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I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you …

With so many great new rides and shows coming to the Disney and Universal theme parks this year, Jim decided to take a look back at one of the parks’ newer offerings, revealing many secrets behind — and inside — Universal Studios Florida’s “Men in Black: Alien Attack” attraction.

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We got so much great mail from you folks last week that “Jimmy Neutron’s NickToon Blast” article. People writing in just to tell us how refreshing it was to have a site that usually just reports about the Walt Disney Company saying such nice things about an attraction at a competing theme park.

Well, we really try to stay balanced here at JimHillMedia.com. So when the Mouse and/or Universal does something right, we like to report that. Conversely, when Universal Studios or the Walt Disney Company does something stupid … well, the crew at JHM isn’t happy to report something like that. But we at least attempt not to needlessly bash that project.

And Universal Studios … well, those theme parks are really on a hot streak. First with “Jimmy” opening down in Florida. And now with “Shrek 4D” in previews in Hollywood. (I’m told that this new 3D movie will finally officially open to the public out West over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. The Orlando version? I keep hearing talk of an opening date of June 12th or thereabouts.) And then — what with the “Mummy” coaster opening up at both stateside Universal parks by Summer of 2004 — well … the Imagineers are really going to have their work cut out for them now through next year. Trying to figure out a way to top the crew over at Universal Creative.

But — in my rush to praise the projects that Universal Creative is rushing to get ready to open and/or still has in the pipeline — let’s not forget the attraction that signaled the renaissance of the Universal Studios theme park chain. Industry experts have called it the best new theme park attraction to be built in North America in the past five years. A cutting edge mix of dark ride and shooting gallery. Hundreds of thousands of people have rolled through the thing in the past year, then raced around to the entrance, eager for their next chance to sample its high tech thrills.

Which ride am I talking about? Universal Studios Florida’s highly acclaimed “Men in Black: Alien Attack.”

By now, I’m sure that thousands of you have already ridden this USF favorite dozens of times. But how well do you really know this attraction? Are you aware of the layer upon layer of in-jokes that Universal Creative’s designers managed to cram into this show?

Better still, how about the numerous gags and cool special effects that the ride’s design team wanted to put in the show — only to have USF management balk at the proposed scope or cost of what they were trying to do? Well, let me clue you in on the 10 best in-jokes and behind-the-scenes stories associated with this radical ride.

1) Where have I seen those posters before?

You’re outside of the “Men in Black” show building, slowly making your way through the exterior queue. As the line plods toward the entrance, you keep passing these stylized posters that look very familiar.

Why do they look so familiar? Because “Men in Black: Alien Attack” design team wanted them to look familiar. The posters outside the show building are actually affectionate ripoffs/tributes to posters that were done for Disneyland attractions back in the late 1950s. Don’t believe me? Then take another look at that poster for the Sky Lounge. Doesn’t that look an awful lot like the poster Walt had made up for the Skyway back in 1956?

Better still, how about that poster for “The Universe and You?” Disneyland history fans may recall an early Tomorrowland attraction called “Space Station X-1.” The poster that promotes “The Universe and You” attraction deliberately apes the graphic look and layout of that classic Disneyland poster.

And speaking of familiar things …

2) What’s the deal with the music in “Men in Black”‘s fake pre-show area? I know that I’ve heard that stuff somewhere before …

No you haven’t. This is another of Universal Creative’s affectionate jabs at Disneyland. The music you’re hearing is a deliberate pastiche/parody of the music WED house composer Buddy Baker wrote for Tomorrowland back in the 1950s. To capture just the right hokey-but-optimistic tone, the lead designer on this USF project actually recruited one of Buddy’s protégés — a kid who was then just a student at Cal Arts — to write a Baker-esque underscore for this part of the attraction. This guy delivered an authentic sounding anthem in the Buddy Baker tradition, which lulls guests into a false sense of security …

Which is why Universal Studios Florida guests always seem so surprised when the music abruptly stops and the voice of Agent Zed (Rip Torn) urges them to hurry into the interior queue of the ride …

But — before we get all the way into the show building — let’s discuss the pre-show you almost got to see.

3) “Leaving on a Jet Plane … “

Had the “Men in Black” design team gotten their way, USF guests wouldn’t have been queuing up outside a retro-futuristic show building that borrowed elements from the 1964 World’s Fair, Dodgers Stadium, and the St. Louis Arch. Instead, these Universal Studios visitors would have been startled to find themselves back at Orlando International Airport.

Or at least a close approximation. Guest would have wandered into a look-alike terminal building, only to be directed to board one of those automated trams. You know, those monorail-like thingies that OIA uses to get its passengers out to the really remote gates at the airport?

