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Did Roy jump the gun? Was there an Eisner exit strategy already in place?

As the news of Roy Disney’s resignation letter continues to explode around the Web, Jim Hill reveals a lesser-known aspect of this story. That Disney’s board of directors had allegedly already talked with Michael Eisner about his exiting the corporation. And Eisner had reportedly already agreed to vacate his CEO position by as early as September 2004!

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Back in August, Wall Street analysts were wondering what to make of Roy Disney’s decision to sell off 40% of his Walt Disney Company holdings. Did this mean that Roy had grown tired of battling with Michael Eisner? That Walt’s nephew was just going to float off on his yacht? Go hide in his castle in Ireland and just let Uncle Mikey do whatever he wanted with Disney’s Magical Kingdom?

Well, judging by Carla Baranauckas’ story in today’s “New York Times,” I guess the other shoe has finally dropped.

Clearly, this is the first salvo in what could be a pretty brutal campaign to remove Disney’s current CEO from power. Now where this gets interesting is that — while Roy’s taking this battle to the street, publicly calling Michael Eisner out, so to speak — there’s been a much quieter campaign reportedly going on behind the scenes. With various members of Disney’s board of directors allegedly asking Eisner to step down for the good of the corporation.

And — if what my sources are telling me is true — Uncle Mikey had already supposedly agreed to an exit strategy. Which would have allowed Disney’s CEO to step down gracefully in September of 2004. Which would have been the 20th anniversary of Eisner’s arrival at the Walt Disney Company.

But now that Roy’s made his “Eisner Must Resign Now!” effort public, Disney’s board members are concerned that — in order to save face with his friends in Hollywood — Michael may now decide to dig in his heels. Attempt to hang around for the full length of his contract with the Walt Disney Company. Which doesn’t actually expire ’til 2006.

So — all in all — I’d expect that all us Disneyana fans in for some pretty exciting times ahead. That the next few weeks (or months) will be full of stories about Roy and Michael’s battle for the heart and soul of the Walt Disney Company.

But first … Let’s talk about the deal that Disney’s board of directors ALMOST pulled off here. The one where Michael Eisner would have relinquished control of the Walt Disney Company by September 2004.

So how did this particular story fall in my lap? Actually, it came in response to my November 20th article, “Why Disney Really Gave Up the ‘Ghosts’.”

In that story, an unnamed Wall Street analyst suggested that the real reason that Michael Eisner had been so aggressively downsizing Disney Feature Animation and getting the Disney Store retail chain ready for sale was that Uncle Michael might be thinking about selling off the entire Walt Disney Company to the highest bidder. That particular part of the article prompted this note from someone deep inside the Team Disney Burbank building. Who wrote to say:

Dear Mr. Hill –

I enjoyed your “A Few Good Ghosts” article earlier this week. But please don’t concern yourself with whether or not Michael Eisner is trying to sell off the Walt Disney Company, Jim. I can assure you that Disney’s board of directors already has a plan in place that will prevent Michael from doing something as stupid like that.

So please feel free to reassure your readers that the Walt Disney Company is NOT up for sale. The corporation is safe and sound, while Eisner stands on shaky ground.

That was a poem, wasn’t it? How fun.

You have to admit that was one pretty intriguing note. Something that sounded pretty darned definitive about what was actually going on with Disney’s board of directors. So naturally I immediately fired off a reply to this person we’ll now call “The Poet.”

10 or 15 e-mails later (Plus a number of phone calls that I made in order to verify this individual’s identity) made a believer out of me. “The Poet” really did seem to have the inside scoop when it came to what was really going on with Michael Eisner these days. Which is why I feel fairly confident about sharing the following story with you this morning.

In a nutshell, what has happened is this: Back in October of 2002, Michael Eisner supposedly had a pretty rancorous meeting with Disney’s board of directors. The financial press back then was full of stories about how the board had reportedly challenged Michael’s leadership of the Walt Disney Company, repeatedly questioning him about what his future plans were for the Mouse House.

At this fateful meeting, Eisner reportedly mounted a very spirited defense to these attacks. But according to “The Poet”:

This was the meeting that convinced most of the members of the board that Michael Eisner’s top priority wasn’t running the Walt Disney Company anymore. But — rather — insuring his own survival. That Michael would do whatever he had to to hang onto the top slot at the Mouse House. Even if it meant clipping Stanley Gold’s wings and/or pushing Andrea Van de Camp off the board. Anything that could to firm up his position, Eisner did.

