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Looking back on why The Walt Disney Company decided to restore the New Amsterdam Theater in NYC

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An estimated 1.5 million people made their way to Times
Square
last week to experience Super Bowl
Boulevard. In fact, so many folks crowded into
this 13-block area that they sometimes had to wait for hours before they could
then zoom down that 60-foot long toboggan run on 40th
Street or shuffle through that tent where the
Vince Lombardi Trophy was on display.

Mind you, it's doubtful that this many football fans would
have made their way to "The Crossroads of the World" if this section
of New York City had remained just
as it was back in the 1970s & 1980s.

How bad was this part of NYC back then? Mario Cuomo, the
then-governor of New York State,
once described Times Square & 42nd
Street as …

" … a sewer and everybody knew it, right in the heart
of New York City. Now we're going
to get rid of all that filth and 42nd Street
is going to come back. People are going to bring their kids in here. Can you
imagine? It's the beginning of a whole new era for the City."


42nd Street back in the 1970s

Cuomo happily gave this quote at a press conference which
was held at New York City
Hall on February
2, 1994. Which was when The Walt Disney Company revealed its plans
to rehabilitate and then re-open the landmark New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd
Street. Which — City officials hoped — would
then kick-start their long-delayed plans to revitalize this portion of Midtown.

And who was the man that actually put this plan in action?
The-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Who — to be completely honest here — wasn't
initially all that enthusiastic about the Mouse getting involved in this
Extreme Makeover. Especially given that — back in the late 1980s / early 1990s
— the Times Square & 42nd
Street area had one of the highest crime rates in Manhattan.

As Frank Rose recounted in his June 1996 story for
"Fortune" magazine, it was postmodern architect Robert Stern who
initially reached out back in 1987. Which was …


The worry — back in the mid-1980s — was that
Times Square & 42nd Street would eventually
be permanently in shadow thanks to a never-
ending series of concrete towers like the 800
foot-tall Marriott Marquis Hotel.

… when Times Square seemed about to
be paved with enormous office towers. Stern was commissioned to figure out what
to do with the theaters that lined 42nd Street.
Because of Eisner's close ties to the city — he grew up on Park
Avenue and started out as a page at NBC — Disney emerged early on
as a candidate to help redevelop the block. But when Stern, who'd once designed
an East Side penthouse for Eisner's parents, mentioned
the street to Eisner, he was told to come back in ten years.

Now keep in mind that this was actually before Michael hired
Robert to design a wide variety of buildings for The Walt Disney Company. Among
them the Roy E. Disney – Feature Animation Building in Burbank, the Walt Disney
World Casting Center, Disney Boardwalk, the Yacht & Beach Club Resorts as
well as Celebration Health & the full build-out plan for Celebration, FL.
At that time, Stern was just another guy trying to get Eisner's attention at a
time when Disney's then-CEO was far too busy trying to get the Company back on
its feet to take on any outside projects.

Which isn't to say that people stop pestering Michael about
this project. The non-profit corporation which had been set up to find a way to
fix up this decrepit corner of Manhattan even went so far as to enlisted the
services of civic activist Marian Heiskell. Who had known Eisner since he was
4.


The New Amsterdam (left) and 42nd Street as it looked before Disney began its
renovation / rehab of this corner of Midtown.

Sadly, Marian got no further with Michael than Robert had.
As Rose reported in his "Can Disney tame 42nd
Street
" story, one evening when Heiskell was

… seated next to him at a dinner party at the Eisners'
house in Beverly Hills, she even
pulled out a map and said how wonderful it would be if Disney came to New
York. He demurred, although he did send a couple of
people to look at the block. "He was being polite," Heiskell says
now. "He had said all along that he didn't want to be involved in
cities."

So if that was Michael's attitude in the late 1980s / early
1990s, what changed? It was Disney's decision to get in the Broadway musical
business that finally forced Eisner to get involved in Manhattan's
revitalization efforts. But again not for the reasons that you might think.


