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Disney’s long, long journey to Oz

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the very first telecast of "The Wizard of Oz," Jim Hill tracks the Walt Disney Company's interest in L. Frank Baum's characters. Beginning with "The Rainbow Road to Oz" and ending right on the steps of Disneyland Paris' Emerald City

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It was 50 years ago tonight that the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" was first shown on television.

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

The first-ever telecast of this Victor Fleming film was a rating smash. Over 44 million people tuned in to catch this broadcast (Which was hosted by the Cowardly Lion himself, Bert Lahr as well as by Judy Garland's then-10-year-old daughter Liza Minnelli).

CBS executives (Who had aired this Academy-Award winning motion picture as part of a special extended version of the "Ford Star Jubilee" program) were obviously thrilled with those ratings. But you know who was even happier? Walt Disney.

"Why Walt Disney?," you ask. Well, you see, Walt had long been a fan of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. In fact, back in the mid-1930s, just as Disney Studios was starting to search for a story that would serve as a suitable follow-up to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Walt had Roy inquire about the movie rights to the original "Wizard of Oz" book.

Unfortunately, the Baum family had just sold the rights to this best-selling fantasy novel to rival mogul Samuel Goldwyn for some $60,000. Which is how Disney Studios missed out on the chance to make an animated version of "The Wizard of Oz."

But even though this initial opportunity had slipped through Walt's fingers, he never lost his enthusiasm for the Oz books, their colorful characters and spectacular settings. Which is why — in 1954 — when the movie rights to 11 of Baum's books became available (I.E. "The Emerald City of Oz," "Glinda of Oz," "The Lost Princess of Oz," "The Magic of Oz," "Ozma of Oz," "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," "Rinkitink in Oz," "The Road to Oz," "The Scarecrow of Oz," "Tik-Tok of Oz" & "The Tin Woodsman of Oz"), Walt quickly snatched them up.

Mind you, back then, Walt wasn't thinking about bringing Oz back to the big screen. But — rather — he wanted to use some of the Baum books as possible fodder for episodes of his new ABC television series, "Disneyland." Toward that end, the studio hired TV writer Dorothy Cooper to adapt "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" to the small screen.

In April of 1957, Ms. Cooper turned in an outline for a proposed two-part episode of the "Disneyland" TV series which was initially supposed to be called "Dorothy Returns to Oz." However, by August of that year, when Dorothy turned in her fleshed-out version of this teleplay, the project was then titled "The Rainbow Road to Oz."

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Walt read Dorothy's teleplay and liked it. Quite a bit. In fact, Walt liked this script so much that he took "The Rainbow Road to Oz" off of the studio's television development track and moved this project over to the feature side of the house.

At that point, the studio's publicity department kicked things into high gear. Press releases were sent out to the trades announcing that Walt Disney Productions would begin shooting "The Rainbow Road to Oz" in November of that same year. This multi-million dollar live action musical was to have been directed by Sidney Miller and produced by Bill Walsh. Who — at that time — were both playing huge parts in the day-to-day production of "The Mickey Mouse Club."

And speaking of "The Mickey Mouse Club," guess who was supposed to have filled most of the major roles on this motion picture? That's right. The Mouseketeers.

So with just a few months 'til production was actually supposed to begin on "The Rainbow Road to Oz," Disney's design team threw themselves into the project. Using William Denslow & John R. Neill's original illustrations for inspiration, these artists quickly created a costume design for the Scarecrow …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

… as well as the Patchwork Girl.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Then after figuring out what Oz might look like …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

… These artists handed these plans over to the studio's fabrication staff. And quicker than you can click your heels together three times …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

… Oz and its colorful characters had been brought to life on a barren soundstage on the Burbank lot.

As you can see by the costume design that Disney artists put together for the Cowardly Lion …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

… Walt was going for a look that was reminiscent of the MGM movie but not actually derivative.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

The way I hear it, the production staff most enjoyed working on the characters who had not appeared in the 1939 film. Take — for example — Ozma.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

The "Rainbow Road to Oz" design team put together an outfit of Ozma that Annette Funicello just adored. So much so that — after she completed shooting the wardrobe tests for this character — Annette begged to be allowed to wear her Ozma wig home. So that she could then show off her faux long locks to her family.

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

So as you can see, in the late summer / early fall of 1957, "The Rainbow Road to Oz" seemed to be on Disney Studio's fast-track. A 15-minute-long segment of the season opener of the "Disneyland" show (Which — FYI — will be included as part of the "Walt Disney Treasures — Your Host, Walt Disney" DVD that will be hitting store shelves on December 19th) was devoted to this forthcoming film. With the conceit of this portion of the "Fourth Anniversary Show" being that the Mouseketeers were trying to sell Walt on the idea of turning "The Rainbow Road to Oz" into a movie …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

Which is why Annette, Doreen Tracey, Darlene Gillespie and Bobby Burgess were supposedly all in costume, appearing in possible musical numbers for this proposed motion picture …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

But it was Walt — rather than the Mouseketeers — who was really pushing to get this movie made. Even going so far as to acquire the rights to a 12th L. Frank Baum book, "Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz," for an amount that was said to be the equivalent of what the studio had paid for the first 11 books.

