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Is DAK’s Beastly Kingdom DOA? — Part 1

In this three part series from early 2000, Jim Hill looks at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the unfortunate series of events that led up to the park — and the company — losing a land, many talented Imagineers, and worst of all: guests.

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You can park your car in the “Unicorn” parking lot.

You can buy your admission ticket at a ticket booth with a huge dragon’s head on it.

And — for a while there — you could even catch a glimpse of a fire-breathing monster as you took a cruise along Discovery River.

So what are the chances that Walt Disney World [WDW] guests will someday soon get the chance to visit a land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom [DAK] that celebrates these mythical creatures?

These days, pretty slim. It’s probably more likely that guests will see a real unicorn or dragon long before they get the chance to tour DAK’s “Beastly Kingdom.”

What happened? Why has the Mouse decided to scrub its years-in-the-making plans for expansion of its animal theme park? Why table what would seem to be a sure-fire addition to Disney’s Florida resort?

Those who have been following the Walt Disney Company’s recent cost cutting craze will not be be surprised to learn that the projected high price tag for building “Beastly Kingdom” factored heavily in upper management’s recent decision to postpone indefinitely any major expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. After all, if times are so tough for the Mouse that they have to lay off the Magic Kingdom’s marching band as well as Epcot’s fife-and-drum corp, what are the chances the company would be willing to spend $200 to $300 million to add a new land to DAK? Slim to none.

Mind you, Mickey was perfectly willing to pony up the $100 million necessary to build the Animal Kingdom Safari. But that’s different. That’s a hotel. That 1307 room resort will start making money for the Walt Disney Company the moment it opens in the Spring of 2001.

But “Beastly Kingdom?” Recent exit surveys have suggested that — even if Disney were to go forward with construction of this new land at DAK — the Mouse wouldn’t see a large enough increase in attendance at WDW’s fourth theme park to justify the cost of actually building “Beastly Kingdom.”

The real irony here is that one of the only reasons Disney’s Animal Kingdom ever got built was that way back in 1993, guests who were surveyed about ideas for a fourth WDW theme park responded strongly to the notion of having a place in Florida where they could see unicorns and dragons.

Want to hear what folks were told about “Beastly Kingdom” back then? What follows is an excerpt from an exact transcript of an early marketing presentation on Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It describes in great detail the fun that would have been had in this part of the proposed park:

Beastly Kingdom is the realm of make believe animals, animals that don’t really exist, out of legends, out of fairy tales, out of storybooks. Like our legends and fair tales about imaginary animals, this land is divided into realms of good and realms of evil.

The evil side is dominated by DRAGON’S TOWER, a burned, wrecked castle inhabited by a greedy, fire breathing dragon. He hordes a fabulous treasure in his tower chamber. The castle is also inhabited by bats who speak to us from their upside down perches. The bats have a plan. They enlist our help trying to rob the dragon and fly us off on a wild chase. At last, we meet the fire-breathing dragon himself and barely escape un-barbecued.

The good side of this land is ruled by QUEST OF THE UNICORN. An adventure which sends us through a maze of medieval mythological creatures to seek the hidden grotto where the unicorn lives. There is also FANTASIA GARDENS. A gentle musical boat ride through the animals from Disney’s animated classic, “Fantasia.” Both the crocodiles and hippos from ” Dance of the Hours” and the Pegasus, fauns and centaurs from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” are found here.

Sounds pretty impressive, yes? Those WDW guests surveyed back in 1993 thought so. They identified “Beastly Kingdom” — with its mix of roller coasters and imaginary animals — as the number one reason that they’d want to visit this proposed fourth theme park.

So why wasn’t “Beastly Kingdom” part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom when the park opened on April 22, 1998? Again, cost played a big part in delaying construction of this highly anticipated land. But DAK’s future planning had to be factored in too.

After all, it took the Walt Disney Company three years and $800 million just to get “Phase One” of DAK open. And — since the park’s name actually had the word “animal” in it — the Imagineers felt that opening day guests would want to see some actual live animals. So the majority of DAK’s capitalization was poured into building the Africa and Asian safari areas.

After that … well, someone had to make a decision. Disney’s Animal Kingdom was supposed to celebrate all animals: the live ones, the extinct ones, as well as the imaginary. The African and Asian enclosures would take care of the live animals.