Tom Bosley as Maurice, Heath Lamberts as Cogsworth and Gary Beach
as Lumiere in the original Broadway production of Disney's "Beauty
and the Beast." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As James B. Stewart revealed in "DisneyWar: The Battle
for the Magic Kingdom"
(Simon & Shuster, February 205), when The Walt Disney Company began to get
serious about possibly bringing a stage version of its Academy Award-winning
film "Beauty and the Beast" to NYC … 

… negotiations with the Shubert Organization, which, along
with the Nederlander Group, owned nearly all the theaters on Broadway, (made it
very clear to Michael) that Disney needed to own its own theater if it hoped to
make money on Broadway.


(Which is why in March of 1993) Stern took Eisner, Jane and
his son Anders over to the (New Amsterdam) theater,
where they donned hard hats and carried flashlights. Water was leaking through
the roof, forming puddles; bird droppings were everywhere; crumbled plaster and
other debris was scattered all over the floor. Still, the potential grandeur of
the theater was evident. remnants of allegorical murals, friezes, and mosaics; Art
Nouveau architectural details.


What the interior of the New Amsterdam Theater looked
like prior to its restoration & renovation. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

By the time they had finished the tour, the prospect of
salvaging a landmark theater and restoring its fabled grandeur had captured
Eisner's imagination. This was a project that would cast Eisner in the role of
Renaissance patron, not just another corporate CEO. As soon as he got on the
company plan that day, (Michael called the then-president of the Disney
Development Company, Peter) Rummell and told him to follow up. "This is
going to be much more expensive that you think," Rummel warned. "And
a lot of headaches."

There's another great quote from Peter Rummell about the New
Amsterdam redo that I just have to toss in here. As he continued
to try & dissuade Disney's then-CEO from taking on this project, Peter is
reported to have asked Michael …

Have you ever rehabbed your kitchen? Just think about this
as a very, very big kitchen rehab."


The theater's lower lounge area was in serious need of repair. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So with that home improvement analogy rattling around inside
of his head, Eisner decided to find out just how expensive the restoration of
the New Amsterdam might actually be before he then fully
committed The Walt Disney Company to this project. So he had the folks in
charge of the Times Square & 42nd
Street Redevelopment Project to reach out Tishman
Realty & Construction and ask that firm to put together a preliminary cost
estimate for this proposed theater rehab.

Now for those of you who don't know: Disney and Tishman
Realty & Construction have quite the history. Tishman was the construction
firm that the Mouse hired in the late 1970s to turn 600 acres of swampland in Central
Florida into EPCOT Center.
Tishman Realty & Construction also built that 814-room Hilton down in WDW's
Hotel Plaza
area.

And as soon as Tishman came onboard the New Amsterdam
redo project … Well, they immediately began pushing Disney to consider
expanding what they were looking to do in NYC. To be specific: partner up with
Tishman Realty & Construction to build a hotel-retail-entertainment complex at the northeast corner
of 42nd Street and Eighth
Avenue.


Concept painting of the retail-entertainment-hotel complex
that Disney and Tishman & Construction planned on
building at the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd Street.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And to Eisner's way of thinking … Well, taking on two
hugely ambitious / sure-to-be-expensive projects in the then-troubled Times
Square / 42nd Street
area actually made more sense then just restoring the New Amsterdam.
If only because it then gave the Company additional clout when it came time to
hammer out the final terms of Disney's deal with city officials.

And let me just stress here that — if Disney & Tishman
had in fact gone forward with this project — the $303 million
hotel-retail-entertainment complex that they were looking to build together at
the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd Street would have really been something.
Down at street level facing out towards Times Square
would have been New York City's
version of DisneyQuest. Directly above that would have a Disney Vacation Club
which — as part of the multi-day Manhattan
vacation packages that this resort was going to offer DVC members — would have
made premium seats to Disney's Broadway shows available at discounted prices.

Before Disney could fully commit to this project, they did
seek assurances from city officials that — before the restored New Amsterdam
theater as well as this proposed new 
hotel-retail-entertainment complex would open — the City of New York
would do everything that it could to eliminate all of the drug dealers &
prostitutes who were still using 42nd Street as their primary hangout.


