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How the Thinkwell Group conjured a “Making of Harry Potter” attraction for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London



Between that basilisk in the basement, those pesky mountain trolls who wander in through open doors, not to mention the occasional dragon which slips its chain and then starts ripping up the roof of this famed castle, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has obviously previously had some problems with creatures. But who knew that the people who had been placed in charge of rebuilding the cinematic version of this iconic structure would then find themselves being out-foxed by a fox?

As Craig Hanna — the Chief Creative Officer of the Thinkwell Group — recently recalled on TEA Case Studies Day (which was held last month as part of the Themed Entertainment Association's annual 2-day summit at the Disneyland Hotel), his company encountered some interesting animal-related issues while they were working on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter attraction.

Photo by Red Ryder

To explain: The Hogwarts Castle model had always been considered the crown jewel of  the Harry Potter production collection at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden. Originally built back in 2000 for the first film in this series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ," it took 86 artists & crew members to construct this 1:24 scale recreation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. And this 50 foot-tall model was then used repeatedly over the course of production on the next five "Potter" movies. (Only for "Deathly Hallows – Part 1 " & "Part 2 " did Warner Bros. finally switch over to a CG version of Hogwarts Castle. And even then the CG version of this massive structure was based on a digital scan of that over-sized model).

Anyway … When Warner Bros. and the Thinkwell Group began toying with the idea of building a Harry Potter production attraction at Leavesden (where all eight installments of this acclaimed film series had been shot over the course of a decade), they knew that they had to make use of this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle. But creating a space to properly present this massive model in (which — at that time — was being stored at nearby Shepperton Studios) was going to take some doing.

"We knew that we wanted the Hogwarts Castle model to be the culmination of the 'Making of Harry Potter' experience. So we purposefully built this room with a ramp that would come in high, give you this amazing dramatic vista of the castle model and then ramp through that space down to the bottom," Hanna explained. "And because it had been chopped into little bits to store at Shepperton, they then had to bring the Hogwarts Castle model in in pieces. And because one wall of this building had been deliberately left open during the 32 days it took to load in & reassemble this massive model, a fox moved in."


And how exactly did Craig know that a full-sized fox had moved into this 1:24 scale version of Hogwarts Castle? "We had fox prints all over the model," Hanna laughed. "We were also doing some time lapse photography at this same time to capture the reassembling of this massive model. So someone went through the footage and stepped through it, frame by frame, knowing that they'd eventually find the culprit."

And how then did the "Making of Harry Potter" construction team deal with their fox problem? "Warner Bros. brought in an animal control guy who put some frankfurters in the model and he eventually captured the booger," Craig continued.

This animal control guy then took the fox away from Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and released the animal in the Hertfordshire countryside. The only problem was that this animal control officer wasn't taking this creature far enough away. Because — as Hanna explained " … the fox kept coming back. So the joke around the construction site was that this guy was getting 100 quid per fox. Anyway, once we sealed the building, no more foxes."

An image of the fox climbing on the Hogwarts Castle model from the time lapse
photography that was done during the construction of this exhibit for the
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter attraction.
Copyright 2013 Thinkwell Group, Inc. All rights reserved

So when this fox-free attraction officially opened for business in March of 2012, what did the first visitors to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter discover? Something that was deliberately different from what Universal Creative had built in Orlando as part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure.

"Warners Bros said — right from the beginning as we were developing this attraction — that we're not going magically into the movies. Here at Leavesden, we're going to talk about the magic of the movies. And that was always the clear differentiator between what we were doing and what Universal Creative was developing for Orlando," Craig said. "Which — I have to admit — did initially cause some frustration for the team at Thinkwell. They say things like 'Wouldn't it be great if we got to see Moaning Myrtle talking in a painting?' And I'd then have to ask the team 'Was that how it was done on the set? Because if it wasn't, we can't do that. We're not making magic. We're making movie magic.' And that became the filter for everything."

