Grand Forks, North Dakota, Gets an Olive Garden

Since I first read the Grand Forks Herald article last night -- "Long-awaited Olive Garden receives warm welcome" -- it's made its way around the Internet as an object of fascination faster than faked cell phone pictures of Christina Hendricks's breasts.

"An Onion-worthy, rave review of...Olive Garden," wrote Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff. At first glance, the article did seem to resemble a typical clip from The Onion, the 24-year-old newspaper that pokes fun at mainstream America through satirical articles which are just close enough to reality as to often be mistaken for actual news.

Other comments on Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty were not as kind. Former New York Times food critic and culinary luminary Ruth Reichl sniffed of the piece: "Depressing!"

What was so amusing -- or depressing -- about Hagerty's piece? The mere fact that she and her town were celebrating the opening of an Olive Garden. Honestly celebrating it, without guile and with exuberance.

It almost functions as a polar opposite companion piece to former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold's review of the Olive Garden this past April, in which the Pulitzer Prize winner described dishes like "a plate of eggplant parmigiana that consisted of crunchy eggplant Pringles bound with leathery straps of mozzarella."

By contrast, Hagerty was effusive about her town's newest restaurant.

"After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February," she wrote. "The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome."

She complimented its "Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway" and marveled at such things as black olives in salads and an offering of raspberry lemonade. She complimented her server, who "was ready with Parmesan cheese," and gave an appreciative nod to the fake flowers in planters that line the walls.

"All in all," she finished, "it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here."

And the Internet erupted in one massive hyena laugh over Hagerty's perceived provincialism, her utter lack of sophistication.

It's kind of sad, really. Not Hagerty, nor her article. But how quick we are to condescend.

When I lived in Waco, the nicest restaurant in town was, in fact, Olive Garden (tied with Red Lobster, of course). Prom dates, first dates, Sunday lunches: all of your "nice" events took place at one of these two options. And Waco -- at the time -- had 120,000 residents. When I was traveling to the small town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, for work, the residents were beside themselves about the new Chili's that had recently opened up.

Grand Forks is the third-largest city in North Dakota, with a population of almost 60,000 people -- 98,000 if you count the extended metropolitan area, which overflows into neighboring Minnesota. You can bet your eyeteeth that an Olive Garden opening in a small town like this is and was a pretty big damn deal.

This is why: When you live in a small town, you and your fellow residents don't get out much. Because there's not much to get out to. And there are rarely any "nice" restaurants; no one is willing to invest the capital to open a nice restaurant in a town where residents do most of their eating at home or in fast-food chains. Remember: Not every city is a Houston or even a New York City, where we spend oodles of disposable income on eating out for nearly every meal.

So when an Olive Garden comes to town -- a place where you can have a dressy-looking waiter, a few glasses of wine at a bar in a town where the other bars only serve beer, "Italian food" that's not from a box, a fireplace -- it doesn't matter that none of these things live up to big city standards of what's classy or what's really Italian food. What matters is that you finally have a place to take a date, to eat Sunday supper, to host baby showers or just to unwind.

Yes, Hagerty's enthusiasm is silly to our jaded minds. We all hate Olive Garden, right? It's the cool thing to do, aside from shopping at organic markets and curing our own meats. We, as foodies, tend to become so far removed from the way the rest of America eats that our initial impulse in these situations is haughty laughter and snark instead of an honest assessment of why the city of Grand Forks would be so excited about the Olive Garden in the first place.

Instead, Hagerty's enthusiasm should also serve as a reminder that what we take for granted is something special -- no matter how absurd it may appear -- to someone else. Even if it serves bad Italian food and warm wine.

Because who's to say that a meal at Olive Garden wouldn't inspire someone to explore Italian food even further, to figure out how to make eggplant parm themselves at home, no matter how inauthentic? Any broadening of horizons is a good one.

Regardless of anything else, until some intrepid chef steps up to create a French Laundry or El Bulli in Grand Forks, let those people enjoy their pasta in peace.

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Katharine Shilcutt