Michael’s tactics evidently included lots of diversions. Projects that he deliberately put into operation with the hope that the financial press would respond favorably to them. Take — for example — Disney’s well-publicized efforts earlier this year to buy the Jim Henson Company. Uncle Michael was so desperate at that point to get some positive press going about himself and his management style that Eisner hoped — by finally buying the Muppets some 12 years after the Mouse’s attorneys had initially screwed up the Disney/Henson merger deal — that the media would lionize him once more.

So desperate was Eisner to get some good buzz going about his stewardship of the Mouse Factory that Michael actually bragged about the still-pending Henson deal at Disney’s annual stockholders meeting this past March in Denver, CO. This was the meeting where — when he was asked about the Muppets acquisition that — Eisner replied that “I would not be surprised to hear that there would be an announcement soon. I wouldn’t be surprised that the Walt Disney Co. would be finally culminating years of romance.”

Of course, when Disney’s attempt to acquire Henson fell through in May of this year, Eisner wound up with egg on his face. Which is why Michael then put pressure on Disney’s attorneys to close the deal with Pixar. To do whatever they had to come to terms with Steve Jobs and extend the Mouse’s contract with this CG animation studio. With the hope that this news would finally make Wall Street like the Walt Disney Company (and — by proxy — Michael Eisner himself) once more.

According to “The Poet,” it was this behavior that reportedly really alarmed Disney’s board of directors:

This is all that Eisner’s about these days, Jim. Pleasing Wall Street analysts. Never mind about long range planning or making smart choices for the company’s future. All Michael’s interested in doing is meeting those quarterly earnings projections. Doing whatever he has to to make sure that Disney matches those numbers.

So Eisner was ready to give away the store in order to hang onto Pixar. Even agreeing to give Steve Jobs Disney’s choicest release dates — the May / just-out-of-school slot as well as the Thanksgiving long holiday opening slot — if that would keep Pixar from wandering off the farm.

Of course, by putting terms and conditions like this on the table, Michael would effectively be hobbling Disney Feature Animation forever. That Eisner would even suggest something like this truly alarmed a lot of people at the studio. They brought their concerns to the board. Which is why the board then decided to act.

Which is why — sometime this past summer — members of Disney’s board of directors reportedly met with Michael Eisner and asked him for the good of the corporation to consider stepping down. It took a lot of convincing, but Eisner eventually allegedly agreed. But not without setting some conditions of his own.

First and foremost, Eisner will be the one who gets to decide when and where he exits. Though all parties involved here supposedly agreed that September of 2004 (What with that month being the 20th anniversary of Michael’s arrival at the Walt Disney Company) would be a very good time for Eisner to formally announce that he will be stepping down from his position as the Big Cheese, Michael still got to stage his own exit.

And just how long might this exit have taken? Well, given that Eisner’s still officially under contract to the Walt Disney Company ’til 2006, it’s conceivable that he could have hung on as long as the Spring of 2005. Why wait ’til then? “The Poet” explained that:

Eisner’s desperate to go out on a high note, Jim. Which is why he may try to hang on ’til the start of “Disney’s Golden Celebration.” So that he can go on one final trip around the globe as the head of the world’s most powerful media company. That he stand in the spotlight for one last time as part of the kick-off of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration. Do a victory lap as Disney’s CEO, so to speak.

Of course, with the hope that they’ll actually be able to convince Eisner to exit much earlier than that, Disney’s board of directors have reportedly put together an incentive package for Michael that would truly boggle your mind, folks. A golden parachute so grandiose that it makes the monies that the Mouse paid out to former Disney president Michael Ovitz and former Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg seem like chump change.

Mind you, “The Poet” wouldn’t share with me the exact amount of Eisner’s incentive package. All that they’d say was “It is an appropriate amount, given the 20 years that Michael’s spent on the job plus the explosive growth that the Disney corporation underwent during Eisner’s tenure.”

Nor would “The Poet” share any information about Michael’s successor. Other than to say: “The board’s candidate ISN’T Robert Iger. Mind you, Robert’s very highly thought of by board members. But it’s felt that the only way to put Disney on the right course once more is bring someone in from the outside. Someone that both Wall Street and the entertainment industry respects.”

And who might this be? “The Poet” (out of fear that — if this particular bit of news broke prematurely — the person in question might be scared off and opt not to take the top spot at Disney) wouldn’t say. Though he (or she) did offer up some fairly broad hints:

The board’s top candidate for Disney’s new CEO has been to Burbank several times over the past six months and has met quietly with members of the board.

