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O Gnomeo, Gnomeo. Wherefore art thou, Gnomeo?

Did Disney Feature Animation shut down production of yet another promising project last month? Jim Hill provides the depressing details.

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Say you were the head of a major Hollywood studio. And you had the option of producing a picture that would be helmed by one of the directors of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which would feature vocals by the stars of box office blockbusters “Titanic” and “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” a script by the guys who wrote “Chicken Run” as well as music by the two gentlemen who produced the Academy Award winning score for “The Lion King.” Oh — and did I also mention that this film would be based on one of William Shakespeare’s best-known works?

Soooo … with all that info on the table, if you were a major player in Tinsel Town, would you opt to produce a picture like that or take a pass on that project?

I know, I know. Any movie with all that talent on board would almost HAVE TO make money, wouldn’t it? Which is why greenlighting a project like that would almost be a no brainer.

Which makes me wonder: Does anyone in management at Disney Feature Animation actually have a brain anymore? The reason I ask this rather insulting question is — early last month — WDFA actually shut down production of a picture which had the production team I just described, “Gnomeo and Juliet.”

Why would the Mouse do something as stupid as that? Turn its back on a potential hit? Well, before we can accurately ponder that question, I need to give a wee bit more background on this WDFA project.

As you might expect from that groan-inducing title, “Gnomeo and Juliet” was to have been based on Shakespeare’s tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet.” Which (for those of you who weren’t forced to read this play while you were in high school) details the tragic consequences of a long running feud between two noble families in Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues.

Of course, “G and J” was to have put a very different spin on this classic tale. How so? Well, for one thing, the story would not have been set in sunny Italy. But — rather — inside a cozy English cottage as well as in the quaint gardens outside.

You see, in “Gnomeo and Juliet,” the Capulets were to be represented by a fragile family of gnome knickknacks who “live” inside the house. While the Montagues … well, they were supposed to be the sturdier sort of decorative gnomes. You know, the type that you see outside in English country gardens, where they’re used as lawn ornaments?

Anyway … according to folks who are familiar with how this rather silly version of Shakespeare’s story was supposed to play out: For years, a feud has been brewing between the Capulets (who wear red caps) and the Montagues (who wear blue caps). The inside gnomes think that they’re better than the outside gnomes because they reside in china cabinets and are made of much finer matters (I.E. porcelain) than the more common concrete lawn ornaments.

Whereas the Montagues … they think of the Capulets as a bunch of dainty doofuses. Always putting on airs about how much better their lives indoors are. While the outside ornaments actually enjoy being out in the elements, smelling the flowers, battling with the squirrels, etc.

As you might expect, a romance develops between Juliet Capulet (who — in this version of the story — is a female figurine who’s tired of being locked away in a china cabinet. She wants to get out in the world and explore) and Romeo Montague (q lowly yard gnome who longs to experience the finer things in life). The film’s story was supposed to have followed the beats of Shakespeare’s classic tale, but then put a somewhat silly spin on things.

Take — for example — “Romeo and Juliet”‘s balcony scene. The height of romance, right? Well, in “Gnomeo and Juliet,” Ms. Capulet was to have called to her beloved while standing on the window sill of a child’s bedroom. And Gnomeo? The poor slob was going to have to scale a rose trellis in order to reach his lady love. Which would eventually bow and break under his weight.

Okay, I know. This sounds like a very slight piece of material. But — provided that this material is handled properly — the potential is there for a very charming motion picture. Something that would have a lot of humor and heart … which is just the sort of film that WDFA President David Stainton has reportedly said that he wanted Disney Feature Animation to start producing again.

And yet — sometime during the week of December 8th — Stainton supposedly ordered that the production of “Gnomeo and Juliet” be shut down. Which effectively put the large number of artists and pre-production people who had already put months of work into this film out of work.

“So how is it that we’re just now learning about this, Jim?” you ask. “Shouldn’t the people who were working on ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ put out the word about their plight weeks ago?”

Well, here’s the thing, folks. You have to understand that “Gnomeo and Juliet” was supposed to have been a co-production between Disney Feature Animation and Rocket Films. Which (for those of you who don’t know) is Sir Elton John’s U.K.-based production house.

And Elton had really enjoyed his two previously collaborations with the Mouse, “The Lion King” and “Aida.” Not in a purely creative way, mind you. But more in a sort of I-can’t-believe-how-much-money-that-movie-and-those-musicals-had-made-for-me-and-Mickey sort of way.

