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California Misadventure — Part 5

Here’s another present to slip under the tree: the final installment of Jim’s April 2000 MousePlanet classic. Read it for yourself and decide how many of Hill’s predictions came true.

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OUR STORY SO FAR:

All Michael Eisner wanted was to turn Anaheim into Orlando. Was that too much to ask?

Given all the problems Disney had getting Westcot through the approval process … Yes, I guess it was.

Everything that could have gone wrong with Disneyland’s first expansion plans did. Orange County residents, upset at what they believed was the Mouse’s cavalier attitude toward their neighborhood’s concerns with the Westcot project model, quickly organized Homeowners for Maintaining the Environment (Anaheim HOME). This local activist group picketed the park, handed anti-Disney leaflets to guests entering the parking lot. Anaheim HOME did everything that it could to make the Mouse look bad.

Not that Disney needed that much help in that department. When it came to Westcot, between the free Disneyland tickets for Anaheim city hall employees scandal to the including property on the Disneyland expansion plan that the Mouse hadn’t actually paid for yet brouhaha, it just seemed like the project had turned into one embarrassing gaffe after another.

Finally, Eisner, who had lost his enthusiasm for huge Disney theme park projects following the Euro Disney debacle, had had enough. He turned to his new hatchet man, Paul Pressler. “Make this go away, ” said Eisner. Pressler did.

Which brings us to the Fall of 1995. Disneyland’s expansion plans are back to Square One. High in the Rockies, a new team of Disney executives meet to discuss the future direction of the project.

This is not going to be pretty.

Westcot was dead. Long live Westcot.

Eisner and his Imagineers had tried to do something bold, something ambitious in Anaheim. That didn’t fly with the locals or, in the end, make that much financial sense for the company.

But now the clock was ticking. CalTrans had already begun work on a multi-million dollar face-lift of Interstate 5. Once this six-year-long lane-widening, bridge-building and exit-ramp-constructing project was completed, folks could once again be able to zoom down the 5 to Anaheim to see …

What? Disney had persuaded the state to put all that money into highway improvements to help support their new expanded resort. Now that plan was in ruins. The Mouse had better come up with something quick. Otherwise Governor Pete Wilson and those fine folks up in Sacramento are going to be plenty pissed.

As you might understand, the pressure was on as Eisner held a design summit up at his Aspen retreat late that fall. Chief among those in attendance were senior Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) officials Marty Sklar and Ken Wong, Disneyland President Paul Pressler as well as Imagineering rising star, Barry Braverman.

Braverman had recently come to Eisner’s attention because of the exemplary job he’d done putting together the “Innoventions” project at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World (WDW). Using just his tongue and a telephone, Braverman had persuaded many major American corporations to pay the Mouse to build and staff exhibits of their new products. By doing this, Barry had rethemed and redressed Future World’s entire Communicore area for virtually no money.

Sure, Epcot’s “Innoventions” might have looked more like a mall than a theme park attraction. What did that matter? Guests seemed to like the place. More importantly, it had been inexpensive to build and was even cheaper to run. That made Braverman look like a genius in Eisner’s eyes. Which is why Michael invited Barry to join WDI’s senior staff at this meeting in Aspen. Eisner was hoping that Braverman might be able to work some more of his budgetary magic on the Disneyland expansion project.

From the very start of the charrette, the group agreed about what Westcot’s main problem had been: The plans for Disneyland’s second gate had just gotten too big, and too unwieldy. In attempting to make sure the expansion plans met with the high quality of the existing park in Anaheim (arguably the best theme park in the whole Disney chain), the Imagineers had let the project get out of control.

This time around, the Mouse wouldn’t try and top America’s original theme park. Eisner wanted a second gate for Anaheim that the company could build quickly, but was still affordable. He wanted this new theme park to be a modest companion to Disneyland, rather than its flashy competitor. But, most importantly, this second Anaheim theme park had to be able to generate a huge cash flow for the Walt Disney Company from the very first day it opened.

Let’s go over those design parameters again, shall we? Easy to build, but cheap to do. Must compliment — not compete with — Disneyland. And must be able to turn a profit as soon as the place opens.

With that assortment of meager ingredients, could you cook up a great theme park?

