.com; above, GrandForksHerald.com

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.