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Should Disney have made “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” instead of “Muppets Most Wanted” ?

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As its box office totals continue to trickle in, you just know that there have
to be people  back in Burbank
who are disappointed with the way “Muppets Most Wanted” performed
this past weekend. Racking up just an estimated $16.5 million in ticket sales.
Which doesn’t compare all that well with the $29 million that “The
Muppets

” earned over the 2011 Thanksgiving weekend.

So what exactly happened here? Was it just as Kermit & Fozzie musically
foretold in “Muppets Most Wanted” ‘s opening number that ” … the
sequel’s never quite as good” ?


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

To be honest, no. If you talk with industry insiders,
they’ll flat-out tell you that “Muppets Most Wanted” box office
take was seriously undercut by a surprising strong “Mr. Peabody &
Sherman
.” Three weekends into its domestic release, this DreamWorks
Animation
production sold an estimated $11.7 million worth of tickets. Which
meant that the family-friendly “Mr. Peabody” took an over-sized bite
out of the audience that Disney had hoped would want to go see “Muppets
Most Wanted” instead.

That said, there are also those at the studio who say that
— as soon as Jason Segel made it clear that he didn’t really want to be part
of a follow-up to “The Muppets” — Disney should have had the smarts
to go in another direction with this production. Given that Segel not only
starred in the 2011 Walt Disney Pictures release, Jason also executive-produced
“The Muppets” as well co-wrote that movie’s screenplay with Nicholas
Stoller
… Well, Segel’s absence was obviously going to be felt. Especially
since “Muppets Most Wanted” was being sold as a direct sequel to
“The Muppets.”


Jason Segel goes over
“The Muppets” screenplay with Kermit the Frog and Miss
Piggy. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“So what should have the Mouse made instead of ‘Muppets Most
Wanted?,” you ask. Well, Disney could have always circled back on a script
that Jim Henson himself had always wanted to shoot with Kermit & Co. A
screenplay that Frank Oz said ” … would be a lot of fun to do.” In
fact, as recently as late 2005 / early 2006, Dick Cook — the then-Chairman of Walt
Disney Studios
— was still trying to get this Muppet movie made.

“And what project was this?,” you query. A film that was supposedly
so funny that — even in storyboard form — it reportedly caused Jim Henson and
screenwriter Jerry Juhl to giggle uncontrollably: “The Cheapest Muppet
Movie Ever Made.”


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

And what exactly was the storyline of this proposed Muppet movie?  To give you the answer to that question, I’m
going to have to turn to that national bestseller, Brian Jay Jones‘ “Jim
Henson: The Biography

” (Ballantine Books, September 2003). And to hear
Jones tell this tale, the origins of “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Made” can actually be traced back to a Henson associates staff meeting in
early 1987. Where Oz had been grousing …

… to Jim and Juhl about the growing costs of (many of the
future projects that they hoped to produce) at Henson Associates. If they were
going to make another Muppet film, Oz said testily, they would have to
“figure out a way to do a really low-budget kind of thing.” That was
all Juhl needed. Hunching over his Macintosh computer in his home office in California,
he quickly pounded out a treatment for a film called “The Cheapest Muppet
Movie Ever Made.”


Jerry Juhl and Kermit the
Frog. Copyright The Jim Henson
Company. All rights reserved

So what sort of scenario did Juhl cook up for
“Cheapest” ? Borrowing a page from Jim’s own life during this point
in the history of Henson Associates, as this film is getting underway, Kermit
is far too busy to take on any additional behind-the-scenes responsibilities on
the next Muppet movie. Gonzo — who has always dreamed of directing — then
offers to take over production of this motion picture. Kermit reluctantly
agrees but does seem pleased that all he’ll have to do on this Muppet movie is
appear in it. Rather than produce and then have to coax emotionally overwrought
lady pigs out of their trailers.