Well, at least the Imagineers tried. They talked about doing a smaller version of Disney Seas (too costly) or doing a scaled back Disney-MGM Studio theme park. (Why would folks want to visit a fake movie studio, when there are real ones to tour 30 miles up the road?) They also looked at building just Future World or just World Showcase. But — if they built that — guests would just complain that Anaheim had a half-assed version of WDW’s Epcot.

It was obvious that none of the ideas that Disney had used for its previous theme parks would work in this situation. So the team began attacking the problem from another angle: What was it that was missing from Disneyland? Why do guests leave the resort and continue their Southern Californian vacations elsewhere?

Well, that one seemed obvious. People left Disneyland because they wanted to see more of California. They wanted to walk along the Boardwalk at Venice Beach. They wanted to hike through the Redwoods in Sequoia National Forest. They wanted to ride the killer roller coasters at Magic Mountain, and take the tram tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. In short, these vacationers wanted to sample everything else the State of California had to offer.

For a moment, Eisner and his design team just sat there, blinking at each other. The answer to their problem couldn’t be that obvious, could it? A theme park that celebrated California. A place that recreated — in miniature — the best that the Golden State had to offer. Guests would no longer have to leave Anaheim to continue their Californian adventure (Oooh! Hang on to that! I think we just tripped over the title!). Everything they were looking for, and more, would be right next door to Disneyland.

That’s all Eisner had to hear. “That’s it,” he said. “Let’s build it.”

And that — swear to God — is how the concept for Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) theme park was born.

The project quickly went into overdrive from there. Since Pressler and Braverman were the first to suggest a California-based theme park, Eisner put them in charge of developing it. This, as events continue to unfold, might have proven to have been a mistake.

Braverman, who was just coming off his first big success with WDW’s “Innoventions” project, was anxious to see his star continue to rise within the Walt Disney Company. Eisner wanted a cheap park? Fine. Braverman planned to budget Disneyland’s proposed second gate so tightly that the blueprints would squeak.

But Pressler was also an ambitious man. He too was already plotting his next move up the Disney corporate ladder, perhaps parlaying his Disneyland presidency into something further up the food chain. But, to do that, he’d really have to deliver the goods on the Disneyland second gate project.

So Pressler took Braverman’s initial budget estimates … and slashed them by a third.

Okay, so now we’ve got two ambitious people, each out to impress upper management by delivering a low-budgeted project on a high-speed timetable. Can you say “recipe for disaster”? Sure you can.

Pressler and Braverman got the project off on the wrong foot when they announced that they didn’t want “Disney’s California Adventure” designed by WDI. Instead, they wanted Disneyland’s second gate to be created by the same folks who designed WDW’s hotels: the Disney Development Company (DDC).

What was the deal here? The Imagineers had, somewhat unfairly, taken the rap for all the cost over-runs Disney racked up on Euro Disney. Never mind that Eisner himself had suggested dozens of last minute changes to that park that had tacked on tens of millions of dollars in construction costs to the project. When the red ink started flowing in France, Uncle Mikey needed someone to blame. (Guess who he picked?) Pressler and Braverman wanted to deliver “Disney’s California Adventure” on time and under budget. Since DDC had a better reputation inside the company for meeting its deadlines and controlling costs, Pressler and Braverman wanted to give the park to it to develop.

When word of this got out, the Imagineers hit the roof. For over 40 years, WDI had designed every theme park, ride and attraction the Walt Disney Company held ever built. Now their jobs were to be usurped by the same guys who brought us the Dolphin and the Swan hotels at WDW?

No way.

Veteran Imagineer Chris Caradine (best known as the designer of WDW’s Pleasure Island) did more than just complain about this injustice. He circulated a letter to all of WDI’s senior architects, condemning Pressler and Braverman’s cost control maneuver. He then had all of these Imagineers sign the letter, which he then personally hand delivered to Eisner.

Concerned that his senior Imagineering staff was about to revolt, Eisner got the message. He called Braverman and Pressler into his office and told them that they had to use Imagineers to design Disneyland’s second gate.

This was the first of several short-sighted decisions that Pressler and Braverman made concerning “Disney’s California Adventure.” Individually, none of these decisions were bad enough to sink Disneyland’s second gate. But combined?

Well, let’s just say that there are a lot of folks at Walt Disney Imagineering who view DCA as an almost fatally flawed project.

