The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Marilyn Hagerty Wins The Internet [The Value In Reviewing Things That Never Get Reviewed]
Posted Sep 20, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated Sep 20, 2013 at 08:12 AM
Is there a proper, professional way to review gas station hoagies?
Should the same critical standards apply to a Wawa as to Bern’s Steak House or The Columbia Restaurant?
More importantly, what are the best words to use when analyzing a pumpkin spice milkshake?
I ask because I’ve just read Marilyn Hagerty’s new book “Grand Forks; A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews” (Ecco, $14.99).
You may recall Marilyn’s name from the dust-up last year, when the 87-year-old restaurant critic for the Grand Forks Herald was mocked by food snobs scoffing at her review of the new Olive Garden in town.
In the column, Marilyn said, “The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.” She went on to describe the generously portioned chicken Alfredo as “warm and comforting on a cold day.”
She dropped into reporter mode, noting vases and planters with permanent flower displays, arched doorways leading to dining areas and a fireplace that warmed the restaurant’s interior design.
“All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks,” she wrote.
When the mean, big-city kids emerged online at Gawker, Boing Boing and Eater to goof on her small-town quaintness, others rushed to Marilyn’s defense.
“I was quite amazed that he would come out of the blue and want to be a friend,” Marilyn told me recently by phone. “I did have coffee with him one time when I was in New York. I was flattered to think Anthony Bourdain would be interested.”
In the book’s foreward, Bourdain sets the table on what to expect.
“If you’re looking for the kind of rapturous food porn you’d find in a book by M.F.K. Fisher or the knife-edged criticism of an A.A. Gill or a Sam Sifton, you will not find it here,” he writes.
Bourdain goes on to say that Marilyn is not an adventurous eater. She does not possess “pyrotechnical prose.”
What Hagerty’s work does offer, he says, is “a fascinating picture of dining in America, a gradual, cumulative overview of how we got from there ... to here.”
Also, “she is never mean — even when circumstances would clearly excuse a sharp elbow, a cruel remark.”
Hagerty says that isn’t her style. Plus, readers know how to read between the lines.
”If the food is no good, I spend time talking about the décor,” she says. “I’m a journalist. I try to present a whole picture. Who, what, why and how. I think they can figure it out for themselves.”
Which brings us back to the Wawa gas station and convenience food store that opened two weeks ago on Bloomingdale Road at U.S. 301 in Riverview. Marilyn told me about how she enjoys reviewing truck stops.
“They’re interesting, and there are interesting people working there,” she says, “Women who work there bake wonderful pies. I’ve talked to truckers sitting around the counter. It’s interesting to hear them talk.”
It’s rare for a writer to cast a critical eye at places like those. It’s as if the food there isn’t worthy of discussion.
Maybe if we did write about places other than restaurants, there would be pressure to make the menus better.
I’m not a food critic, so I channeled Marilyn to know what she might say about the Wawa experience.
I’m guessing she probably would compliment the clean counters, floors and coffee station. She might remark about how the large windows draw sunlight indoors.
Her critical eye would notice that the soda fountain ice machines come in two varieties: crushed and cubed. The touch-screen system for ordering sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps and other items would be easy for her to navigate. She no doubt would approve of the speed in which orders arrive ready for takeout or dining outside on metal tables.
She would give a thumbs-up to the hand-spun pumpkin spice milkshakes.
She might not like the announcing system, which can get bullhorn-loud at times. She’d probably go with a code word and say instead that the person announcing order numbers in the deli was clear and direct and easy to understand.
The fresh fruit and grab-and-go salads would score points with her. So would the Cuban hoagie, which comes with ham and pulled pork, pickles and mustard. The s’mores hand pies at the checkout counter would go over very well.
You would never confuse Wawa with the beloved Toasted Frog restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, but then again, neither would Marilyn.
So much for reading between the lines.