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No more Mr. Nice Mouse?

Why is the Guest Relations staff at the Disney theme parks no longer bending over backwards to please Mickey’s pickier customers? Jim Hill explains why the Walt Disney Company abandoned its long standing customer service policy … then reveals that a change may already be in the works.

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I just got off the phone with my old pal, Eric C. Eric’s currently down in Orlando, wrapping up a 4-day trip to Walt Disney World with his wife and kids.

Eric C. gave me a ring today to pass along a somewhat bizarre experience that he and his family just had at the Magic Kingdom. It seems that Eric C. & Co. went to that theme park on Saturday. Which — because it was the very last weekend of the resort’s annual holiday celebration — was absolutely packed. Body to body everywhere.

Anyway … Eric and his family decided that they wanted to go check out the “Haunted Mansion.” So they made their way out to Liberty Square and discovered … a mob scene.

Now, we all know that the Walt Disney World Resort is famous for the ease in which it moves large numbers of people around. Which is why Eric was flabbergasted by what he saw once he and his family got to the Mansion.

“There was no cast member out in front of the attraction directing guests, Jim,” explained Eric. “Consequently, there was chaos. Pushing. Shoving. People cutting in line. Guests getting furious because they had spent 15 minutes waiting in line only to find that it was the ‘Fast Pass Only’ entrance. It got really ugly.”

So ugly that Eric actually decided to get out of line at the “Haunted Mansion” and begin directing traffic. Making sure that the “stand by” guests got in one line, the “Fast Pass” guests got in the other. Which — after a while — actually began to clear up the mob scene out in front of the attraction’s entrance.

After he’d been doing this for five minutes, Eric was finally joined by a harried Disney cast member — who then thanked my friend for pitching in and helping to get that unruly mob under control.

“You know, I really shouldn’t be doing your job for you,” Eric chided the cast member.

The cast member then apologized, explaining that the Magic Kingdom had been woefully understaffed for the entire holiday season. That WDW — as a result of yet another cost cutting initiative that had come down from corporate — hadn’t hired enough seasonal help to run the park properly this year.

“But that’s just awful,” said Eric to the cast member. “You guys aren’t supposed to cut corners. Disney’s the company that’s supposed to set the standard for everyone else.”

“Again, I’m sorry, sir,” said the cast member as he began directing guests outside of WDW’s “Haunted Mansion,” “But — if you want to lodge a formal complaint — I suggest you drop by City Hall.”

Which is just what Eric did. Fighting the crowds all the way back out to Main Street U.S.A. just so he could speak with the people at WDW Guest Relations about what had just happened. And their response was … well … tepid.

“I mean, the Guest Relations rep that I spoke with was thankful that I’d taken the initiative to personally try and straighten out that mess in front of ‘The Haunted Mansion,’ Jim,” Eric continued. “But beyond that, the people at the Magic Kingdom’s Guest Relations office couldn’t care less about my complaint about the park’s under-staffing. How unsafe it was. They just seemed to want me out the door again so they could get back to having their private conversation.”

“Getting that sort of attitude from WDW Guest Relations staff really surprised me, Jim,” Eric said. “I mean, what happened to all those Disney World employees who were supposed to go out of their way to try and make guests happy? Who’d bend over backwards just so that people could have a truly memorable experience on their vacation.”

This is where I had to break the bad news to Eric (who’s been living in Germany these past few years and — as a result — has missed out on a lot of the more recent changes at the Walt Disney Company): “The Mouse doesn’t do that anymore, Eric. A year or so, Disney decided that courtesy cost way too much. So they began telling the folks at Guest Relations to seriously cut back on the perks that they used to hand out to customers.”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, as recently as 2000, Disney’s Guest Relations Department was one of the world’s acknowledged leaders in customer service. Continually going above and beyond the call to try and make theme park guests happy.

Case in point: Nancy (AKA the woman who puts up with me and my infernal Disney-related writing) still talks about how — back in November 2000 — she was exiting one of the events at “Super Soap Weekend” when her purse suddenly burst open. And the entire contents of that purse began rolling down the steeply racked floor of the “Superstar Television” auditorium.

Within seconds, there were WDW cast members on their hands and knees over all that Disney-MGM theater. Looking under rows and rows of seats with flashlights, trying to gather up all of Nancy’s belongings.