So — in May of 1998 — John and his Rocket Films production partner, Canadian film-maker David Furnish signed a deal with Disney. This five-year-long agreement give Mickey the right of first refusal at whatever film projects that Elton and his creative team could dream up. Which meant that the Mouse got first dibs on all of Rocket Pictures’ projects.

This collaborative arrangement started out rather promising with Disney Feature Animation and Rocket reportedly agreeing to co-produce an animated feature that was to have been based on Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” But story problems supposedly derailed the “Just So” project. Meaning that John and WDFA’s story staff were never able to figure out how they could pull a coherent feature-length story line out of Kipling’s admittedly charming but still rather short stories (EX: “How the Elephant got his Trunk” and “How the Camel got his Hump”).

Still, Elton and David weren’t discouraged. Particularly when they learned about a script that Rob Sprackling and John Smith — the screenwriters of Dreamworks’ June 2000 animated hit, “Chicken Run” — had written. This screenplay — which was then called “A Gnome’s Story” — had a much solider premise than “Just So Stories.” Particularly given that the film’s story was one long riff on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Sprackling and Smith’s script was long on charm. But — in order to clinch the deal with Disney — Elton and Furnish thought that “A Gnome’s Story” could use a bit more edge. Which is why they hired comedy writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil (Best known in the U.K. for their work on the controversial Sky One comedy program, “Harry Enfield’s Brand Spanking New Show”) to punch up the project a bit.

Riley and Cecil’s additions evidently met with Disney’s approval. For — starting in January 2002 — active development of this Rocket Pictures / Disney Feature Animation co-production officially began. Disney experimented with a variety of styles for this proposed film, first seeing what the movie’s central characters would look like if they were traditionally animated, followed by tests which showed how Gnomeo and Juliet would like as computer animated characters who performed in front of live action background plates.

It was this last approach — I.E. CG mixed in with live action — that seemed to work best for the production. Noted computer animation production house cgCharacter spent 10 week in the Fall of 2002 working on a proof-of-concept film. A demo reel (if you will) that allegedly proved to the execs at both Disney and Rocket that such a movie could be entertaining as well as financially feasible.

By February 2003, the project began picking up speed. The trades were full of stories about how “Disney has reportedly fast-tracked Rocket Pictures’ CGI and live-action garden gnome love story, ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’.” The Mouse then assigned “G and S” to veteran WDFA director Gary Trousdale (Best known for with his work with his longtime co-helmer Kirk Wise on Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”) as his first solo project for the studio.

And Gary wasted no time in getting this Disney Feature Animation and Rocket Pictures co-production going. Trousdale ordered that an elaborate 1′ to 1″ model of the garden be made so that he could study possible composition of shots. He also moved aggressively to line up some big name talent for the project.

By March of 2003, Disney’s PR department was proudly crowing that “Titanic” star Kate Winslet had been signed to provide vocals for one of the title characters of “Gnomeo and Juliet.” Sir Elton John was reportedly quoted as saying that he looked forward to getting to work with Sir Tim Rice on the score for the picture so that they could provide Kate (who supposedly has a rather fine singing voice) with some lovely new songs to sing.

Weeks later, Dame Judi Dench was hired to be the voice of Juliet’s nurse in the film. And Trousdale was supposedly just about to sign “Star Wars” star Ewan McGregor to do the voice of the film’s other title character when the wheels suddenly began to come off of the “Gnomeo and Juliet” production bus.

So why did this once-promising production suddenly go south? The first public hint that “Gnomeo and Juliet” might be headed for trouble came with a May 2003 “Newsweek” article which profiled Disney’s CEO. In the article, Eisner is described as a man who …

“… can’t help himself from getting involved in the details when he’s passionate–about making a movie or, better yet, making a deal. ‘I’ve been nervous about these gnomes since day one,’ Eisner warned his animators during a recent meeting. Eisner fears the protagonists of ‘Gnomeo and Juliet,’ a tale of forbidden love among lawn ornaments, may look klutzy and tacky. His new animation chief, David Stainton–whom Eisner plucked from the TV-animation division with an eye toward holding down feature costs–assures him the gnomes will be nimble and their gardens only ‘a bit garish,’ with a supporting cast of plaster frogs, a Greek torso and a pink flamingo. Eisner likes the flamingo. ‘Remember the flamingos in Fantasia 2000?’ he muses. ‘That came from 10 years of my wife and a major shareholder sending uglier and uglier flamingos to each other as a joke.'”

