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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Given that last Friday’s “A Question of Character” seemed to anger an awful lot of JHM readers, Jim Hill thought that he might point out some of the less-obvious Disney-related ties to some recently constructed theme park attractions.

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You know, there’s an old cliché that says: People who like politics and sausage shouldn’t watch either being made.

Well, based on the reaction that last Friday’s “A Question of Character” story, maybe we’d better add “people who love Disney theme park rides” to that list.

I mean, I’ve never seen e-mail like this before, folks. People virtually frothing at the mouth (in an e-mail sort of way) because they just flat-out refused to accept the premise of that piece. Which (in a nutshell) said that — if the Imagineers really want to make sure that a new ride, show or attraction that they’re proposing for construction in a Disney theme park gets approved by current Disney management — they’d best fold in some Disney-character related content into the mix.

For some odd reason, just the fact that I would dare to say something like this (Which — to my way of thinking, anyway — was just stating the obvious) drove some JHM readers right over the edge. Which is why (I guess) I got dozens of pieces of angry e-mail over the weekend. From people who were determined to prove me wrong.

Typically, the examples that these folks would cite in an effort to support their arguments would include:

  • Mission: Space
  • Test Track
  • DCA’s “Golden Dreams” attraction
  • Epcot’s “Soarin'” attraction
  • The “Moteurs! … Action Stunt Show Spectacular” that’s currently being built at Disney-MGM
  • “Rock n Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith”
  • The “Expedition: Everest” thrill ride that’s currently under construction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • Lucky the Dinosaur

Well, far be it from me to throw a bit more gasoline on the bonfire … But — were you diehard Disneyana fans to just remove your rose-colored glasses — you’d clearly see that:

“Mission: Space” — is based on Touchstone Pictures’ March 2000 release, “Mission to Mars.” Don’t believe me? Well, then you might really want to take a closer look the next time you wander through the queue of this Future World pavilion. Those models of spacecraft that you see dangling overhead? Those are actually miniatures that were used in the making of the movie’s various special effects sequences. That large rotating space station set (You know? The one that makes those extremely motion-sensitive folks who are standing in line feel kind of woozy? Just because they can’t help but stare at this giant revolving thing?) was also used in the making of this Touchstone Pictures release.

And who’s the host of “Mission: Space” ‘s pre-show film? Gary Sinise, one of the stars of “Mission to Mars.” And — once you board your flight simulator — where do you supposedly go? You go on a simulated “Mission to Mars.”

Getting the picture yet, folks? Of course, had “Mission to Mars” done much better at the box office (This Touchstone Pictures’ release only pulled in $60 million during its domestic run. Which didn’t even come close to covering that film’s $100 million price tag), the Imagineers would have been happy to play up the all-too-obvious connection between this Future World pavilion and that Brian DePalma film. But — given that Disney Company management had already written off “M2M” as a flop by the late Spring of 2000 — WDI was asked to play down the link between “Mission: Space” and the “Mission to Mars” movie.

But then — when 2002 rolled around and the Imagineers released that they had little or no money left to cover the cost of decorating “Mission: Space” ‘s queue area — that’s when WDI decided to revisit its original decision to deliberately link this Future World pavilion to “M2M.” They figured that — if they just used the props, sets & models from “Mission to Mars” but didn’t actually mention the movie — Well, that couldn’t possibly offend any current Disney Company managers. Who hold to that old Hollywood tradition that you always bury your mistakes, that you never actually admit that you ever had a flop.

That decision seems to have worked. To my knowledge, Disney CEO Michael Eisner has never complained about seeing all that “Mission to Mars” stuff on display as he strolled through “Mission: Space” ‘s queue area. Knowing how tight with a buck Uncle Mike is, he was probably thrilled that the Imagineers found such an affordable way to decorate the interior of the attraction.

(Speaking of Disney & money … There’s a fascinating story about that “Mission to Mars” movie. The Walt Disney Company actually let the first director that they hired for that film — Gore Verbinski — go because he wanted “M2M” to be a special effects extravaganza. A film with no less than 600-700 effects shots.

Disney wasn’t willing to spend the money necessary to to make that version of “Mission to Mars.” So they let Gore go and replaced him with Brian DePalma. Who significantly pared down the scope & proposed cost of the project so that his version of the film would only feature 240 effects shots.