She was so impressed by the extraordinary effort that the crew manning the “Superstar Television” auditorium had made on her behalf that Nancy actually dropped by Disney-MGM’s Guest Relations desk to commend them. Thanks to their quick thinking (one of the cast members actually physically held back the audience — that was itching to get into the next “Super Soap Talk Show” — so that the rest of the staff could make a complete check of the auditorium floor), these WDW cast members were able to recover every single item in Nancy’s purse save one: a single roll of 35MM film.

Upon hearing Nancy’s story, the Guest Relations rep at Disney-MGM excused herself, then disappeared into the back office. Moments later, she returned with a single roll of 35MM film. Which the Guest Relations rep then handed to Nancy to replace the one that had been lost in the “Superstar Television” auditorium.

This was typical of what Disney’s Guest Relations staffers used to do. Going that extra mile. Doing whatever they could to make the guests’ visit to the theme parks extra special. Making people like my Nancy a true believer in Disney Magic. All for the cost of a single roll of 35MM film.

Sadly, those days seem to be gone for good. Thanks to cost cutting measures that were put in place while Paul Pressler was still in power, now a guest like Eric C. who goes into the Guest Relations office at any Disney theme park looking to complain about and/or compliment something would be hard pressed to get much of anything out of the staffers there.

To hear one Disney Guest Relations vet (let’s call him Bort) tell it: “These days, you’d pretty much have to come in with a bleeding head wound — which you’d then have to prove was caused by Mickey himself — before we’re officially allowed to fork over so much as a coupon for a free ice cream bar.”

What brought on this radical change in Disney’s attitude toward the public? As mentioned earlier, cost savings did play a large part in this decision. But then there’s also the fact that the Walt Disney Company has grown tired of being taking advantage of by some extremely greedy guests.

Disneyana dealer extraordinaire Arlen Miller (AKA Dreamfinder) tells this great story (which he swears that he heard from a WDW Guest Relations vet) about the guest who tripped and fell while getting off the ferry at the Magic Kingdom a few years back. Within seconds, WDW cast members were all over this guy. Helping him to his feet, asking him if he was hurt, trying to find out if there was anything that they could do to turn this awful situation around.

The guest pointed out that he had tripped on a piece of uneven pavement right in front of the ferry’s off-loading ramp. So clearly Disney was at fault for his fall.

It was at this point that the crew of the WDW ferry said “Why don’t we take you over to our Guest Relations office and see if they can’t straighten this situation out?”

This gentleman then turned into the customer from Hell. WDW’s Guest Relations did everything they could to make this guy happy. They arranged for free admission to the park that day for him and his family. They also comped all of his meals for that day. And — when this gentleman turned up back at City Hall later that day complaining of stiffness because of his fall — they even arranged for a room for that night for this guy and his family at the Contemporary Resort.

You’d think that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t you? Well, it isn’t. WDW’s Guest Relations called the next morning … just to make sure that this guy was okay before he checked out. As it turns out, he wasn’t.

What was the problem this time? Evidently, the crack cleaning crew at WDW’s Contemporary Resort had left a single M&M out on the balcony. After he checked into the hotel the previous night, this problematic gentleman had stepped out on the balcony and discovered this M&M covered with ants. Which (he said) caused him to have horrible nightmares all night long about giant man-eating ants.

Long story short: In order to try and make this guy happy yet again, WDW Guest Relations gave him and his family another free day at the Magic Kingdom. They picked up the cost of all of the entire party’s meals that day. Disney even gave them another free night at the Contemporary (but not before sending a second cleaning crew through their new hotel room just before check-in, to make sure there were no nightmare-causing M&Ms left behind this time).

When this gentleman tried to continue his con for a third day, WDW Guest Relations politely but firmly told this guy that the party was over. With that, his party promptly packed up and left the Contemporary … then probably headed over to Sea World or Universal to see if they could run the same scam there.

You see, it’s people like this who took advantage of the system that made the folks back in Burbank feel that they were justified with cutting off the flow of freebies.

Mind you, the behavior of some obnoxious annual passholders hasn’t helped the situation either. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard from Guest Relations staffers (both at WDW as well as the Disneyland resort) who gripe about that relatively small number of APers who continually *** and moan about everything.