 

But then the previously-announced start-of-production date in November came and went. And then — by February of 1958 — rumors began circulating that Disney had abandoned plans to shoot "The Rainbow Road to Oz." That Walt had suddenly tabled this project and was now searching for a more suitable production to serve as his studio's entry into the world of live action musicals.

Why did Walt suddenly flip-flop on "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Over the years, I've heard a variety of explanations about the abrupt cancellation of this project. They run the gamut from "The projected cost of production got too high" to "Walt didn't think that the Mouseketeers could carry the picture" to "The rewrite that Bill Walsh did of Dorothy Cooper's script didn't quite come together" to "The score that Tom Adair & Buddy Baker wrote for the movie wasn't nearly as strong as the score that Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen wrote for 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

Whatever the real reason was, Walt lost confidence in "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Though — that said — when he finally did decide on the property that would serve as a replacement for this proposed production, Victor Herbert's comic operetta, "Babes in Toyland" …

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

… Walt picked a project that had a surprising amount of things in common with "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Take — for example — "Babes in Toyland" 's storybook setting. Which was very reminiscent of what Disney had planned on doing with "The Rainbow Road to Oz." Then there's Annette Funicello …

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

… Who was originally supposed to play Ozma (Which was one of the lead roles in Disney's "Oz" picture) but wound up playing Mary in "Babes in Toyland" instead.

And it wasn't just "The Rainbow Road to Oz" that must have been weighing on Walt's mind as he over-saw the casting of "Babes in Toyland." Clearly Disney must have also been thinking about MGM's 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" when he began hiring people to appear in this picture. Otherwise, how do you explain how Ray Bolger

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

… the Scarecrow from that Victor Fleming film wound up playing the villainous Barnaby in this Jack Donahue picture? Or — for that matter — how Ed Wynn …

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions

(Who had actually been MGM's original choice for the title character in "The Wizard of Oz." But Wynn proved that he was indeed "The Perfect Fool" when MGM offered Ed the part in 1938 and he turned that studio down) wound up playing the Toymaker?

Truth to be told, the parallels between "The Rainbow Road to Oz" and "Babes in Toyland" run even deeper than this. Given that the real reason that Victor originally wrote his operetta back in 1903 was because the Broadway stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" had been so successful earlier that same season. Herbert's backers basically told him to " … write a show like 'The Wizard of Oz.' " Which is how Victor wound up writing the score for "Babes in Toyland."

Okay. Enough with the operetta history. Let's get back to the Disney / Oz saga, shall we?

Even though Walt had seemingly lost all enthusiasm for making a new "Oz" movie, that didn't mean that Disney had actually fallen out of love with Baum's characters. Truth be told, Walt was just looking for a new home for Dorothy and her pals. And — for a while, anyway — it looked like he had found one along the shores of the Storybook Land Canal Boats ride at Disneyland.

As the story goes, Walt proposed putting an addition on this Fantasyland attraction in the late 1950s. One that would have created a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the Casey Jr. Circus Train to climb as well as some new mysterious caverns for the canal boats to float through.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

As to what would be hidden away deep inside the caves of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, Walt had the Imagineers design various tableaus featuring the lands of Oz …

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

… With the basic idea being that all of the characters were heading to the Emerald City to take part in a surprise birthday party for Dorothy.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

It was Walt's hope that this new Oz-themed sequence would finally give Disneyland's "Storybook Land Canal Boats" ride a fitting finale. So blueprints were drawn up …

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

… Like the one pictured above. Which is for the Tin Woodsman's castle. And then models were made …

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

… and maquettes of the Oz characters were created. Below, you'll see the versions of the Wicked Witch and the Cowardly Lion that Joe Rinaldi designed.

Copyright 1959 WED Enterprises

But in the end, Walt opted not to go forward with construction of this Oz-themed expansion of the Storybook Land Canal Boat ride. No one that I've ever spoken with about this proposed Disneyland addition can come up with a logical explanation. Except perhaps that while a Big Rock Candy Mountain may have looked good on paper, the full-sized dimensional model that the Imagineer built using real candy was distinctly unappetizing.

What is certain is that Walt was still very fond of the Oz characters. Given that he kept many of the maquettes that had been created for the Storybook Land expansion project on display in his formal office (I.E. The area where Disney greeted guests & dignitaries that were visiting the Burbank studio) for years after that project had been tabled.