What exactly are the project’s problems? Some point to Pressler and Braverman’s decision not to develop many new rides and shows for DCA, but opting instead for a lot of attraction recycling.

While it was undoubtedly more cost-effective to take shows that have already proven popular at other Disney theme parks (like Disney-MGM’s “Kermit the Frog presents MuppetVision 3D” and Animal Kingdom’s “It’s Tough to Be a Bug”) and redress them a bit to fit in DCA, is this really the best long-range strategy?

Isn’t it possible that using old WDW shows could actually have a detrimental effect on Disneyland Resort’s attendance levels?

Think about it.

Wasn’t Eisner’s main reason for building a second gate at Disneyland to turn the company’s Anaheim holdings into a vacation destination like Walt Disney World? But why would folks from the East Coast fly all the way out to California just to see shows that they’d already seen — years earlier — in Orlando?

Don’t get me wrong. “MuppetVision 3D” (WDW debut: May 1991) as well as “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” (WDW debut: April 1998) are both fine shows. And there are millions of people west of the Rockies who’ve never seen these attractions and will happily make a special trip to Disneyland just to see Kermit and Flick in 3D.

But if Disney really wants to turn Anaheim into a destination resort like WDW, recycling old shows from Walt Disney World probably isn’t the smart way to go. Adding fresh new rides and attractions that are exclusive to DCA is the only way to guarantee tourists from both coasts will make a point of frequenting the park.

Speaking of rides, another problem a lot of Imagineers have with DCA are those off-the-shelf carnival-style attractions being used in Paradise Pier.

But it’s not for the reason you think.

Sure, the rides over here might look hokey and cheap. (And I can’t help wondering how Orange County feels, having spent all those millions, renovating and expanding its convention center into a state-of-the-art meeting facility, only to have Disney build a deliberately chintzy looking Ferris wheel and roller coaster in front of it.) But the rides are supposed to look that way, folks. This part of DCA pays tribute to those old amusement piers you used to find along the California coast.

And I know that it’s popular to bash this part of the park on the Web.

But I won’t.

Why? Because I like it. I think that Disney’s done a great job of recapturing the look and feel of an old turn-of-the-century seaside amusement park.

But you know what the real irony is? All the old cheesy-looking amusement piers disappeared because squeaky clean theme parks like Disneyland drove them out of business. So now here’s the Mouse, bringing the amusement pier back from the dead, with all its grubbiness intact.

But what do the Disney dweebs on the Web do? Complain loudly about how “cheesy” Paradise Pier looks. It’s supposed to look cheesy, guys. Get it? And — off-the-shelf or not — those old fashioned carny rides you’ll find along on DCA’s Paradise Pier will be a kick to ride.

The real problem is capacity. These old fashioned rides are slow to load and unload. Even with their projected painfully short ride times (Example: Guests will supposedly only get 90 seconds to savor the low-tech thrills of the “Orange Stinger”), there’ll still be huge lines over in Paradise Pier.

Why? Because, on opening day, DCA is only going have only 22 rides and attractions. But Disney’s own attendance projections show that, on a typical summer day, 30,000 guests will be wandering around DCA, looking for things to do.

Think about it. Are you really going to be happy, having paid $40+ a head to get into DCA, only to stand in a two hour long line just to ride “Mullholland Madness?”

This is what worries the older Imagineers. During that first crucial summer of operation, guests will undoubtedly exit DCA — having spent most of their day standing in very long lines for the all-too-short attractions — then go home to tell their friends and neighbors about what an awful time they had at Disney’s new theme park. This is why WDI is pressuring Disney management to begin DCA’s Phase II construction NOW.

Pressler and Braverman honestly believe that they’re improving Disney’s bottom line by bringing DCA in on time and under budget. But where will the great savings be if Disney has to turn around and immediately begin pumping millions into the park in a desperate attempt to boost its hourly ride capacity?

WDI has reportedly repeatedly warned Disney’s top management team about DCA’s potentially fatal flaws. Privately, Eisner has evidently acknowledged that Disneyland’s second gate could be in for a rough couple of years. Even so, he expects DCA to make a lot of money for the company as well as eventually grow into a worthy companion to Disneyland.

Well, here’s hoping.

Myself? I’m hoping that — as I stroll into DCA on opening day — that the theme park is at least as intriguing as the story of its development and construction.

Doesn’t seem very likely now, does it?

THE END – for now…

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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