All of us should be so lucky as to be inspiring wide-ranging national debate at age 85, which is what Marilyn Hagerty of North Dakota has been doing this month with her gloriously non-ironic review of the Grand Forks Olive Garden — a review that’s become the biggest thing to happen to North Dakota in pop culture since the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and, unlike Fargo, is actually set in North Dakota.
The debate over the Hagerty review has opened a hornet’s nest of debate over culture and class in the United States. A lot of us writing online tend to assume, most of the time, that we’re writing only for and about people like ourselves; Marilyn Hagerty’s review has crossed the online tracks, forcing people to explain and defend their positions on the Olive Garden. Pro or con? Why? That’s not a question that people typically spend a lot of time thinking about, but suddenly each writer’s answer seems relevant.
The U.S. in the 2010s is different in many ways from France in the 1960s, but nonetheless, Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological classic Distinction — based on research conducted in France from 1963 to 1968 — is useful in understanding the Great Olive Garden Debate, and why it’s more than just a simple class conflict.
According to Bourdieu, your upbringing instills you with what he calls a “habitus”: a way of looking at the world, of understanding and placing value upon things. Depending on what your parents did for a living and where you go to school, you’ll grow up thinking some things are more true, more important, more valuable than others.
Part of your habitus, says Bourdieu, is the amount of cultural capital you have. Cultural capital is a way of understanding and valuing elements of privileged culture, and it tends to accrue to people with an overabundance of education. If you have cultural and economic capital, you rule: these are the world’s doctors and lawyers. If you have a lot of cultural capital but not a lot of money, you’re a bohemian — in this case, a hipster blogger with a Ph.D. who’s living in a studio apartment (cough, cough).
The point of cultural capital is that it’s a form of privilege that’s associated with economic capital (the time and education it takes to acquire are not luxuries that people working two or three simultaneous jobs tend to have) — but it’s different. Cultural capital is one of the many forms of capital you can take advantage of as you claw your way up in society. People with cultural capital want economic capital (I wouldn’t mind owning a car, for example), and people with economic capital want cultural capital (they don’t want to be seen as unsophisticated). The reason the Olive Garden brings the claws out is that it sits right at that hinge between cultural and economic capital.
The Olive Garden’s core constituency is people with enough money to afford a $10+ entree — that’s not a lot in the white-tablecloth realm, but it’s a real luxury if you’re working a minimum-wage job — and the desire to enjoy a meal in sophisticated-seeming surroundings. The pro-Hagerty writers who champion the Olive Garden as a People’s Restaurant are missing the point: it’s not. McDonald’s is a People’s Restaurant. A no-frills lunch counter is a People’s Restaurant. For most of its patrons, the Olive Garden is where you go when you want a touch of class, a whiff of Europe, a validation of your desire to spend your hard-earned money on at least a few of “the finer things” in life: wine, bread in a basket, chicken Alfredo.
But of course the Olive Garden’s “sophistication” is just a light veneer, nothing like what you’d encounter if you went to a five-star Italian restaurant with a changing menu. What people with cultural capital find laughable about the Olive Garden is the unjustified pretension: they (we, not to be disingenuous about my own habitus) can see right through the Olive Garden’s faux sophistication, and they don’t appreciate the claim to the kind of cultural knowledge and sophistication that they have a more legit version of. The Hagerty review has been set upon with such astonished delight because Gawker readers rarely come across such a detailed, well-written restaurant review authored by someone who chooses to completely ignore the question of whether or not the Olive Garden’s sophistication is “authentic.”
The cultural capital factor is why the Olive Garden debate is more than simple class warfare. As a counterexample, consider Doe’s Eat Place. It’s a steak joint in Greenville, Mississippi, but don’t wear your dinner jacket: the Doe’s interior is frankly shabby. For about twice what you’d pay for dinner at the Olive Garden, you can go to Doe’s and eat a truly amazing steak. The walls of Doe’s are covered with plaudits from all those cultural elites who disdain the Olive Garden. They appreciate that Doe’s manifestly knows what it’s doing when it comes to food, but has no pretensions to being a “fancy” restaurant. You can go to Doe’s and feel good about yourself as a cultural elite, because you know where the real sophistication is — behind Doe’s unassuming door, not beneath the Tuscan farmhouse veneer of a suburban Olive Garden.
What’s forgotten in the Olive Garden Culture War, though, is the rest of Greenville. There’s no Olive Garden in Greenville: with a median household income of $26,000, most of Greenville’s residents, most of the time, couldn’t afford to eat at the Olive Garden or Doe’s.
Hagerty’s now-famous rejoinder to her critics was, “Get a life.” But of course they have a life: exactly the life their habitus dictates that they value, a life so soaked in cultural analysis and knowing irony that Hagerty’s lack of it astonishes them. And Hagerty has her own life, a life that includes regular dining out at restaurants that, yes, include the Olive Garden. But as the residents of Greenville can attest, those are not the only two lives to live in America. If there’s class conflict in this country — and there is — it’s much broader and deeper than a saucer of olive oil.