Long story short: Brian’s low budget version of “M2M” failed to really wow audiences. So — the next time that Disney hired Gore Verbinski to direct a motion picture — they let him have all the special effects shots he wanted.

That picture turned out to be much more popular than “Mission to Mars.” Maybe you’ve heard of it? “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”?

Okay. That’s enough with the cute little informational asides. Let’s get back to our main story, already in progress, shall we?)

Next up is “GM Test Track” — Which even I have to admit doesn’t have an obvious Disney character tie-in.

Mind you, that’s not for lacking of trying on Disney’s part. The Mouse actually lobbied long & hard for the auto maker to allow the Imagineers to include a brief cameo by Herbie the Love Bug as part of that Future World thrill ride. But General Motors executives nixed that idea. The closest that GM would come to caving in to Disney’s we-need-to-put-some-sort-of-character-into-this-attraction request was allowing the Mouse to develop that Crash Test Dummy Goofy walk-around character that occasionally makes appearances just outside of this Epcot pavilion. Which — of course — then allowed Disney to create the plush doll version of Crash Test Dummy Goofy. Which (I’m told) is a really big seller in the post-show shop area at “GM Test Track.”

Getting back to “Herbie” for a moment … Given that Disney’s just greenlit production of a big screen remake of “The Love Bug” (Which is supposed to star Lindsay Lohan), I think that we should expect to see this Herbie-makes-an-appearance-at-Epcot idea get revisited. I’m told that the Imagineers have already begun scouting around the “GM Test Track” entrance area, looking for possible locations for a “Herbie” photo op spot.

Getting back to “Test Track” … Among the other ideas that Disney tried to get GM to go along with was having Tim Allen (I.E. The star of Disney’s then-still-on-the-air sitcom, “Home Improvement”) as the “host” of this Future World pavilion. That’s the other aspect of this new equation that WDI constantly has to deal with. As in: If you can’t come up with some sort of Disney character-based hook to build your new ride or attraction around, then you then have to find a Disney-related celebrity or performer that you can then use as that show’s “host”?

I mean, take a look at how Whoopi Goldberg (Star of Disney’s “Sister Act” movies) wound up being the “host” of DCA’s “Golden Dreams” attraction. Or — for that matter — how Whoopi, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Regis Philbin & Jackie Chan ended up in “Superstar Limo.” Or Rosie O’Donnell (The voice of Terk in “Tarzan”) and Colin Mochrie (Acclaimed improv performer from ABC’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) wound up as the “hosts” of the Boudin Bakery tour.

These days, this has become the automatic default position for WDI. If you can’t find a Disney character that’s appropriate to build a theme park attraction around, you then search for a Disney-and/or-ABC-related celebrity to serve as your show’s “host.” Or — if you’re really desperate — you search for some way to combine these two elements.

Take — for example — “Soarin’.” This DCA attraction as well as its opening-in-2005 clone features sitcom star Patrick Warburton (Who also did the voice of Kronk for “The Emperor’s New Groove” as well as for the film’s video premiere sequel, “The Emperor’s Newer Groove”) as the “host” of this attraction’s pre-show. Then — to fold in that Disney-character-based element — this show ends with a fly-over of Disneyland as well as a close encounter with a computer animated Tinker Bell.

Okay. I’ll admit that some of these Disney-character-related moments are brief — like Herbie’s cameo in the “Moteurs! … Action Stunt Show Spectacular” — and/or seem somewhat tenuous — like Aerosmith serving as the “hosts” of Disney-MGM & Walt Disney Studios’ “Rock n Roller Coaster.” (The Imagineers only went after this legendary rock group because the Walt Disney Company already had a pre-existing relationship with Steve Tyler & Co. As you may recall, Areosmith recorded “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Which was the “hit single” from the soundtrack of Disney’s summer 1998 release, “Armageddon.”)

You picking up on the pattern yet, folks? There’s always got to be some sort of Disney-related connection these days if an attraction’s going to get management’s final approval for construction.

Even DAK’s still-under-construction “Expedition Everest” has a movie tie-in. Don’t believe me? Then go to Google and look up “Esau.” You’ll see that “Esau” is a Philip Kerr novel about the discovery of the Yeti. More importantly, it’s also a book that the Walt Disney Company purchased the movie rights to back in 1997. “Esau” has been in & out of development at the studio for almost seven years now.

