This week, an elderly restaurant critic with a kind face wrote a glowing review of the Grand Forks, North Dakota Olive Garden, and the internet exploded into uproarious, superior laughter. Look at this rube stupefied by a basket of breadsticks! Overwhelmed by black olives! But why is this woman's sincere appreciation of fauxtalian food at a chain restaurant so hilarious? I hate to break it to all the tittering, dazzling urbanites, but we laugh at her because there's a part that, deep down inside, we used to be her. Some of us still are.
On Wednesday, the Grand Forks Herald printed Marilyn Hagerty's review of North Dakota's newest hotspot, the Grand Forks Olive Garden. In order to secure herself a coveted seat at the crowded eatery, she had to wait for more than a month after it opened and go in late afternoon, in order to be "fashionable." Hagerty was impressed by the establishment's "impressive" "Tuscan farmhouse style" decor, the seating area built to accomodate the bustling crowds, the waiters with the "black trousers." The food, "crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes - several black olives" and warm chicken alfredo that was tasty and "comforting." There's fake fireplaces and fake flowers, to add ambiance and an "attractive" bar off to the side (when I was waitressing at an Olive Garden one summer in college, that "attractive" bar area was a favorite date spot for married men who were obviously out with their mistresses. But I digress). Overall, a wonderful experience for the discerning Grand Forks diner looking for something different. Five stars. Would eat again.
Hagerty's review of Olive Garden does sound a little like something Mitt Romney might say at a campaign stop in a heavily Italian blue collar town on the East coast, and because of that, it's kind of hilarious; but, as Hagerty said in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times, the reality of living in a town of 50,000 people in North Dakota is that new restaurants don't come along that often, and when one does, it's sort of a big deal. There's really no need to be snotty about it, especially because it's not like we don't all enjoy eating crap sometimes. Find me an adult who doesn't enjoy the occasional Easy Mac, Fruit Roll Ups, Lucky Charms marshmallows, or Shamrock Shake. At some point in all of our lives, most people who grew up in the suburbs or the exurbs or the Great Rural Nothing were electrified by the next town's Rock N' Roll McDonald's or Macaroni Grill. And any child of the suburbs or the exurbs or the Great Rural Nothing knows that chain restaurants can seem like a big fucking deal when there's nothing else around; to ridicule Hagerty as though the Olive Garden's subjective novelty is unfamiliar is disingenuous.
What is it about all things Olive Garden that elicits such an exaggerated response? A few seasons ago on The Bachelor, hopeful future Mrs. Andrew Firestone Amber was eliminated after telling the tire heir that Olive Garden was her favorite restaurant. And, thanks to its ubiquity and affordability, the spaghetti slinger has earned the dubious distinction of being on the list of Stuff White Trash People Like. Expressing a preference for dining at Olive Garden in 2012 is akin to festooning the back of your car with a Nickelback bumper sticker; it proves a lack of cultural awareness to people who define themselves by being culturally aware. But like Nickelback, Olive Garden has become a lazy, over referenced punching bag for people who want to distance themselves from lowbrow culture but lack the creativity to come up with new shorthand for "tasteless."
Urban-rural food snottiness goes both ways. Giant lines outside of urban Chick-fil-A locations elicit scoffing from southerners who have been eating fried chicken sandwiches for years. When I told an older relative about dining at a Chicago restaurant that serves an all-wild game prix fixe meal for about $90, he laughed ruefully, like he couldn't believe how stupid city people were for paying that much money to eat deer meat ("Hell, if I'd have known you wanted some venison so badly, I'd have sent you some chops from the freezer!" were his words). And organic grocery stores would have no place in many small towns, as people just grow their own vegetables rather than carting off to the fancy wine selling grocery store like a bunch of damn fools. Different strokes.
But maybe Hagerty's laughing all the way to the bank. According to the LA Times, her review of the long awaited Grand Forks Olive Garden's arrival has received more than 200,000 views — 40 times more than the average post on the Grand Forks Herald's site. That's a lot of "long, warm breadsticks."