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How Disney’s animators lost their way on the road to “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”

Jim Hill looks back at Disney Feature Animation’s Summer 2001 release — a project that started out with plenty of promise … only to have WDFA executives second-guess this film’s chance at greatness away.

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It’s all that people in Hollywood can talk about these days. The continuing success of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Folks who were supposedly in the know about the way things really work in Tinsel Town had predicted that this pirate picture wouldn’t have any legs. (Which — given how many movie pirates are depicted as having peg legs — is a somewhat ironic comment, don’t you think? Anyway …) That Disney’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl” might have one really good weekend, then quickly fade from view.

Well, here we are — 4 weeks after “Pirates” first came sailing into theaters nationwide. And Jack Sparrow & Co. are still going strong. Just last week, this Walt Disney Pictures release was second at the box office. To date, this Jerry Bruckheimer production has grossed $214 million. Which is considerably more than anyone in Hollywood had ever expected this Disney movie to make.

But — then again — when it comes to making box office predictions, it’s genuinely difficult to predict which picture is ultimately going to come out on top in the summer cinema sweepstakes.

Take for example what happened back during the summer of 2001. Most Tinsel Town insiders felt that Walt Disney Pictures had a pretty decent shot at success with its animated action-adventure film, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” But “A:TLE” turned out to be a real disappointment, grossing only $84 million (which hardly came close to cover its production costs, never mind the tens of millions more that Disney poured into the marketing of the movie).

So what went wrong with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire?” Well, to hear Disney Studio insiders tell it, “A:TLE” really was a project with plenty of promise. At least when the production initially started out. But then “Atlantis” lost its one real chance at box office success as the project’s film-makers — under the guidance of WDFA’s allegedly Creative VPs — kept second-guessed themselves. Fixing and futzing with their film until “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” had become a pale shadow of what it once was.

I mean, back when work first began on “A:TLE,” this movie truly had some balls. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” started out with a prologue that showed a crew of blood-thirsty Vikings meeting a grisly fate in the North Atlantic. Their longboat obliterated by some immense mysterious creature with tentacles. (This sequence was to have been the audience’s initial introduction to the Leviathan, the massive mechanical creature that guarded the one remaining gateway to Atlantis.)

Killing off a whole boatload of Vikings may seem like a pretty odd way to start off a Disney animated film. But that’s just what veteran animation directors Gary Wise and Kirk Trousdale wanted to do. Back when these two first met with WDFA producer Don Hahn in October 1996 (over a bowl of cheesy nachos at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank) to decide what sort of picture they all wanted to make next, Kirk and Gary said to Don: “We don’t wanna do another musical. We’ve already done that with ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ We wanna do something new, something different this time. An adventure!”

But not just any kind of adventure. A Ray Harryhausen kind of adventure. A Saturday matinee sort of movie — in the tradition of “The Mysterious Island,” “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” Loaded with exotic locations, colorful characters … and lots and lots of really cool monsters.

Well, Wise and Trousdale seemed pretty passionate about their idea. And given that Walt Disney Studios actually used to make live action films like this (EX: “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “In Search of the Castaways,” “The Island at the Top of The World”), Don thought that he might be able to sell the Mouse House brass on making a movie like this.

As it turned out, Hahn was right. Given Wise and Trousdale’s track record, the powers-that-be at Disney Studios were willing to let Kirk and Gary begin development of their Ray Harryhausen tribute movie. (Which — by the way — was initially supposed to have been an animated version of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” So what happened to that movie? Sadly, after just a few months of development, Wise and Trousdale were said to have lost all interest and enthusiasm with the idea of making a movie that would have been based on that particular Verne novel. So they opted instead to go forward with an “original” cinema story that “borrowed” quite heavily from Jules’ “Journey.” That’s Hollywood for you … Anyway …)

Getting back to Wise and Trousdale’s Ray Harryhausen tribute film … Just as Ray used to load up his stop motion epics with lots of bizarre creatures, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” was originally supposed to have had a lot of monsters.

Lots and lots of monsters.

I mean, if Kirk and Gary had just stuck to their guns, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” would have had the crew of the Ulysses — once they survived their deadly encounter with the Leviathan — battling squid bats, lava whales as well as bugs the size of school buses as they made their way deep down into the bowels of the Earth. (Those of JHM readers who’d like to get some sense of what these sequences would have been like would be wise to go pick up a copy of the 2-disc collector’s edition of the “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” DVD. Here, hidden among the disc’s extras, you’ll find deleted storyboard versions of these various scenes. Which should give you some idea how truly exciting “A:TLE” COULD HAVE been — had these sequences been left in the movie.) In short, this film would have been just the sort of production that Ray Harryhausen could have been proud of.

But then … well … Wise, Trousdale and Hahn began getting all of these inane notes from WDFA’s cadre of allegedly-Creative Executives. These useless series of suits regularly bombarded the film-makers with mindless memos that often asked lame-brained questions like “Isn’t it taking Milo and his friends far too long to get to Atlantis? Can’t we speed things up a bit in this part of the picture?”

Plus the movie’s monsters — what with all of their numerous legs, wings and antennae — were proving to be pretty darned difficult to animate. Expensive too. And — given that Kirk, Gary and Don were coming under continuing pressure from above to streamline “A:TLE”‘s production as well as keep costs down — the easiest thing to cut back back then was the squid bat attack, the crew’s deadly encounter with the lava whale sequence as well as the bug hunt (Kida’s original introductory sequence, which was to have shown the Atlantaen princess — to the audience, anyway — as this truly awesome warrior).