So Gonzo goes off and — because his contract says that he
has now creative control over this entire project — completely rewrites the
script for the next Muppet movie. The film that he now wants to shoot is called
“Into the Jaws of the Demons of Death.” Which — to hear Jerry Juhl
describe the proposed storyline of the motion picture masterpiece that Gonzo
wants to make — has …


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc.
All rights reserved

… this cheesy, terrible plot that made absolutely no sense
whatsoever about something being stolen that led to a chase around the world.

Let’s Brian Jay Jones pick up “Cheapest” plotline
from this point in the story. Gonzo now asks all of the friends to come to the
Muppet Studios screening room to see all of the footage that he’s shot so far:


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights
reserved

In his enthusiasm, Gonzo spends his entire budget on an
impressive opening credits sequence, then has no money left for the rest of the
film, As the movie proceeds, the film quality gets worse and worse, eventually
eroding into black-and-white Super 8 film, then a slide show, and finally just
storyboards — until Gonzo sells out to corporate sponsors and finishes the
movie in a beautiful, high-definition, widescreen format.

Jim was delighted with the treatment, and put Juhl to work
writing a full script, which he turned in as Jim was wrapping up “A Muppet
Family Christmas” in Ontario.
Jim, Juhl and Oz passed the script back and forth, and even Oz — always
prickly about the treatment of the characters — thought it was a exciting
project. “It’s going to be the kind of movie the audience wants the Muppets to do,” he told
Jim. “Just a little crazy and a whole lot of fun.”

As it was written, “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Made” actually wouldn’t be cheap to make — Juhl’s script called for
erupting volcanoes and exploding islands, and for Meryl Streep to play Miss
Piggy’s stand-in — but the idea was funny and Jim thought he could manage
things on a budget of $8 million.


(L to R) A very young Frank Oz,
Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrestling with Big V,
the Muppet monster made famous
in the “Glow Worm” skit which debuted on
“The Ed Sullivan
Show” back in 1964. Copyright The Jim Henson
Company. All rights reserved

And Henson was seriously about trying to keep “The
Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” ‘s production costs down. As Jones
recounts, in late 1988, Jim …

… visited with Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas‘s
groundbreaking special effects company, to discuss special effects for ‘The
Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made,’ which he was determined to put into
production in 1989.


Jim Henson and George Lucas. Copyright The Jim Henson
Company.
All rights reserved

And even as late as Spring of 1990 — when most of Jim’s time, energy and
attention were directed toward trying to wrap up The Walt Disney Company’s
protracted negotiations to acquire Henson Associates for an estimated $150
million — he was still talking up “Cheapest.” Again from Brian Jay
Jones’ best-selling book:

Jim made the short flight from Burbank
up to Sacramento, then drove up the
coastline to visit Jerry Juhl at his home a hundred miles north of San
Francisco. The two walked and talked among the giant
redwoods for a while, then returned to Juhl’s home office to discuss “The
Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made,” which Jim was still determined to make
once the Disney deal was complete. It was a project that the two of them loved
to talk about — and Jim would spread the storyboards out on the floor of
Juhl’s office where, in no time, the two of them would be giggling
uncontrollably as they tossed around one idea after another.


Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl with the cast of “Fraggle Rock.”
Copyright The Jim
Henson Company.  All rights reserved

But then on May 16, 1990,
Jim Henson died. And all of his grand plans for the Muppets and what he &
his talented team were going to do at Disney slowly fell apart. In fact, by
December of that same year, relations had gotten so strained between the Henson
family & Mickey’s attorneys that The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of
Henson Associates was abruptly called off.

And in its place … Well, this weird sort of deal was then cobbled together.
One that would allow the already completed “Jim Henson Presents Muppet
Vision 3D
” to begin being shown at Disney-MGM Studio theme park starting
in May of 1991. Not to mention granting Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
distribution rights for much of the Jim Henson Company’s film library.


Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of films … Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner was determined that
Walt Disney Pictures would start distributing new Muppet movies. And the
sooner, the better. But the only problem was 
— when the script for “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Produced” landed on his desk — Eisner saw this proposed film as too much
of a inside joke. Something that people who actually lived & worked in Hollywood
would get and enjoy. But as for the rest of the country … Well, Michael felt
that Jim & Jerry’s good-natured ribbing of the entertainment industry would
just confuse all of those folks out there in flyover country.