But — in doing that — Disney blew through most of DAK’s initial budget. There was only enough money left to build one more land. Which should the Mouse go for? Dragons or dinosaurs?

In the end, the deciding factor here was the money the Disney Company had already blown on the soon-to-be-released computer animated film, “Dinosaur.” Even back in 1995, the Mouse had already invested upwards of $30 million into production of this movie. (Current estimates suggest that Disney may have spent as much as $150 million to finish this film, making “Dinosaur” even more expensive than James Cameron’s infamously over-budget 1997 epic, “Titanic.” ) Eisner wanted to make sure that Disney’s “Dinosaur” movie made a return on that investment, so he insisted that DAK feature an attraction that heavily hyped the forthcoming film.

That decision angered Joe Rohde and the other Imagineers on the Disney’s Animal Kingdom project. After all, one of the real reasons that DAK was being built was to keep WDW guests from leaving property to go visit Busch Gardens – Tampa Bay.

And what was Anheuser Busch’s Florida theme park best known for? Its animal displays and its killer roller coasters. With African and Asia, Disney had all the animals it needed. But where were the coasters?

According to Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s original plans, “Dragon’s Tower” was to have been this park’s signature attraction. That’s why the dragon was featured dead center in DAK’s logo. After guests visited WDW’s fourth theme park, this was going to be the ride they raved about the folks back home about.

What was so special about “Dragon’s Tower?” This high tech thrill ride would have been the Walt Disney Company’s first in-park use of an inverted roller coaster. This attraction would have also featured the largest AA figure ever built for a Disney theme park. The angry jewel encrusted dragon found in the ride’s finale — belching fire and smoke at your car as you zoomed on by — would have easily dwarfed any of the dinos found in “Countdown to Extinction” (AKA the “Dinosaur” ride).

But Eisner insisted that it was more important that DAK feature an area that synergized with the upcoming “Dinosaur” film. “Beastly Kingdom” would have to wait ’til DAK’s “Phase Two” … which, back then, was to have been completed no later than Spring 2003.

So — with this understanding that “Beastly Kingdom” hadn’t been cancelled, but merely postponed — WDI agreed to scale back their initial plans for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But, even as they mapped out plans for the “Phase One” version of DAK, the Imagineers deliberately put in some pretty broad hints of the fun yet to come when “Beastly Kingdom” finally opened. That’s why you can park your car in the “Unicorn” lot as well as buy your tickets at the dragon headed ticket booth.

As for that fire-breathing dragon found in the cave down along Discovery River … before cost over-runs in other areas of DAK severely cut in the proposed budget for this part of the park, that make-believe monster was just one of many fantasical show elements that would have been found along this part of the river. That whole stretch of Discovery River was supposed to be one big coming attraction for “Beastly Kingdom.”

Had the Imagineers gotten all the money they were originally supposed to get, here’s what you would have experienced after your boat pulled away from the dock and began its cruise around Discovery River:

As you passed under the main bridge leading into Safari Village, you would have seen that the water ahead was littered with the shattered lances and crumpled armor of a great many fallen knights. But what horrible fate could have befallen all of these brave adventurers? A roar from the nearby cave offers a clue.

As your boat floated past the opening of the cave, you would have seen a duplicate of the dragon found in the cavern under Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland – Paris. Only WDW’s version would have been a lot more active than France’s sleepy monster. This dragon would have craned his neck out of the cave, roared at the guests and then breathed fire their way, before once again settling back down to sleep.

At this point, your boat driver would have started to get nervous. He would explain that he was worried that the dragon’s roaring would awaken the Kracken, a mythical Greek sea monster that was known to lurk along this stretch of Discovery River. Sure enough, the water around the boat begins to bubble ominously.

Off to one side, the huge fin of the Kracken suddenly cuts through the water. As the boat begins rocking back and forth, you’re certain you’re headed for a watery grave. Just then, your captain pulls out a lyre and begins plucking an odd tune. As the boat stops rocking and the water stops bubbling, the captain explains that music puts the Kracken back to sleep. Once that it’s safe to move on, the boat continues to head up river.

Just as you round the bend, your captain points off excitedly to your left. There on the shore, you catch a glimpse of a unicorn. The beautiful white creature — shrouded in mist as it stands in a picturesque grove of trees — paws the earth lightly with one hoof and nods its golden horn our way. The unicorn’s only visible for just an instant, but it truly is a beautiful sight.