Yeah, Walt clearly wanted to do something with the Oz characters. Which is why — in 1965 — he had his staff invite Ray Bolger back to the Burbank lot, so that he could reprise his performance as the Scarecrow on a new Disneyland Storyteller album "The Scarecrow of Oz."

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

That LP was so well received that it was followed up by three other Oz-theme storyteller albums: "The Wizard of Oz," "The Cowardly Lion of Oz" and "The Tin Woodsman of Oz." (The "Cowardly Lion" album has always been of particular interest of Disney history fans. Given that it reportedly features several of the musical numbers that Tom Adair & Buddy Baker had originally written for "The Rainbow Road to Oz.")

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

But for the next 10 years, Disney executives basically did nothing with the Oz characters. And — with every day that ticked by — the options that Disney had held on those 12 L. Frank Baum books back in the 1950s were losing their value. Given that many of these titles — just like the original "Wizard of Oz" had — were getting ready to slip into public domain. Which meant that any studio could then produce an Oz picture.

Finally, in 1980, Tom Wilhite — the then-head of production at Walt Disney Studios — had had enough. He was tired of seeing the company produce this seemingly endless series of mediocre films. Particularly since the studio was sitting on the movie rights to this spectacular series of children's books. So Tom began searching for a director who'd be willing to tackle the Oz project.

To hear Walter Murch tell the story, "Tom had to work his way down to the Ms before he finally found me." Murch — an Academy-Award winning sound & film editor — may seem like a rather unlikely candidate to direct Disney's Oz movie. But Walter's pedigree (I.E. Murch had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the "Godfather" films as well as George Lucas on "THX 1138") was impeccable. More to the point, given that Murch had just won an Oscar for his work on "Apocolypse Now," he had a fairly high profile at the moment.

So Murch was signed to both write & direct what was then known as "Oz" …

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions

… (The "Return to Oz" title wouldn't actually be tacked onto the film 'til much further on down Disney's developmental track). And — when Wilhite first announced the project to the press in January of 1991 — he revealed that Dorothy would most likely not appear as a character in this picture. "We'll probably combine characters from various books and structure a new storyline."

But the screenplay that Walter would submit in the spring of 1982 did feature Dorothy as a character. It was also much darker in tone than the studio had been anticipating. Which caused Disney executives much concern.

Still, development of "Oz" continued. A veteran production designer, Norman Reynolds (Who had worked on "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back" as well as "Raiders of the Lost Ark") was hired to bring Baum's world to life. And work then began on the various robotically-controlled characters that would be featured in the film …

Copyright 1982 Walt Disney Productions

At this point, some $6 million had already been spent by Walt Disney Productions on "Oz." And then — in November of 1983 — Richard Berger (I.E. The executive who had replaced Tom Wilhite as president of production at the studio) suddenly shut down production of the picture.

As Berger explained to the New York Times back in July of 1985:

''The budget was up to $27 million (Which was significantly higher than the $20 million that 'Oz' was originally supposed to cost) … The movie was supposed to (be shot in) Algiers, Sardinia, Spain, Canada, Kansas and England … All of Disney's recent movies had (gone) over budget. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' had been $5 million over budget. (Which is why I) decided to close down the movie and write off the $6 million (that the studio had already invested in the picture).''

Eventually however a compromise was reached. "Oz" 's budget was pared back to $25 million. Which meant that virtually all of the movie's on-location sequences (Which would have sent the cast & crew off to Sardinia & Algeria to shoot the scenes set in the Deadly Desert, Kisserta near Naples to shoot the Nome King's throne room sequence and Hadrian's Villa outside of Rome for Mombi's palace as well as the ruins of the Emerald City) were scrubbed. Except for the scenes that were set in Kansas (Which were shot out on the U.K. 's Salisbury Plain, near where Stonehenge is located), the entire film would be shot on five soundstages at Elstree Studios.

The film (as Murch and his production team had originally envisioned it) never quite recovered from all these budget cuts. Though much time & effort had already been devoted to creating authentic likenesses of favorite old characters like the Scarecow …

Copyright 1983 Walt Disney Productions

… Now there was no money left in the budget for the complicated electronics that would have brought his face to life. Which is why the Scarecrow mostly had a fixed expression in the finished film.

As for Jack Pumpkinhead …

Copyright 1957 Walt Disney Productions

… A Baum character who had also been slated to have a featured role in "The Rainbow Road to Oz" … It often took as many as six puppeteers to bring Jack to life …

Copyright 1984 Walt Disney Productions

… Where even the seemingly simple act of standing up and/or sitting down involved all sorts of elaborate off-screen mechanics.

Photo by Jeff Lange

The "Return to Oz" shoot did not go well. Given that Fairuza Balk, the film's 9-year-old star, could only work 3 1/2 hours each day and that characters like Billina the talking chicken were notoriously difficult to operate, the production quickly fell behind schedule. At one point, Disney execs actually tried to remove Murch as director of "Return to Oz," only to have George Lucas intercede on Walter's behalf.