Eisner’s nervousness at the project reportedly escalated as May slid into June. Disney’s CEO expressed his concerns about “Gnomeo and Juliet” to WDFA David Stainton, insisting that something be done to improve this picture’s box office prospects. Stainton’s response? He removed director Gary Trousdale from the project.

Mind you, the rumors that surround Trousdale’s dismissal from “Gnomeo and Juliet” suggest that this WDFA vet’s meeting with Stainton did NOT go well. One version of the story even alleges that things got so heated between Gary and David that Stainton actually called Disney studio security and had Trousdale escorted off the lot.

Only two men actually know what happened in that office in the Sorcerer Mickey building. And Gary and David aren’t talking. But — given that Trousdale is now over in Glendale working for Dreamworks Feature Animation — one has to assume that this meeting didn’t go quite as Stainton intended.

By the time August was rolling around, WDFA veteran producer Don Hahn was already meeting with the press, trying to do some damage control on “Gnomeo and Juliet.” In an interview with Sci Fi Wire, Don talked about how charming this Disney / Rocket Pictures co-production was going to be:

“It’s funny, because gnomes are so low-tech. You’re dealing with these little concrete sculptures in your backyard, little cement squirrels and mushrooms and things, so I think (this film will be) less about creating some splashy new technology and more about creating something that’s really irreverent and bordering on stupid. It’s a comedy.”

But — behind the scenes — “Gnomeo and Juliet” was already reportedly entering its death spiral. As one unnamed Feature Animation insider explained it to me yesterday:

“You have to understand that ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ was Tom Schumacher’s baby, Jim. That — if Tom were still running the show at Feature Animation — this project would still probably be in production.

But Stainton? He just didn’t get the whole English garden concept. That this was supposed to be a charm piece, like all of those ‘Wallace and Gromit’ shorts that Aardman makes. The jokes in the script that riff on Shakespeare and English customs just went right over Stainton’s head.

Neither he or Eisner ever really liked this movie. They were always worried that ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ wouldn’t be commercial enough. That this film would probably play great in the U.K. but not really connect with audiences anywhere else.”

So — for much the same reason that Stainton shut down production of “A Few Good Ghosts” in November 2003 (I.E. that he felt that WDFA-F production’s folk art-based characters, Appalachia setting and blue-grass score meant that this Disney Feature Animation production wouldn’t play well in urban areas and/or overseas) — David quietly pulled the plug on “Gnomeo and Juliet” the week after Thanksgiving.

What was Sir Elton John’s reaction to this news? I’ve heard that he was severely disappointed that — after Rocket Pictures had poured three years of hard work and funding into the pre-production of “Gnomeo and Juliet” — that Disney would suddenly opt to pull the plug on the picture last December. But — given the well publicized tantrums that Elton reportedly threw during “Aida”‘s try-out period — many industry insiders are wondering why John hasn’t made a bigger public fuss about Stainton’s decision to shut down “Gnomeo.”

So why is Elton holding his tongue? Could it be — as some Elton watchers suggested to me yesterday — that the singer/songwriter is well aware that there’s a move afoot to replace Disney’s CEO? And that — if Michael Eisner were ever to be removed from power — that would probably mean that David Stainton would get fired as well?

Which could mean that — in just a couple of months — that there might be a brand new management team in place at the Walt Disney Company. One that might be able to see the wisdom of putting into production a film that would be based on one of William Shakespeare’s best-known works, that would feature vocals by the stars of “Titantic” and “Star Wars,” a script by the guys who wrote “Chicken Run” as well as music by the two gentlemen who produced the Academy Award winning score for “The Lion King.”

Remember that this is Sir Elton John that we’re talking about here, folks. The guy who wrote “I’m Still Standing.” So — if he has to wait another year or so ’til “Gnomeo and Juliet” can get another shot at possibly being produced by Disney Feature Animation — John’s willing to wait.

In the meantime, Elton’s keeping busy by moving in the Walt Disney Company’s latest turf. Which is creating new musicals for the stage. Right now, he’s reportedly working on the score for a theatrical version of “Billy Elliot.” And — just recently — John announced that he and his longtime song-writing partner, Bernie Taupin, will be collaborating on a musical that’s based on Anne Rice’s “Vampire Lestat” book.

A musical that features a character that rises from the dead? Here’s hoping that — in the not-so-distant future — that “Gnomeo and Juliet” gets the chance to rise from the dead too. Given how charming this proposed WDFA production sounds, it seems a shame that this film may never make it to the big screen.

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.

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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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