Well, halfway to the gate, Zed’s voice would have come over the tram’s speakers and congratulated the new recruits for finding the proper shuttle to take them straight to MIB training headquarters. As the tram suddenly sped up, then dove deep into the earth under the airport, Zed would have been heard to say: “Hey, great idea disguising yourselves as tourists. Like we haven’t seen that one a million times before in this neck of the woods …”

Sounds like a really clever way to start the show, doesn’t it? Well, Universal management worried that this concept might be a little too clever. They worried that USF guests — particularly the park’s international visitors — wouldn’t get the joke. That these customers would just walk by the deliberately bland looking show building without stopping to sample the wonders to be found inside.

That’s why USF management insisted that the exterior of the “Men in Black” attraction prominently feature some sort of icon/artifact that was easily recognizable from the 1997 Columbia Pictures hit film. Which is why the outside of the “Alien Attack” show building is adorned with those flying-saucer shaped towers that played such an important part in the film’s finale.

Speaking of things that “Men in Black” designers *ALMOST* did …

4) Not that song! Anything but that song!

As perhaps the wickedest Disney in-joke of all, Universal Creative originally had another name in mind for the fake show that was supposedly being staged at the USF Expo Center. Rather than “The Universe and You,” the “Men in Black” design group had wanted to call the fake MIB show “It’s a Small Universe After All.”

Worse than that, the logo for the proposed parody attraction would have deliberately aped the look and style of the poster Disney used to promote “it’s a small world” at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. All in all, it would have added up to one killer joke on the Mouse.

But Universal’s lawyers were concerned that this Disney joke might be one Disney joke too many. Which is why they leaned on the crew at Universal Creative to drop this particular idea. But — if you yourself would like to see what the posters for the “It’s a Small Universe After All” show would have looked at — take a close look at the bulletin boards that you’ll see inside the coffee room on the MIB queue. You’ll find the concept art — partially obscured but still visible — pinned to one of the bulletin boards in that room.

As you continue to move along the queue, you’ll find a half-scale recreation of the more familiar sets from the “Men in Black” film: the immigration office. As the extraterrestrial twins work the controls that run the room’s massive main view screen, most USF guests are usually too dazzled to notice that this place seems oddly empty. As you might imagine, this is not what Universal Creative had originally intended this room to look like …

5) Dear Mom. Guess where I spent my break-time today?

If Universal management hadn’t kept shrinking the MIB budget, the immigration office area in this USF attraction would have been a real showplace for this show. It would been filled with dozens of audio-animatronic figures slaving away at their desks, typing up reports, answering phones. This place would have been a real flurry of activity.

But — as the budget kept creeping in — the team at Universal Creative felt it was more important that the attraction itself had lots of AA figures, rather than the show’s queue area. So a decision was made to put the absolute minimum of figures in the MIB pre-show. Which meant that — in the end — all that guests got to see were the worms hanging out in the coffee room and the twins working the view screen controls in the immigration office.

To the opening crew for USF’s “Men in Black: Alien Attack” attraction, this cut was particularly disappointing. They knew all about what Universal Creative had wanted to do in the immigration room, but ended up cutting due to financial considerations. Which is why these Universal Studios employees came up with a really intriguing way to help UC out.

At least for the first few months that the “MIB” attraction was open, these loyal USF cast members would take their breaks on stage — seated downstairs in the immigration office. They’d read, sit with their feet up on chairs, eat their lunches. Meanwhile, the folks walking through the overhead queue would look down at these folks, totally convinced that they were Disney-quality AA figures … until one of them got up and walk across the room.

Pretty wild, eh? And — speaking of wild — how about that MIB ride vehicle?

6) Maybe we can borrow a few cars from those nice Jonah Jameson fellow?

If Universal management had had its way, USF guests would have rolled through the “Men in Black: Alien Attack” show building aboard vehicles that would have been identical to the ones used in Islands of Adventure’s “Amazing Spiderman” attraction. After all, the company had spent millions developing that revolutionary new ride system. Plus the public really seemed to love the “Daily Bugle” SCOOP-mobiles. So why not get these vehicles into USF ASAP?

Well, there was just one slight problem with the SCOOP-mobiles. No one seated inside one of these smoothly swirling ride vehicles could ever seem to draw an accurate bead on any of the targets. To test this theory, the team from Universal Creative actually took over IOA’s “Amazing Spiderman” attraction late one night. They set up a few sample targets along the “Marvel Island” ride track.

And — even though these guys made multiple passes through the “Spiderman” show building and that they knew exactly where the robotic figures were hidden — none of the “MIB” design team was ever able to get a decent score on the test targets. The fluid swirling of these ride vehicles kept folks from getting an accurate bead on the targets. That’s when the crew from Universal Creative decided that the “Spiderman” SCOOP-mobiles just had too much movement to make a good “MIB” ride vehicle.

Mind you, these guys did eventually end up using a ride vehicle that had originally been designed for IOA to take guests through the “Men in Black: Alien Attack” show building. But which attraction did Universal Creative opt to “borrow” its ride vehicle from? Would you believe that kiddie favorite, “The Cat in the Hat?”