So setting aside the screenplay that he’d written for
“Cheapest,” Juhl then crafted two scripts that met with Eisner’s
approval: 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol
” and 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island
.” Which placed Miss Piggy & pals in the
context of two well-known classic stories that most moviegoers already knew.
Which would — in theory, anyway — then make it that much easier to sell these
two new Muppet movies to audiences around the world.


Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, about this same time, Frank Oz began cutting back on his involvement
in Muppet-related projects. Mostly this was because Oz’s career as a film
director really began taking off in the late 1980s / early 1990s. Which meant
that he then had less & less time to ” … wiggle the dollies.”
(i.e., this was Jim & Frank’s deliberately dismissive way of describing the
work that they did with the Muppets. These two truly talented men felt that —
if they avoided being  precious about the
puppets that they worked with — that would then make it that much easier for
Henson & Oz to just concentrate on doing good work).

Which then led to situations like what happened on
“Muppet Treasure Island.” Because Frank was so busy shooting
The Indian in the Cupboard
” while the Muppet version of this Robert
Louis Stevenson
story was being filmed, Kevin Clash performed Oz’s characters (i.e.,
Squire Trelawney [Fozzie Bear], Mr. Arrow [Sam Eagle] and Benjamina Gunn [Miss
Piggy]) on set, and Oz then came in after-the-fact and looped those characters’
dialogue during post-production.


Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

There have also been whispers that — on the heels of the
July 1999 release of “Muppets from Space
” — Frank wasn’t entirely
happy with the direction that the Jim Henson Company was taking with the
characters. While Oz has never talked publicly about the matter, it is worth
noting that Frank’s last known performance as Miss Piggy was back on January 14, 2002. When he appeared alongside
Steve Whitmire’s Kermit the Frog as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of
NBC‘s Today.

Now where this gets interesting is that — in February of
2004 — The Walt Disney Company signed a binding purchasing agreement with The
Jim Henson Company
which would then allow the Mouse to acquire the Muppets as
well as the Bear in the Big Blue House characters. And as Disney’s lawyers dug
down in Henson’s files during the discovery phase of this acquisition, what did
they discover? Jerry Juhl’s original screenplay for “The Cheapest Muppet
Movie Ever Made.”


(L to R) Bob Iger, Michael Eisner and Dick Cook at the November 2004 premiere
of Pixar’s “The Incredibles.” Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

This script & its storyboards eventually wound up on
Dick Cook’s desk. And the then-Chairman of Walt Disney Studios just loved the
idea of a movie where — as its budget continues to shrink — Gonzo and his
“Into the Jaws of the Demons of Death” production team were
eventually forced to use a shot of the exact same street corner for every city
in the world.

That said, Cook knew that the Muppets had basically been out of the spotlight
for five years at this point. Which meant that it would take something really
special to reinvigorate this film franchise, get people excited about the idea
of seeing a Muppet movie again. Which is why Dick reportedly gave Frank a call
and asked him to come by Disney Studios so that they could then discuss the
idea of Oz directing “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”


Frank Oz behind the camera.

And Cook couldn’t have picked a better project to try and lure Oz back into the
Muppet fold. For as recently as February of 2000, Frank had still been talking
with great enthusiasm about “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” In
a four part interview with Ken Plume for Film Force, Oz insisted that the
reason …

… I want to do the next Muppet movie (is) because I’m
excited about a particular idea, and the idea is something that Jim and Jerry
Juhl and I thought of 15 years ago.


(L to R) Alex Rockwell, Jim Henson and Frank Oz on
the set of Muppet Vision 3D.
Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights
reserved

Now just to be clear here: This meeting reportedly happened
in the late Summer / early Fall of 2005 just as Michael Eisner was stepping
down as the head of The Walt Disney Company. And given that Bob Iger — the
Company’s incoming president and chief executive officer — reportedly wasn’t
quite the Muppet enthusiast that Michael Eisner was … Well, Cook knew that if
he was going to convince Iger to greenlight production of a new Muppet movie,
he’d need a hook. Which is why it was crucial to convince Oz to come direct
“Cheapest.”