“90%, 95% of the annual passholders are just great, Jim,” Bort (that veteran Disney Guest Relations staffer, remember?) said. “They’re nice people who come out to the parks just because they love the place, not because they’re looking to find fault.”

“But those 5% … they ruin it for everyone,” Bort continued. “They’re the ones who are constantly in City Hall complaining about something minor. Always raising a stink with the hope that we’ll eventually cave in and give them something to compensate for all of their alleged trouble.”

“It’s this small percentage of annual passholders who have given APers such a bad reputation, Jim,” Bort concluded. “They — and the scam artists — are the real reason that Disney Corporate told us to toughen up on the customers. Not to comp meals or hand out comp tickets as freely as we used to do in the past.”

Putting it plain and simply, the Walt Disney Company is doing everything it can to contain costs these days. But more importantly, the corporation is tired of being taken advantage of. Which is why the flow of freebies has slowed to a trickle.

Which is a shame. Because — if you were in the right place at the right time — sometimes WDW’s Guest Relations department could really pull some truly impressive rabbits out of its hat.

Case in point: It’s October 1996. The very start of WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. Michelle (AKA the Fabulous Disney Babe) and I are still married at this time. And we had a half dozen or more of our friends in town — Jeff, Flo, James Alan, Bruce, Robert, Harold and Michael — who are all down at Walt Disney World that week expressly to take part in the first week of the anniversary festivities.

If I’m remembering correctly, there was some unfortunate mishap en route to the Magic Kingdom one afternoon. The ferry across Seven Seas Lagoon was temporarily out of service. Or the monorail broke down. Something like that. Either way, our group’s arrival at the theme park was unnecessarily delayed. So — while I tended to Alice in her stroller — Michelle popped into City Hall to complain.

To this day, I don’t know what exactly it was that Michelle said to the Guest Relations staff at the Magic Kingdom. All I know is that it must have been impressive. For she emerged from City Hall clutching a parade pass for the bench on the Liberty Square bridge.

“So what’s the big deal with the bench on the Liberty Square bridge?,” you ask. Well, when Disney is running a parade through the Magic Kingdom, they normally rope off this bridge (You know? The one that allows guests to move directly from the Hub down into the Colonial American themed section of the park?) for safety reasons.

So the only people that Disney ever allows to have stand on the Liberty Square bridge are those who have been awarded the golden ticket — (Oops. Sorry. My mistake. I guess I must have “Willy Wonka” on the brain. I caught that Gene Wilder classic on ABC this past Sunday night. It’s still a great movie. Anyway … ) — that parade pass.

Anywho … to gain access to the bridge, you actually have to escorted through the ropes by a WDW Guest Relations rep. Who — after making sure that your entire party is seated on the benches at the mid-point in the bridge — reclaims the pass and then disappears.

And after that … WDW’s 25th anniversary “Remember the Magic” parade began. Now picture this: You’ve got Cinderella Castle towering up over you. Not another tourist in sight. And — because you’re the only people in sight for a hundred feet or so — the characters and the parade performers have no choice but to come over and interact with you.

As you might imagine, it was a pretty magical moment. Particularly since the WDW parade crew has been taught that whoever is seated on the benches on the bridge must be treated like VIPs. My daughter, Alice (who was two at the time), has never had so many Disney characters come up and directly interact with her. After a while, she actually began to get overwhelmed by all the individual attention and began covering her eyes. As if to say: “Thank you very much. That’s enough parade. I’m full now.”

These are the sorts of perks that Disney’s Guest Relations staff used to be able to regularly hand out to guests before Pressler started pulling on Mickey’s purse strings.

Still — in spite of the less-than-enthusiatic response that Eric C. got from his recent complaint to WDW’s Guest Relations office — there may be some reason to hope. Lately, I’ve been hearing that Jay Rasulo — the guy who succeeded Paul Pressler as the new head of Disney Parks and Resorts — is looking to restore much of the magic that used to be part of the Disney theme park experience.

So here’s hoping that Jay eventually is able to get those freebies flowing again. And that someday soon, you too may get a shot at sitting on a bench on the Liberty Square bridge as the latest parade at the Magic Kingdom rolls on by.

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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