Once production was completed, Murch's movie had to deal with other problems. You see, by the time that "Return to Oz" had finally made out into theaters in June of 1985, Mouse House management had changed yet again. Now it was Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg who were calling the shots in Burbank. And — to be honest — Michael & Jeffrey didn't know quite what to make of Walter's film. A PG-rated pseudo-sequel to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" with no music that was often too dark & scary for small kids to handle.

So while "Return to Oz" may have been the centerpiece of an elaborate presentation at Radio City Music Hall that summer, around the rest of the country this Walter Murch film didn't receive very special treatment. At that time, noted author Harlan Ellison actually accused Disney Company management of deliberately sabotaging "Oz" 's chances at the box office. Which is why he urged his readers to " … go see it, before it disappears."

Copyright 1985 Walt Disney Productions

Luckily, thanks to VHS and DVD, "Return to Oz" has not disappeared. And while this movie may have been a real box office disappointment back in 1985 (Earning only $11.1 million during its entire domestic run), it has since gone on to be embraced by Baum enthusiasts around the globe. Who have applauded Murch's efforts to keep the look & style of this film consistent with that of L. Frank's books.

Still, it speaks volumes about what Michael Eisner must have really thought about "Return to Oz" when it came time to chose which films would be featured in "The Great Movie Ride" at Disney-MGM Studios. Michael could have made use of the characters & settings from Disney's own "Oz" picture for free. But he paid big bucks to Ted Turner for the rights to use the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz" instead.

The Imagineers then used the MGM film as inspiration for the various scenes that they wanted to include in the studio theme park's thesis attraction …

Copyright 1986 WED Enterprises

… They even made use of then-state-of-the-art Sarcos technology to create a scarily life-like Wicked Witch of the West in the ride's Munchkinland sequence.

Copyright 1989 The Walt Disney Company

Clearly, WDI has a thing when it comes to the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz." Otherwise, why else would they have included nods to that film in attractions like DCA's "Golden Dreams" and Walt Disney Studios' "CineMagique"?

Meanwhile, Disney Company execs seem eager to continue to cash in on the public's affection for the Oz characters. Take — for example — last year's "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" …

Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises

… or the deal that Disney & producer Jerry Bruckheimer signed with American McGee back in 2003 to produce a trilogy of films based on McGee's twisted & sinister Oz prequel. Which promised to make the formerly-thought-to-be-dark "Return to Oz" seem like a walk in the park.

Anyway … My apologies if today's article about Disney and the Oz books seems somewhat downbeat. An endless litany of projects that either didn't make it off the drawing board and/or ultimately didn't turn out as well as had been initially hoped.

'Cause — you see — that's not really the case. There is at least one Oz-related Disney project that turned out beautifully. Of course, in order to see it, you first have to journey to Disneyland Paris and then visit that theme park's "Les Pays des Contes de Fées" attraction.

Copyright 2002 Nouveau Millénaire

The very last thing that you see on this Fantasyland attraction is a beautiful miniature recreation of the Emerald City.

Photo by Eric Craven

And who's there waiting at the entrance to the city? Tiny versions of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion.

Photo by Eric Craven

I don't know why it is — as a baby boomer — that seeing these characters there on the steps of the Emerald City just makes me smile. Maybe watching "The Wizard of Oz" all those years whenever the film aired annually on CBS has finally truly warped my brain.

Speaking of which … In honor of that very first telecast 50 years ago tonight, why don't you throw the 1939 version of the movie into your DVD player tonight? And remember (at least for a little while) what it was like to be a kid again, when you first saw Dorothy begin her journey down the Yellow Brick Road?

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

The above article is actually something that I've been working on — on & off — for about seven years now. In fact, if I remember correctly, when I initially came on board at MousePlanet, one of the very first story ideas that I ever pitched to Al Lutz was doing something about how Disney had tried to get all of these Oz-related projects off the ground since the 1930s.

Obviously, when you're writing an article like this, you have to do an awful lot of research. Which is why I'm grateful to Disney historians like Greg Ehrbar, Jim Fanning, Bruce Gordon, Ryan Harmon, Tim Hollis, Jack Janzen, Leon Janzen, David Mumford, Brian Sibley & Dave Smith and — on the Oz side of the house — Alan Eyles, John Fricke, Aljean Harmetz & Brad Munson for all the hard work that they did prior to me actually starting to put this piece together. Without all of the reference books and magazine & newspaper articles that these folks had written previously, today's article would not have been possible.

Thanks also to Eric Craven & Jeff Lange for providing photographic support for this piece. And the ever-wise & patient Nancy Stadler for scanning, comping & cropping all of the images that you see in today's story.

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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