And “Cheapest” had supposedly been on Frank’s mind. What with Jerry
Juhl’s  passing on September 26, 2005, it
seemed that more & more of his good friends — the very people who had
taken a chance on this 17 year-old kid back in the early 1960s and helped Oz
get his start in the entertainment industry — were slipping away. So if Frank
could actually finally get “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” …
Well, that could then be his way of honoring the memory of Jim & Jerry.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights
reserved

The only problem was that — as Dick & Frank began to
talk about theis project — it quickly became apparent that they just couldn’t
see eye-to-eye on this proposed film’s budget. The story that I’ve always been
told is that Cook really did want to make the cheapest Muppet movie ever made.
And the amount of money that he supposedly offered Oz to produce & direct
this motion picture was miniscule.

Whereas Oz … Because he knew Juhl’s script backwards & forwards, Frank
understood that there were gags in this screenplay which hinged on really expensive
things. Like volcanoes suddenly erupting on tranquil islands. And in an
infamous exchange with Disney’s studio chief, Oz reportedly turned to Cook and
said “Do you know how much money you have to spend in order to make
something look cheap?”


Frank Oz on set

With the hope that Frank might eventually find a way to
drive the projected production costs of “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Made” down, Cook asked Oz to meet with the studio’s special effects
department and continue to develop Juhl’s screenplay. But about this same time
in 2006, Jason Segel came a-knocking with his own pitch for a brand-new Muppet
movie. One that aimed to revive this franchise by reaching back to the style
& tone of the first three Muppet movies as well as the old “Muppet
Show” TV series.

In the end, given that what Segel was proposing was
basically a reboot of the Muppets (which was really more in line with what The Walt
Disney Company was looking for back then. Given that there was an entire
generation of consumers out there who didn’t know Kermit & Co. / weren’t
emotionally connected with these characters) and given that Oz & Cook
couldn’t come to terms over “Cheapest” ‘s budget, Dick eventually
opted to go with Jason’s proposal. And Frank … After he departed Disney, Oz
eventually went on to direct 2007’s “Death at a Funeral
.”


Frank Oz directs Peter
Dinklage on the set of “Death at a Funeral.” Copyright
2007
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. All rights reserved

Now where this story gets kind of confusing is that — even though Walt Disney
Studios was now committed to shooting Segel’s version of a Muppet revival movie
— Cook kept referring to this project as “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.”
Dick even stood onstage at the inaugural D23 EXPO back in September of 2009 and
used that very same title in front of the Disney faithful. Even though he knew
that the film that Jason wanted to make had nothing to do with the screenplay
that Jerry had written back in 1987.

Look, it’s not like The Jim Henson Company & The Walt
Disney Company
doesn’t have other unproduced Muppet screenplays lying around.
Google “The Muppets Haunted Hotel,” “Muppets Haunted Movie”
& “Muppets Time Travel” (Or — for that matter — “Muppets
in Space” rather than “Muppets from Space”) and you’ll see what
I mean.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights
reserved

But even so, at a time when the Studio was unsure that the
movie-going public would actually embrace a Jason Segel-free sequel to 2010’s
“The Muppets,” one has to wonder if — as Disney execs were reviewing
their options back then — someone there went riffling through the files. And
given that studio execs are always trying to keep the production costs down on
sequels because the old Hollywood rule-of-thumb is that
follow-up films only gross 4/5th to 2/3rds of what the original motion picture
made … Well, a script entitled “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Made” would have been very, very tempting.

Anyway … That’s the story as it was told to me by several Disney & Muppet
insiders. Plus the info I pulled out of Brian Jay Jones’ award-winning “Jim Henson: The Biography
.” So what do you think? Does “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever
Made” actually sound like something that you’d have paid to see?


The Muppets onstage at the D23 EXPO back in
September of 2009.
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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