Now — according to my sources at Imagineering — the real reason that “Expedition Everest” exists at all at DAK is that the folks at Touchstone (a few years back) told the Imagineers that “We’re doing this movie based on a book about a search for the Yeti in the Himalayas. Do you think you guys could build a ride around a character and a setting like that?”

Well … Obviously, they could.

As for Lucky the dinosaur … If ABC’s “Dinotopia” TV series had proven to be a hit, the Walt Disney Company would have probably been much more upfront about this character’s true origin. That this autonomous walking figure was actually inspired by one of James Gurney’s characters. But — once the television project based on Gurney’s books bombed — Disney wanted to distance itself from that disappointment. Which how Lucky wound up being just some generic dinosaur.

Speaking of disappointments … I know that it’s got to be really disappointing to some of you Disneyana fans out there to realize that these are the sorts of factors that actually influence which attractions get built at the theme parks. As is: Which set of characters can we tie this expensive new ride system to? And/or if we fold this hot celebrity into the show, will Eisner then allow us to build this attraction?

But that’s just the nature of the beast these days, folks. Building a new Disney theme park ride, show or attraction around a preexisting set of characters and/or a celebrity not only makes it easier for WDI to get a project greenlit … It also makes it that much easier for the theme park to later promote that show. To sum up the story & theme of a particular attraction in one quick sound bite. “The Tower of Terror? It’s like you’re starring in your very own episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ “

And — yes — I’ll admit it. “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” is probably the only theme park attraction where I can’t come up with a clear cut Disney-character-or-celebrity related tie-in. Though — if I really wanted to stretch things — I could point out that the child star who winds up disappearing when the hotel is struck by lightning is seen clutching a Mickey Mouse doll as she enters the elevator.

But — obviously — there are exceptions to these rules. Take — for example — those recently constructed attractions like “Primeval Whirl” & “TriceraTops Spin” at “Chester & Hester’s Diorama” area at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Which clearly don’t follow the pattern that I’ve described in detail in this article.

But — when you take a step back and take a real hard look at the big picture — you’ll see that adding Disney-characters-and/or-Disney-related-celebrities really has really become the Imagineers’ default position. I mean, look at how DAK’s “Conservation Station” went under the knife, only to return from rehab as “Rafiki’s Planet Watch”? Or — for that matter — how the characters from “Finding Nemo” recently got folded into Epcot’s “Living Seas” pavilion?

Is there a danger in Disney taking this sort of approach to all of its upcoming theme park expansion projects & redos? Sure. Tomorrowland — for example — may soon become just a Sci-Fi-themed version of Fantasyland. With all the real science inspired attractions being forced out to this area to make room for rides & shows like “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” & “Stitch’s Great Escape” … Not to mention the “Little Green Men Flying Saucers,” the “Finding Nemo” themed redo of the Subs as well as the “Cars” themed overlay for the Autopia that are reportedly waiting in the wings.

Now I know that a lot of you out there are still probably going to find things to complain about with this article. Some minor flaw in my logic. Which — to your way of thinking — totally negates what I’ve been trying to say here.

Well, if that’s really the case, then … So be it then. Just please don’t shoot the messenger for trying to state the obvious.

Though I guess I should point out that — out of the dozens of pieces of e-mail that I received this past weekend — I never got a single letter of complaint from a Imagineer. Not one. Nobody at WDI felt the need to step forward and say: “You got it wrong, Jim.” It was only the Disneyana fans who just HAD TO pick apart the premise of that piece.

Whereas the guys from WDI … Given that that what I’ve been describing here is old news to them, just a hard reality that they have to live with — day in & day out — … The Imagineers didn’t challenge the piece. If anything, they used my “A Question of Character” story as an opportunity to indulge in a little gallows humor.

Take — for example — this mordant joke that one former Imagineer sent my way on Saturday:

The next attractions to be suggested for DCA will be Country Bears, Haunted Mansion and Pirates, all remakes based on the movies.

Which — given the wrong headed way that the Walt Disney Company has been running its theme parks lately (As well as that persistent rumor that the old “Country Bear” AA figures may eventually be used to decorate the sparser section of DCA’s “Grizzly River Run” attraction) — the above joke is probably more truthful than we know.

Anyway … I’m sure that the above article will probably give the more fanatical of you Disneyana fans out there even more to complain about. But — as for the rest of you folks — what do you think?

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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