As your boat pulls up to the dock in Harambe, you and your fellow guests would still be buzzing about the wonders you would have glimpsed on this leg of your adventure of Disney’s Animal Kingdom …

But of course … this didn’t happen. As DAK’s opening day grew nearer and it became obvious that the whole project was going over budget, great show elements like the Kracken and the Unicorn got cut from the “Phase One” version of the park. In the end, there was only enough money left in the budget for put one creature along the entire length of Discovery River.

Again — because Eisner insisted that “Dinosaur” be heavily synergized at DAK — the Imagineers decided to build a full-scale version of Aladar, the heroic iguanadon from the forthcoming film. That’s the AA dinosaur guests glimpsed roaring and splashing at water’s edge as their Discovery River boat floated past Dinoland USA.

Unfortunately, this decision left the other leg of the Discovery River boat cruise a five minute cruise past nothing. So Joe Rohde begged, pleaded and wheedled … and eventually got Eisner to kick in another couple of thousand dollars. With this tiny chunk of change, Joe was able to get the rock dragon that spews water along this part of the river built, as well as a very stripped down version of the park’s fire breathing dragon.

But don’t go looking for an Americanized version of Disneyland – Paris’s majestic AA dragon to be found along this part of Discovery River. Rohde’s Imagineers did the best they could with zero cash. All you’ll find here now is a somewhat dinky cave at water’s edge. As the boats went by, a ferocious roar would echo out of the cave, followed by a burst of flaming propane. These effects hinted that there was a dragon somewhere deep back inside that cave … but guests never really got a glimpse of the thing.

As you might imagine, WDW visitors were pretty unimpressed with what they saw along Discovery River once DAK opened. In fact, this was the ride that guests singled out — right from Opening Day — as the worst attraction in all of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. After waiting in line for over an hour to board the boats, they were furious to find that there was virtually nothing to see along the water during their five minute journey to Harambe.

The Imagineers were obviously embarrassed by this situation. It was particularly frustrating to WDI because they knew that they had a solution to the Discovery River problem, ready to go. But Disney management was too cheap to put up the money to make the fixes.

But that had been typical of Disney management’s handling of the whole DAK project. Given the choice between doing things the right way and the inexpensive way, the Mouse always opted to go cheap.

Take — for instance — how the Mouse handled the park’s capacity problems. When it became obvious that Asia was not going to ready in time for Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s April 1998 opening, the Imagineers began warning Disney management that DAK would not have a full day’s worth of shows and attractions. After having paid full price for admission, guests were sure to complain if they only got a half day’s worth of entertainment.

Eisner’s solution? Slap in a temporary land, similar to the “Mickey’s Birthdayland” area that the company had created for WDW’s Magic Kingdom way back in April 1988. From its first conceptual drawing right through to the first guest walking into Mickey’s house, “Mickey’s Birthdayland” had only taken 90 days to install.

Rohde and his Imagineers was appalled at Eisner’s suggestion. But — rather than tell the boss that his idea was terrible and that they wanted nothing to do with it — the DAK design team insisted that they were far too busy supervising construction in the rest of the park to work up any new temporary lands.

So Eisner ordered WDW’s entertainment office to take over the project. Using “Mickey’s Birthdayland” as their template, the entertainment staff came up with the concept for “Camp Minnie-Mickey.” Since there was no money available for even the cheapest of off-the-shelf rides, the WDW team opted to build “Camp Minnie-Mickey” around two low budget stage shows and several no budget character encounter areas.

How quickly and cheaply was “Camp Minnie-Mickey” thrown together? Do the float units the characters perform on in “Festival of the Lion King ” look familiar? They should. They’re the exact same parade floats that Disneyland ran up and down Main Street USA during the three year run of its “Lion King Celebration” parade.

Having this rapidly slapped together area sitting alongside lands that they’d spent years designing really irked the Imagineers. But Rohde advised his team to be patient and hold their tongues. After all, once Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998 and proved to be a huge success, then WDI would finally get the time and the money necessary to fix all the stuff that was wrong with the park.

Then the Imagineers could get the chance to put back all the stuff that was cut out of Discovery River. Then they could quietly pull the plug on that monstrosity, “Camp Minnie-Mickey.” Then WDI could finally get around to DAK’s “Phase Two” and build Beastly Kingdom.

Well, April 22, 1998 arrived and Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened …

But — after that — things didn’t quite go according to plan.

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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