And speaking of kiddies …

7) Isn’t there someone missing from “MIB”‘s initial shooting gallery?

That’s right, folks. If you’ll remember back to this sequence in the original “Men in Black” movie, Agent Jay was the only recruit who opted to shoot sweet little Tiffany — that suspicious looking eight year old girl who was lugging some oversized science books through in a bad neighborhood at night. So why isn’t this could-be criminal cutie anywhere to be found in this otherwise exact recreation of this scene from the film?

One word explains it all: Columbine. After the infamous April 1999 shootings at the Littleton, CO. high school, Universal Creative no longer felt that it was funny for anyone to be taking a shot at a child. Even a pretend child. Which was why Tiffany ended up getting cut from this scene.

To compensate for the missing suspicious looking youngster, the “MIB” design team made sure the rest of the attraction was loaded with characters. Before you exit the ride, you’ll roll past over 120 AA figures. Among the most memorable are …

8) Hey, didn’t that guy win an Academy Award?

Keep your eyes peeled for a bearded guy who’s wearing a Jurassic Park baseball cap and reading a newspaper. Looks familiar, doesn’t he? He should. That’s “Men in Black” producer and noted filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Of course, Universal Creative couldn’t resist this opportunity to make a killer Dreamworks SKG joke. So if you shoot the Steven Spielberg figure, he lowers the newspaper to reveal a three-headed space monster. Not so coincidentally, Dreamworks SKG has three heads too: Academy Award-winning director Spielberg, former Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music mogul David Geffen.

As your ride vehicle moves deeper into the pseudo-New York City setting, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the profusion of detail inside the “MIB” attraction.

9) What’s the deal with all the names on the store fronts?

Ah, if you’re a fan of movie and TV trivia, you’re going to absolutely love the interior of “Men in Black: Alien Attack.” There’s gag upon gag upon gag to be found here. Among the better ones are:

The “I.M. Hotep” Jewelry Store. Fans of Universal’s “The Mummy” movie might recognize this riff on that film’s undead title character, Im-Ho-Tep.

“Flaming Moe’s” Bar. Surely anyone who’s ever watched “The Simpsons” will recall the infamous episode where Homer invented a popular new drink — the Flaming Homer — only to have bartender Moe take credit for his creation.

Louie’s Taxi Service. Any fan of Nick at Night can recall the television show “Taxi,” where the not-so-lovable Louie DePlama (played by Danny Devito) rudely rode herd on all of his employees.

From this point, you eventually encounter the Big Bug. You blast your way to freedom and then …

10) Hey, wasn’t this attraction originally supposed to have 35 different endings?

That’s true, folks. You were originally supposed to see a video of Agent Jay (Will Smith) who would tell you if your score was poor, average or great. Your vehicle will then pull forward and — if your team did poorly — you would travel in silence and darkness back to the unload area.

If your team just did okay, this area would suddenly light up to reveal an alien AA coach figure — who then proceed to tell you what you’d done wrong during your trip through the attraction. In his best John Madden fashion, this figure would tell USF guests “You zigged when you should have zagged. You needed more hustle. But I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”

But if everyone riding in your “MIB” vehicle racked up really high scores, the area on the opposite side of this corridor would suddenly light up — revealing an alien tailor AA figure. This creature was supposedly be working on your “Men in Black” uniform, which the robotic figure promised “would be ready Tuesday.”

Pretty neat idea, huh? Thanks to the various things the Will Smith video could be programmed to say, plus all the multiple scenarios the alien coach and tailor AA figures could play out, USF’s “Men in Black: Alien Attack” attraction did indeed have 35 different endings.

Unfortunately, the people who performed poorly during their trip through “Alien Attack” complained bitterly that they got no interaction with AA figures before they exited the “MIB” ride. Which is why USF management eventually opted to reprogram the ending of the attraction. Which is why — no matter how poorly you do now — guests who ride through “Men in Black: Alien Attack” ride always get to see the AA alien coach before they climb out of their ride vehicles.

As for the AA tailor … only USF guests who racked up really high scores get to see this figure before they exit the “MIB” attraction.

The upside of this change: Everyone gets to see an AA figure before they exit the “MIB” ride now. The downside: This means that “Alien Attack” only features 15 – 20 different endings now. Which is kind of a shame, when you think about it.

Anyway … There you have it. The Top 10 secrets for Universal Studios Florida’s high popular “Men in Black: Alien Attack” attraction.

Of course, given that the nice folks at Universal Creative don’t want you JHM readers to go around blabbing about all this cool “Men in Black: Alien Attack” info you just learned about, I’m going to have to ask that you all stare into this neuralyzer that I’m holding in my hand and then …

FLASH!

… You won’t remember a single word you’ve read here.

Pretty neat trick, don’t you think?

(Special thanks to Agent Zed for sharing all those great USF “MIB” stories.)

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.

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“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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