Marilyn Hagerty’s ‘Grand Forks’: Unpretentious Food Writing Is the New Outsider Art

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The term “outsider art” has always bothered me. It implies that if you want to be an artist of any sort, you need to go through the proper channels, fill out the right paperwork, live in the right place, and make sure you look and act the part at all times. It is a term nearly as infuriating and insulting as the one Americans use to describe Fela Kuti or Os Mutantes: “world music.” These are terms we apply to art that we see as the “other,” good or bad. Hence the labels, and the hundreds of essays that will follow about how all American art is a capitalist tool to decorate the walls of the bourgeois, blah blah blah.

That’s why it pains me to associate the collected food reviews of Marilyn Hagerty with outsider art, but it’s hard to read Grand Forks: A History of Dining in 128 Reviews and not see work that is, frankly, outside (or at least distant from) of the established conventions for food writing. Although she’s been writing since the late 1950s, Hagerty’s thoughts on the various eating establishments of Grand Forks, North Dakota were only noticed after her review of a new Olive Garden in her hometown went viral, and set off a firestorm of snark across the web.

“[T]here is little of what one would call pyrotechnical prose,” Anthony Bourdain writes in his introduction to the collection that his Ecco imprint is putting into the world. He points out that Hagerty isn’t exactly Andrew Zimmern, seeking out the weirdest and wildest meals on the menus she encounters. Bourdain says of Hagerty, “She is not what you’d call an adventurous eater.”

But Bourdain also points out another trait that makes her an outsider: “She is never mean.”

That particular observation kept popping into my head as I was reading through Grand Forks, from Hagerty’s charitable thoughts on the buns that come with the turkey sandwich at an Arby’s on South Columbia Road that “Adds Another Dimension to [The] Fast-Food Scene” to the description of sushi from the Association of Food Journalists that she quotes in her review, “Sachi Serves Sushi at Kon Nechi Wa’s in Grand City Mall.” Compare that to the other most-talked-about restaurant review of 2012, “As Not Seen on TV,” in which Pete Wells looked down at the rest of Manhattan from atop his perch at the New York Times building and rhetorically asked Guy Fieri, “Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television’s answer to Calvin Trillin, if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles? When you cruise around the country for your show ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’ rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it?”

Even though I have no interest in ever eating at Fieri’s restaurant, I read the review to find out what all the buzz was about, and quickly came to the conclusion that the review itself was manufactured to create buzz. It was The New York Times trying to be funny by taking a shot at Fieri’s restaurant, a tourist attraction located in a part of the city where most self-described “foodies” would rather starve than step into any dining establishment at all. The review was unnecessary, and ultimately left me, a citizen of New York with a subscription to the newspaper that published the review, feeling like a caricature of the elitist New Yorker.

While Bourdain rightly notices Hagerty is never mean in her reviews, Wells went out of his way to trash Guy Fieri. He wasn’t mean because Fieri dresses like he’s a roadie for the band Hoobastank, but because Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar makes food accessible to an average American diner uninterested in the origin and life story of every ingredient on the plate. Identifying what most Americans see as a good, normal meal is another discussion entirely, but I imagine that most readers not currently residing in a major urban center might be more comfortable eating at the types of places Hagerty reviews (she has sadly not covered Fieri’s restaurant yet) because, unlike Wells and most food writers, those are the choices they have. David Chang hasn’t opened up a Momofuku branch in Indianapolis, and I don’t think Keith McNally is busy scouting locations for a Balthazar in Alabama. But Hagerty does make me want to try the lutefisk dinner at the Big Sioux Truck Stop Cafe and Tavern United. She praises the same Grand Forks, ND establishment for serving Molly Malone’s Meatloaf and chips that “would make an English pub proud” — which is more than I can say for the local vegan gastropub down the block.