In 2012, an 85-year-old woman wrote a review of an Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She liked the restaurant — a lot.
“The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day,” Marilyn Hagerty wrote. “The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.”
Hagerty’s review subsequently went viral, and her predilection for the chain was mocked. Then one of the country’s most prominent chefs came to her defense: Anthony Bourdain.
In the wake of Bourdain’s suicide at age 61, Hagerty, now 92, spoke to BuzzFeed News about her heartwarming encounter with the celebrity chef.
Not long after her review went viral, Bourdain wrote on Twitter that “Marilyn Hagerty’s years of reviews to be a history of dining in the America too few of us from the coasts have seen. We need to see.”
He also wrote that he was “enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included).”
Hagerty and Bourdain subsequently met for coffee in New York City (where she also reviewed a hot dog stand for the New York Times). The next year, Hagerty published a collection of her reviews, which Bourdain edited. During an appearance on CBS This Morning in 2012, he explained why he wanted to work with her. “Her reaction [to the commotion that followed her review] was so dignified … and genuine, and the review itself was so heartfelt. This woman has been reporting for the paper — five columns — for 30 years. I thought, wow, she’s making us all look bad,” he said.
The book, Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews, was published the following year. “She is never mean — even when circumstances would clearly excuse a sharp elbow, a cruel remark,” he wrote in the foreword. “In fact, watching Marilyn struggle to find something nice to say about a place she clearly loathes is part of the fun. She is, unfailingly, a good neighbor and good citizen first — and entertainer second.”
Speaking with TIME, Hagerty remembered the first impression she had upon meeting the celebrity chef — one that defied her expectations. “I expected to meet some kind of character,” she said. “I found him to be not a wild, reckless character of a person, as I had expected. I found him to be a very pleasant businessman and journalist.”
Hagerty told BuzzFeed that she learned about Bourdain’s “shocking” death after her son sent her an article about it.
“Anthony Bourdain spoke up for me at a time when people all over the country were making great fun of the column I write,” she said. “To have a man of his stature rise up and befriend me, it meant a lot to me.”
“You know, sometimes you go through life and … you think about all the wonderful things that happened to you,” Hagerty added. “And one of the wonderful things that happened to me was when Anthony Bourdain spoke up for me and wanted to publish my columns in a book.”
On Sunday, Hagerty published a meditation on her the collision of her world with Bourdain’s six years ago in the form of an open letter to her granddaughter, Carrie, who once studied journalism and is now attending law school in New York City. In the letter, Hagerty reflects on the whirlwind that was spun up by her review — including appearances on national TV shows — and what it meant to her for a chef like Bourdain to step up to her defense. She told her granddaughter, “He was tall and handsome and pleasant,” but noted that she only knew him briefly.
“For all his jubilance, Anthony Bourdain must have been a troubled soul,” she concluded. “He also was an amazing man.”
Below, listen to Hagerty call in to a radio show and remember her friendship with Bourdain.
"Then he (Anthony Bourdain) said he came to realize I was doing something that nobody else did. I was writing about the way people eat in restaurants in the Midwest. We eat differently in the middle of America." – Marilyn Hagerty #TheShiftwithDrex
— CKNW (@CKNW) June 11, 2018