NR Digital

Athwart

Olive Garden State

by James Lileks

The Internet has made it so easy to make fun of nice little old ladies. Kids today have no idea how much effort it used to take. In the old days a nice little old lady, or NLOL, would send a note to the society editor of the weekly paper:

COFFEE WAS SERVED
Mrs. Elmer Anderson (Mabel) and Mrs. Andrew Elmosenn (Doris) visited the home of Mrs. Victor Zwiebach (Hortense) on Sunday, April 12, for an afternoon of conversation. Coffee and ladyfingers were served.

Such notes were the staples of small-town papers. When I read them as a kid I wondered how the paper knew these things; the idea they employed an army of operatives who peered in farmhouse windows and took notes seemed both thrilling and scary. You may worry about God watching you, but adding the West Fargo Pioneer to the mix upped the ante. Of course, NLOLs sent in the items themselves, often to send a barbed message to Mrs. Horace Hoarskoller that she hadn’t been invited, and could be darned sure the conversation had had to do with her and that hat she wore to church last week. The one with the red feather. In March. Why I never.

You could make fun of those things, but it would be just you and your pals. It was impossible to cast your snark nationwide. That’s where the Internet comes in nowadays, though; thanks to Twitter you can tell all your friends about . . . (are you ready?) . . . a NLOL in North Dakota who had a reasonably good experience at Olive Garden, and described it without a jot of irony. Marilyn Hagerty is her name, and she writes for the Grand Forks Herald. Her review of the Olive Garden read like one of those postmodern satires from which joy and humor have been scientifically extracted:

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water. She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives.

She also used the phrase “long warm breadsticks” without realizing it might be a double entendre. Hah hah! You’re an old lady who doesn’t think about penises anymore. So the review was passed around the Internet; everyone had to know about it, strike the proper pose, suffer the remixes, then cast it aside when the magnifying glass of the Internet moved on to Rick Santorum’s sweater or a cat sneezing milk out its nose.

The NLOL took it well. After being informed that the world was talking about her review, she said, “I’m working on my Sunday column and I’m going to play bridge this afternoon, so I don’t have time to read all this crap.” Her description of the sport others were having with her work? “Blah blah blah.”

And that, in essence, is the best description of the Internet’s love of “buzz.” It’s a sloshing bucket of snark, an endless stream of chum-chunks that reaffirm the reader’s self-image as someone who is aware of not only what is current on the Internet, but what stance must be taken. Something is either “Stunning” or “WTF” or “LOL” or “OMG” or “adorable,” a term used for pictures of squirrels dressed up like Star Wars characters, or NLOLs unaware how an Olive Garden review is going to look.

It’s apt that the NLOL wrote about the Olive Garden. To the smart crowd, it symbolizes that strange flown-over America where people consume standardized food in large quantities, enjoy Disney products, find fellow feeling in the sentiments of a twangy pop song, and observe cars covered in advertising stickers going around in circles without thinking it’s a metaphor for capitalism. Goateed Web-serfs in San Francisco cubicles regard it the same way a NASCAR fan looks at a museum that displays bisected cows floating in a plexiglas box.

If you eat at Olive Garden in a place like North Dakota, you exist on the periphery of civilization itself — unless, of course, you’re passing through on your way to do a feature story on the testosterone-sloshing hell of the oilfields beyond, in which case you tell everyone in your party to remove their nose rings and not bait the locals by asking if the olive oil is extra virginal, y’know, like the Holy Mother. (Snicker.) Oh, and some long warm breadsticks. (Snicker.) She didn’t get the reference! At all!

As it happens, I’ve eaten in a North Dakota Olive Garden. My mother liked it. Fargo has many chains, and as the town has skipped through the ruins of the recession whistling tra-la-la, the restaurants have been packed every night. Sure, there’s a certain heaviness you feel when you look at the menu and think: Okay, red stuff or white stuff. But there’s something else that settles in your heart besides the sauce, and it’s the happy din of a place in the middle of the continent, filled with your fellow Americans filling themselves, with no more use for ironic distance than they have for the sprig of parsley, unconcerned that someone in Portland is raving over a slivered soybean infused with civet musk.

Yes, there are two Americas. Ask one what they want to eat, and they’ll say something with four hyphens and six adjectives. The flavors! The sensation! The warm feeling of class validation! The faint stirrings of an anecdote you will tell at the book club! Ask another, and they’ll say “Seconds.” Thank goodness the Internet is there to tell us which one to mock.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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