Though nothing’s officially on paper yet, there’s reportedly already a handshake deal in place for this person to succeed Michael Eisner.

Of course, now that Roy’s taken his effort to unseat Eisner public … Who knows what’s going to happen next? According to my most recent e-mail from “The Poet”:

Everything’s up in the air right now. Everyone’s worried that Eisner’s going to dig in his heels now. Do whatever he has to discredit Roy. Bring up his age, his (alleged) drinking problem. Remind people that Roy’s role at Disney Feature Animation was largely a ceremonial one. How weeks and months at a time could go by without Walt’s nephew ever setting foot in the studio.

This could get really ugly, Jim. But what’s really scary to me is the likelihood that Eisner will now back out of his previous agreement with the board. Not step down by September 2004, but now try to hang on for the full length of his contract. Can you imagine this soap opera dragging on ’til 2006?

Me personally, I think the more pressing question is: Given that Roy’s reportedly has had little to no contact with Disney’s board of directors since August, could it be that Walt’s nephew was actually unaware that an effort was already under to oust Eisner? Or is this is a carefully coordinated maneuver, with Walt’s nephew working from the outside and Disney’s board of directors working from the inside to speed along Michael’s exit?

Or could it be that the very idea of Michael Eisner hanging on for even another 10 months, doing even more damage to Disney Feature Animation, just grew intolerable to Roy? Which why he had to move now.

By the way, for those of you who’d like to read the unedited version of what Roy Disney had to say to Michael Eisner in his resignation letter, I’ve attached a copy of the letter (which “The Poet” just this second forwarded to me) below:

Mr. Michael D. Eisner, Chairman
The Walt Disney Company
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521

Dear Michael:

It is with deep sadness and regret that I send you this letter of resignation from the Walt Disney Company, both as Chairman of the Feature Animation Division and as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors.

You well know that you and I have had serious differences of opinion about the direction and style of management in the Company in recent years. For whatever reason, you have driven a wedge between me and those I work with even to the extent of requiring some of my associates to report my conversations and activities back to you. I find this intolerable.

Finally, you discussed with the Nominating Committee of the Board of Directors its decision to leave my name off the slate of directors to be elected in the coming year, effectively muzzling my voice on the board — much as you did with Andrea Van de Kamp last year.

Michael, I believe your conduct has resulted from my clear and unambiguous statements to you and to the Board of Directors that after 19 years at the helm you are no longer the best person to run the Walt Disney Company. You had a very successful first 10-plus years at the company in partnership with Frank Wells, for which I salute you. But, since Frank’s untimely death in 1994m, the Company has lost its focus, its creative energy, and its heritage.

As I have said, and as Stanley Gold has documented in letters to you and other members of the Board, this Company, under your leadership has failed during the last seven years in many ways:

1. The failure to bring back ABC Prime Time from the ratings abyss it has been in for years and your inability to program successfully the ABC Family Channel. Both of these failures have had, and I believe will continue to have, significant adverse impact on shareholder value.

2. Your consistent micro-management of everyone around you with the resulting loss of morale throughout the Company.

3. The timidity of your investments in our theme park business. At Disney’s California Adventure, Paris and now in Hong Kong, you have tried to build parks “on the cheap” and they show it and the attendance figures reflect it.

4. The perception by all of our stakeholders — consumers, investors, employees, distributors and suppliers — that the company is rapacious, soul-less, and always looking for the “quick buck” rather than long-term value which is leading to a loss of public trust.

5. The creative brain drain of the last several years, which is real and continuing, and damages our Company with the loss of every talented employee.

6. Your failure to establish and build constructive relationships with creative partners, especially Pixar, Miramax, and the cable companies distributing our products.

7. Your consistent refusal to establish a clear succession plan.

In conclusion, Michael, it is my sincere belief that it is you who should be leaving and not me. Accordingly, I once again call for your resignation or retirement. The Walt Disney Company deserves fresh, energetic leadership at this challenging time in its history just as it did in 1984 when I headed a restructuring which resulted in your recruitment to the Company.

I have and will always have an enormous allegiance and respect for this Company, founded by my uncle, Walt, and father, Roy, and to our faithful employees and loyal stockholders. I don’t know if you and the other directors can comprehend how painful it is for me and the extended Disney family to arrive at this decision.

In accordance with Item 6 of Form S-K and Item 7 of Schedule 14A, I request that you disclose this letter and that you file a copy of this letter as an exhibit to a Company Form 8-K.

With sincere regret,

(signed) Roy E. Disney

cc: Board of Directors

Your thoughts?

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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