Michael Eisner and Rudolph Guiliani at an event promoting "King David," the
premiere concert event that officially re-opened the New Amsterdam Theater
as a public performing space. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

During this phase of the negotiations, Michael Eisner
recalled a particularly chilling conversation with Rudolph Guiliani, the
then-Mayor of New York City.

I had a little concern about the adjacent nightlife, and he (Giuliani) looked me in the eye and he said, "It'll be gone," and I said, "Mr.
Mayor, you know there is the American Civil Liberties Union, and I mean,
they're just not gone." He said, "Look me in the eye." And I said, "What?" He
said, "Look me in the eye." I said, "Okay." He said, "They will be gone."
Scared me. I guess(ed) they were going to be gone. So that was that, and we
said yes.

But before Disney finally, officially said "Yes"
to the New Amsterdam redo, they did get the City &
State of New York to agree to some pretty spectacular financial terms. To be
specific: While the Mouse would put up $8 million of its own money to help with
the renovation of this 10 story-tall Art Nouveau theater, the rest of this
restoration's costs — the remaining 75% — would be covered by a series of
loans provided by the City & State at a 3% interest rate.

Mind you, in exchange for this $28 million infusion of cash,
the City & State of New York would then get an undisclosed share of the
profits from any show that was presented at the New Amsterdam.
And as for Disney … Well, once work was completed in late 1996 / early 1997,
the Company would then wind up with a 99-year lease on the property. Where
Disney could then present stage productions in NYC without first having to
agree to give the Shubert Organization or the Nederlander Group a large chunk
of the proceeds.

But between this deal was first announced in February of
1994 and when the New Amsterdam officially re-opened in April of 1997, there
were a few bumps in the road. A few changes in course. And even though Tishman
& Disney did announce in May of 1995 that they would  teaming up to build that
hotel-retail-entertainment complex at the corner of 8th Avenue & 42nd
Street, by April of 1996, the Mouse had changed its mind. Given that those DVC
Resorts which had been built away from WDW property (i.e., Vero
Beach, which opened in October of 1995, and Hilton
Head, which opened in March of 1996) had proven to be slow sellers, Disney was
now having second thoughts about building a Disney Vacation Club Resort right
in the heart of Manhattan. "We
have simply decided not to do time shares in urban settings," said David
L. Malmuth, executive vice president of the Disney Development Company, at that
time to explain away the Company's decision.

Now what's kind of ironic about all this is that —
according to friends of Michael Eisner that I've spoken with — Disney's ex-CEO
now supposedly considers his decision to pull out of the
8th-Avenue-&-42nd-Street hotel-retail-entertainment complex to be one of
his biggest mistakes. But then again, hindsight is always 20 / 20.

Anyway … All that matters for theater fans is that
"The House Beautiful" has now been restored. This historic structure
(both the interior & exterior of the New Amsterdam
were designated New York City
landmarks back in 1979) is once again staging the sorts of theatrical
spectaculars that would do Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. proud.

And speaking of Flo … Given that the Ziegfeld Follies was
famous for its skillful mix of beautiful women, elegant scenery as well as the
antics of great clowns & comics like W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Ed Wynn,
Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers … It's actually kind of fitting
that the very next show that Disney Theatrical 
will be staging in this space is "Aladdin." This new musical comedy begins previewing at the New
Amsterdam on February 26th and — if all goes according to plan —
opens on Broadway on March 20th.

By the way, if you enjoyed some of the New York-related
stories that I shared in today's blog post, then you may want to head on over
to the e.t.c. website. Where — if you'll click on the walks link — you'll
discover that I'll soon be leading two tours in the City that will touch on a
couple of places mentioned in today's articles. I'll also be sharing lots of
other stories about how the history of New York City
and The Walt Disney Company are interwined. So if you're headed to NYC in April
or May of this year, you may want to consider signing up to take part in one or
more of these walks.


Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and Don Darryl Rivera as Iago in Disney "Aladdin,"
the new musical comedy which will soon begin previews at the New
AmsterdamTheater. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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