The secret to becoming a famous and successful food journalist is now clear, and it's so simple: All you have to do is write about the Olive Garden. The most recent breakout foodie star is Marilyn Hagerty (at left), the critic for the Grand Forks Herald, of North Dakota, who just became Internet famous for her glowing treatment of that city's Olive Garden. The Herald explains why: "Internet sharing is the reason. Popular websites such as Fark, Gawker and Boingboing posted the story, setting off a barrage of comments via Twitter and Facebook."
It's becoming a narrative: Gawker or some similar site (but usually Gawker) finds it hilarious that you earnestly wrote about the Olive Garden and gently mocks you. "Hagerty found the $10.95 chicken Alfredo dish to be 'warm and comforting on a cold day,' and reports that the servings at Olive Garden are 'generous.' She did not, however, opt for the raspberry lemonade," wrote Emma Carmichael. Soon, everyone forwards your piece along in a fit of amusement of indignation. Then another publication comes along (in this case it's The Village Voice) and interviews you about how it feels to be famous, establishing the fact that you are, in fact, famous.
Do you think this is a fluke? It is not. The exact same thing happened in 2006, when Gawker called reporter John Quinlan's write-up of the Sioux City Olive Garden's debut "The most Onion-like real news story of all time (unfortunately the Sioux City Journal appears to have taken the story down). Two whole years after Quinlan's steep rise to notoriety, Columbia Journalism Review Interviewed him and Gawker wrote that up too. Big national food blogs are still discovering Quinlan's write-up as marvelous, an election cycle and a half after he first wrote it.
But you can't fake this like Jonathan Gold did a year ago in Los Angeles. You can't try to write about the Olive Garden for laughs. Everyone sees through that. You have to really be excited about the Olive Garden, or at least take it seriously, and so do your regular readers. Hagerty explained in this exchange with the Voice's Camille Dodero:
Was the Olive Garden Opening really such a big deal?
Oh, it was one of the biggest deals in ages. The rumors had been floating around for a decade. [Whispers] The Olive Garden is coming to town. For some reason, people go to the Olive Garden in Fargo and they think it's just wonderful. So it was greatly anticipated. The rumors went for several years.
People will know if you're being cute, like this commenter of Gold's: "Yeah. This does sound snobby. And it seems unnecessary...and beneath you too. For many americans, OG is a perfectly fine place to eat. It is affordable and accommodating. we can't forget to respect the enjoyment of others."
The Olive Garden hits some kind of middlebrow sweet spot, where people really do like it (hell, give us unlimited breadsticks and we'll follow you anywhere), but it's also a goofy chain with overblown pretentions toward authenticity, as its spurious Culinary Institute of Tuscany demonstrates. If you can get one of your stories to land in that same kind of journalistic sweet spot, well, let's just call that a recipe for success!