During the two years that Thinkwell worked with Warner Bros. on the design of the "Making of Harry Potter," that was the central idea that Hanna and his team kept circling  back on. That whatever was going to be put on display here at this 150,000 square-foot attraction had to be authentic to what was done during the production of the Harry Potter films. Which was very different from what Universal Creative was doing for its theme parks. Where the driving idea was that you're living the movies."

Hogsmeade Village at night at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at
Universal's Islands of Adventure. Copyright Universal Orlando.
All rights reserved

"Interestingly enough, we didn't know what Universal was up with their Harry Potter project. Luckily the two experiences wound up being very complimentary. Theirs is such a  fanciful experience. It's what  every Harry Potter fan wishes they could do in the real world. Walk into Hogsmeade Village as a magical person, get a wand and drink Butterbeer, do all those things," Craig said. "But the real fans of the Potter films also want to see the authentic items that were used in the production of these movies. Which is why I'm constantly reading online about people who have visited both attractions and love them equally. They go to London and then Orlando or visa versa."

And when I say authentic, I mean authentic. As part of his TEA Case Studies Day talk, Hanna fondly looked back on the very first time that he got to walk the sets of a Harry Potter movie at Leavesden Studio.

"This was back in 2007. I think the fourth film was in production at that time. And I remember thinking that you could just open this whole thing up to the public. Because everything that was being done for the Potter films was being done to an extraordinary level of detail," Craig recalled. "We saw these absolutely amazing sets. We then went over to the art department & the creature shop, all of which was located right there onsite at Leavesden Studios and saw those beautiful sculpts and creatures being created. Wherever we turned, our jaws were just hitting the floor."

Craig Hanna (L) shows THEA members some of the photographs that
he took behind-the-scenes at Leavesden Studio as he and the team
from Thinkwell were touring this facility as thy developed their
"Making of Harry Potter" attraction.
Photo by Shelly Valladolid

But what genuinely excited Hanna about the potential of building a 'Making of Harry Potter' exhibit right there onsite at Leavesden Studios was the already-created assets that he and his team would then be able to build this attraction around.

"You have to understand that — after Warner Bros. acquired the movie rights for the Harry Potter books in 1998 and then settled on Leavesden Studios as the place in the UK where they then wanted to shoot these movies — the executives at Warner Bros. did this very smart thing. They told the Potter production team that 'We don't know what's coming up in the upcoming books from J.K. Rowling. So you'd better save everything so that we can then save some money if we need to reuse that set, prop or costume again in another movie further on down the road,' " Craig explained. "So there were hundreds of these Harry Potter-related shipping containers onsite at Leavesden Studios. And every one we opened up was a treasure trove."

Which — in a weird sort of way — having so much authentic Harry Potter movie material to chose from actually made things harder for the folks from Thinkwell.

The portion of the Weasley Burrow that Craig Hanna was able to convince
Warner Bros. official to include in their "Making of Harry Potter" attraction.
Photo by Red Ryder

"It's amazing how many beautiful, extraordinary things we agonized over. I mean, you can pick through the Potter films yourself and then think about what props & sets that you'd like to see on display in an exhibit like this," Hanna said. "Me personally, I wanted put the entire Weasley Burrow in there so badly. I wanted to do a walk-thru of this whole set from the films so that everyone could then see how wonky everything was in the Weasley household. But I only got to put in a tiny piece of that set."

"I also wanted to include the Shell Cottage from 'Deathly Hallows,' which was this amazing set that was made entirely out of these gorgeous real sea shells," Craig continued. "But it was Potter executive producer David Heyman who actually talked us out of doing that. Arguing that — since the Shell Cottage was really only going to be onscreen for 30 seconds or so in 'Deathly Hallows' — we shouldn't make that set, as pretty as it might be, part of the display. That we should go more for the more iconic settings. The places that fans of the Harry Potter film series would genuinely love to visit."

Which — obviously — included the Great Hall at Hogwarts Castle. Back in 2000, this was one of the very first sets built for the Harry Potter film series. And since production designer Stuart Craig knew that the filmmakers would be shooting scenes in this 120 feet long by 40 feet wide space for the next 10 years, he had the floor of this set made out of genuine York Stone.

