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Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews by Marilyn Hagerty (2013) (read in 2018)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a collection of restaurant reviews from restaurants all over North Dakota, but mostly from the metropolitan region (such as it is) in and around Grand Forks. A couple of the reviews are of top-flight restaurants in New York City, thrown in seemingly to point out that Ms. Hagerty isn’t just a country bumpkin.

Her book is refreshingly honest and simple, the reviews eminently useful, concentrating as they do on describing decor, menu and prices. She weaves stories of the proprietor’s lives into her reviews. Through these, we follow how the city of Grand Forks grew over the years. The reviews start in the 80s and continue into the first decade of the 21st century. We also see how expectations of price and quality grew over the years—and how some restaurants managed to remain focused on providing quality food for what seems likely nearly impossible prices for the time.

There was a bit of monotony to the reviews, a bit of ritual, but not of boredom, necessarily. Almost like a book of zen koans, delivered by a woman seemingly without malice. Almost like listening to a song by a favorite band that sounds very much like all of the other songs that band has made—it’s nice to listen to, even though familiar.

I imagine that Marilyn’s reviews served over the years as a bulwark against ugly reality for many residents.

I discovered this book when Anthony Bourdain died: someone I read had mentioned that he’d written the foreword to Marilyn’s book. His foreword is nicely written and generous and reveals a man capable of appreciating the simpler things, just like Marilyn. Appropriately, it is overshadowed by the simple power of Ms. Hagerty’s reviews.


“When CC showed up, he ordered the breakfast special […]”
Page 33

CC is “Constant Companion” whose constancy is a bit optimistic. Somewhere near the middle of the book, we no longer hear of him and his adorable predilections for normal food. Whether he left or died is not mentioned, nor very important to the book. At this point, Marilyn started eating with groups of friends—and the level of restaurant that she started to visit increased as well.

“[…] fond farewell when you visit the new Red Lobster restaurant. And to visit there is rather […]”
Page 87

Marilyn wrote about all places equally: a decent-quality seafood restaurant in Grand Forks was well-worth a visit, even though it was a chain restaurant.

“I remembered one of the sayings on the Kaffe Huset menu. “Det kjelper life a skynde seg nor man er pa gal vei.” In other words, “It doesn’t pay to hurry when you are on the wrong road.””
Page 106

The Scandinavian character of the northern midwest of America shines through in many of the reviews.

“The quesadilla also was mildly flavored with a pleasing combination of lettuce, green pepper, beef, olives and tomato.”
Page 224

This is typical of Marilyn’s reviews of food. She always found something nice to say, even about something as simple as a quesadilla—which she described in detail, knowing that many of her readers wouldn’t know what the hell that even was.

You’ll also note from the above sentence one of her authorial idiosyncrasies: she refuses to split an infinitive.