The only problem was … once these three sequences were cut, Wise and Trousdale’s animated adventure film — supposedly crafted in the style of Ray Harryhausen — was now decidedly light on adventure and monsters. I mean, now that the encounters with the Lava Whales, the Squid Bats and the enormous caterpillar were cut … it only took Milo and the crew of the Ulysses about a half an hour to reach Atlantis.

Kirk and Gary tried to paper over this hole in their picture’s plot by upping the amount of human drama in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” They did this by trying to turn Kida and the people of Atlantis into characters that movie-goers could genuinely care about.

At least, that was what Wise and Trousdale were trying to do — back in March 2000 — when they suddenly opted to cut the film’s original prologue. (Remember? The sequence where the Vikings got attacked by the Leviathan?) But this just resulted in a large logic lapse in “A:TLE”‘s convoluted story line that animation insiders are still chuckling over.

What am I talking about? Okay. Try and follow along here. This gets kind of complicated. To explain:

At the start of “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” Kida and her father (the King of Atlantis) are alive and well inside of this supposedly highly evolved civilization. As are hundreds of other Atlanteans. Then some unexplained calamity (allegedly caused by the crystal that powers the city, which the King — in his arrogance — tried to use as a weapon against Atlantis’s enemies) befalls the city. Which results in Atlantis being buried deep inside the Earth.

30 or 40 minutes later, Kida and Milo are talking. And — as part of this dialogue — the Atlantean Princess fills in a lot of the film’s back story. Among the points that Kida touches on is that:

She’s a survivor of the original calamity that sank Atlantis. Which makes her 4548 years old.

Kida then claims that there’s no one left in her world who can still read Atlantean. Which is why all of her civilization’s advanced technology (AKA those snazzy flying stone fish) are just lying around unused.

Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but if Kida and her father, the King, were alive when the initial cataclysm happened … well, the King could read back then. And I bet that a lot of his subjects who also survived this disaster can read too …

So what exactly happened here? An entire civilization spontaneously forgot how to read and/or how to make use of their society’s snazzy hi-tech technology? I mean, I could possibly buy that — if a couple of dozens generations had gone and gone in Atlantis since the initial cataclysm. (By that I mean, there’s actually some historic precedent for an event like this happening. Knowledge slipping away. Which explains why — as Napoleon marched his troops into Egypt in the late 1790s — there was no one left alive in that Middle Eastern country who could still read hieroglyphics.)

But Kida, her father, the King as well as the rest of the Atlantean survivors were supposedly alive with Atlantis was sunk .. and they could read back then … well, it just stands to reason that they should still be able to read their own language now. (I mean, if Kida and her fellow Atlanteans can still summon up the ability to speak in French, German, Chinese and Hebrew just seconds after they encounter the crew of the Ulysses, that means that they still have their powers of retention. So that means that these folks should still be able to read.)

It’s plot holes like this (which I should point out here, weren’t initiated by Wise and Trousdale. But rather, were forced on Kirk and Gary by lame-brained Disney Studio executives. Who were insisting that the film-makers do something to introduce the Atlanteans earlier to movie-goers. To try and make people care about Kida’s plight) that made “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” particularly difficult for people to embrace. But this is what happens when you start out making one kind of movie and — in mid-stream — decide that you really should be making another kind of movie.

Which is a real shame. Because — its flaws aside — there’s a lot to like about “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” From the film’s distinct design to its wonderfully loopy supporting characters. I mean, how can you dislike a picture that features Gaetan Moliere, perhaps the weirdest individual to ever appear in a Disney animated film? Short, round and bi-spectacled. Totally obsessed with dirt and digging, Mole steals virtually every scene that he’s in (Though — I suspect — a lot of Moliere’s charm comes from the wonderful quirky voice that Disney voice vet Corey Burton provides for this character.)

Yes, I know. A lot of you animation fans were very disappointed with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” That — in spite of the promise of its premise — the picture basically failed to deliver the goods.

I say … if Wise and Trousdale had actually been allowed to produce the picture that they had originally pitched to Don Hahn — a film in the Ray Harryhausen tradition — this story might have ended very differently. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” might have actually found the success at the box office that it deserved.

Which would have meant that WDI would have been able to go forward with construction of those “Atlantis”-themed attractions that the Imagineers had been planning for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Which would have meant that — this summer — WDW visitors would have been able to scream their way through “Fire Mountain,” Disney World’s first transforming coaster (which was to have been built — inside of a giant volcano-shaped show building — out behind Adventureland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride). And guests at Disneyland would have been able to reboard that theme park’s Tomorrowland subs to go out on an undersea treasure hunt in Atlantis (and — with luck — avoid an encounter with the Leviathan).

And toon fans would have gotten to see the animated equivalent of “The X Files,” once the follow-up TV series for “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” — “Team Atlantis” — began airing. The ambition of that particular Disney Television Animation series (which had only completed work on three episodes prior to the project being unceremoniously shut down in the Summer of 2001) was just staggering.

Perhaps — sometime in the not-so-distant future — I’ll fill you in what you missed when “Team Atlantis” got canceled. But for now … well … perhaps it’s best just to mourn what might have been with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.” Here was a film that could really have been something special. Something really different from WDFA.

But because those supposedly-Creative execs at Disney Feature Animation felt that they really had to have their say. They had to justify their basically useless existences by meddling in the creative process … a potential great idea for a motion picture got derailed, watered down and second guessed into becoming a pale imitation of itself.

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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