The Great Hall set reassembled onsite at Warner Bros. Studio London
– The Making of Harry Potter attraction. Photo by Red Ryder

"And when it came time to transfer the Great Hall set over to its original soundstage at Leavesden to the 'Making of Harry Potter' attraction … Well, we numbered each of those York Stones and then carefully noted where it was located on the floor on the Great Hall set. And then those stones were placed in the exact same spot on the floor of the Great Hall display that we were creating for the attraction. That's an example of how obsessive we were when it came to getting the detail just right for this 'Making of Harry Potter' exhibit," Craig enthused.

Of course, what helped with getting all of the details right for Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter was that — when the crew from Thinkwell were temporarily stumped by something — all Hanna & his crew had to do was hike across the Leavesden lot. Where they could then consult with the artists & technicians who's actually been on set and/or behind the camera when these various Potter movies were being shot.

"The Heads of Departments at Leavesden have helped with every aspect of the 'Making of Harry Potter' attraction and they continue to help us with the attraction. It's a real tribute to their artistry & dedication that this display is as authentic as it is," Craig continued.

Some of the 3000 wand boxes on display in the Warner Bros. Studio Tour –
The Making of Harry Potter attraction's version of Olivander's. Copyright
2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing
Rights copyright JKR.

And to pay tribute to those Heads of Departments — not to mention the 3000 other people who worked on all 8 of the "Harry Potter" films over the past ten years … Well, that's why the folks at Thinkwell decided to turn  the final scene of this attraction into a very special version of Ollivander's wand shop.

"There are over 3000 wand boxes on display in our version of Ollivander's. And on the label of  each of these boxes is the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter movies," Hanna explained. "Now we thought that people would just stroll through this space. But — as it turns out — so many people in the UK had friends or family who worked on these films that they then linger in Ollivander's, looking for the wand box with their friend or family members name on it. Which is why we've now got an actor stationed in this part of the exhibit who's memorized where a lot of the wand boxes are located. And he then helps visitors find the wand boxes that they're looking for."

And speaking of visitors … Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter  certainly has become a hit with visitors to the UK. Even though there are no walk-up tickets sold to this attraction (all visits to the Leavesden lot have to be pre-booked in advance), the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London still managed to welcome its one millionth visitor within nine months of its March 2012 opening.

Visitors to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry
Potter attraction gaze up at the Diagon Alley sets. Photo by Red Ryder

What's more, people who have visited this 150,000 square foot display just been raving about the overall experience. How — thanks to the way people are plussed through the attraction (i.e. Every half hour, a new group of 125 people are allowed to enter the "Making of Harry Potter." And only 5000 tickets total are sold each day) — you never feel rushed or crowded. Throughout most of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London (with the possible exception of the Great Hall. Which — because this space served as the opening scene / introduction to the attraction — guests have just a half an hour to explore the displays located here) you can linger as long as you want at any of the exhibits and displays.

In fact, there's such good buzz these days about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter that word got back to Buckingham Palace. Which is why — just last week — Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry made a special trip out to Leavesden just so they could spend some time exploring Diagon Alley (or at least the sets that were used when the "Potter" filmmakers were shooting scenes set in & around Diagon Alley) as well as trying their hands at wielding a wand.

So does it please Hanna that the project that he and his team at Thinkwell worked on for 5 years has been so enthusiastically embraced by the royals & Harry Potter fans alike?

Prince Harry and the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge try and cast a spell in Diagon
Alley  which will make the sign above Potage's Cauldron Shop bang and flash as
if by magic.  Copyright  2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter
Publishing Rights copyright JKR.

"I'm just glad that I got the chance to work on this little-known IP and help bring it to everyone's attention," Craig said in conclusion, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

Special thanks to the Themed Entertaiment Association for allowing JHM to attend this year's Case Studies Day. More importantly, thanks to Noe & Shelly Valladolid for making a special trip out to the Disneyland Resort last month to cover this day-long event for the site.

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 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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