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“The Black Cauldron” : What went wrong

Jim Hill takes a look back at the production history of this animated feature, paying particularly close attention to the role Don Bluth may have played in sending this once promising project off track

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Perhaps it was Ron Clements (I.E. The co-director of such Disney classics as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin“) who put it best. When he asked about “The Black Cauldron,” Ron reportedly replied:

“That film was supposed to be our ‘Snow White.’ But we just weren’t ready for it.”

“Who’s this ‘we’ that Clements is talking about?,” you ask. The then-young turks who had invaded Walt Disney Studios back in the mid-1970s. That next generation of artists & animators who were supposed to take over for the “Nine Old Men” and then lead Disney Feature Animation into a bold new era.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Mind you, this extremely talented group would eventually take WDFA to amazing new heights, churning out box office smashes like “Beauty & the Beast” and “The Lion King.” But that would happen in the early 1990s, when the Walt Disney Company was being run by Michael Eisner and the corporation was then willing to take a few risks.

Back in the mid-1970s, the studio side of Walt Disney Productions was being run by Ron Miller. And Miller … He didn’t really like to take risks. Particularly when it came to Disney Feature Animation and his pet project, “The Black Cauldron.”

Now, you have to understand that — almost from the moment that Walt Disney Productions first acquired the rights to “The Prydain Chronicles” back in 1971 — Ron thought that really great things would come from this project. That a truly fine film could be carved out of Lloyd Alexander’s five book series. The sort of epic adventure that could vault Walt Disney Studios back to the very top of the Hollywood food chain.

And Miller’s enthusiasm for “The Prydain Chronicles” project … It was evidently contagious. Take — for example — this quote from Don Bluth. Who — back in 1976, anyway — was thought to be the future of Disney Feature Animation. One of the talented young artists who’d been entrusted to keep the traditions of “The Nine Old Men” alive.

Anyway, when asked by journalist John Culhane about what projects Disney Studios then had in the works that really excited Don, Bluth replied:

“Right now, enthusiasm for a story called ‘The Black Cauldron’ is boiling through the studio, and we hope that the new generation can touch people with that story in ways that Walt never dreamed of.”

The only problem was … Even though Miller was obviously excited about all of the possibilities involved with the “Prydain Chronicles” project … Back in the mid-1970s, Ron didn’t really think that the studio’s young turks were actually up to the challenge of “The Black Cauldron.” At least not  yet anyway.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

To explain: Veteran studio story man Mel Shaw had created this truly amazing series of conceptual sketches (some of which you’ll see being used as illustrations for this article) for the proposed “Prydain Chronicles” project. And these images that Shaw had created … They were full of  potential, loaded with mood & drama. More importantly, these pastel sketches suggested a film that (To Miller’s way of thinking, anyway) was still well beyond the abilities of Disney’s next generation of animators.

Which was why Ron decided to put off production of “The Black Cauldron” for a few years. Prefering to have WDFA’s newest artists & animators initially hone their skills by working on several less ambitious projects first (I.E. “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Small One,” “The Fox and the Hound” & “Mickey’s Christmas Carol“) before they finally tackled the “Prydain Chronicles” project.

Miller reportedly thought that his “You have to walk before you can run” approach was the most prudent course to returning Disney Feature Animation to its former greatness. Of course, what Ron hadn’t counted on that certain members of the WDFA staff already thought that they were very capable of running. Mr. Bluth, to be specific

Don had already made it very apparent (in interviews that he’d given the press as one of Disney’s rising young stars in the mid-1970s) that he thought that WDFA could do better. Lots lots better. Take — for example — this excerpt from a chat that Bluth had with John Culhane:

“See, we haven’t been telling better stories than ‘Snow White,’ and we should be. We’re doing the same thing over and over again, but we’re not doing it any better.”

To Don’s way of thinking, waiting a few years before tackling the challenge of “The Black Cauldron” just didn’t make any sense. He and his loyal team of animators were ready to tackle an ambitious project now. They didn’t want to wait ’til Ron Miller thought that it was finally time for them to try their artistic wings.

Which is why — after hours — Bluth and his crew began working on their own project. A traditionally animated featurette called “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” Which — Don thought — would provide all the challenges that Disney’s animators weren’t then finding at work.

Courtesy of Google Images

Of course, Ron eventually found out about “Banjo.” And — to be honest — the studio head wasn’t pleased. Miller supposedly saw this after-hours project as a distraction. More importantly, he reportedly thought that the artists who had been working on this independent featurette were being somewhat disloyal. That the animators who were employed by Walt Disney Productions should only work on official Disney-sanctioned projects.

Well, Don … He didn’t see things that way. Which is why — when Aurora Productions (I.E. A movie production company that was founded by a trio of former Disney execs) came along in 1979 and offered Bluth all the financing he needed to produce his own animated feature — Don took the money and exited the Mouse House.

Mind you, when Bluth left Disney, he didn’t go alone. He took his good friends & WDFA colleagues, Gary Goldman & John Pomeroy , with him. And the very next day, 11 other members of Disney’s still-in-the-process-of-rebuilding Feature Animation staff walked out the doors to join Don over at Aurora.

Now you have to understand that this mass exodus of WDFA personnel (To put this exit in context: Disney Feature Animation’s staff was so small at this point in the studio’s history that — when those 14 people walked off the lot — that basically meant that a quarter of Disney’s newly trained animation staff  had disappeared overnight) had a truly devastating effect on this side of the studio. For starters, the release of “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” had to be pushed back a year.

And as for “The Black Cauldron” … To be honest, that picture never really recovered. Joe Hale, a longtime layout artist at Disney Studios, was given a battlefield promotion by Miller and made producer of this still-in-development project in early 1980. And Hale immediately set to work, trying to get “Cauldron” ready for production. He personally rewrote the film’s script, capsulizing Alexander’s sprawling story and making some rather significant changes to the narrative.

Take — for example — what Mr. Hale did with the Horned King. In the book version of “The Prydain Chronicles,” the Horned King is actually a relatively minor one. He’s actually killed off in the first book in the series, “The Book of Three.”

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Well, in spite of that, Joe promoted the Horned King. Making him the main villain of “The Black Cauldron” because … Well, let’s Mr. Hale explain:

“We thought (that the Horned King) would make a good animation character mainly because he had horns sticking out of his head.”

Er .. um …

Under Joe’s guidance, “The Black Cauldron” slowly began to drift. What had once been trumpeted in Disney’s annual reports as being ” … a classical fairytale combining the most exciting elements of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Fantasia’ ” and a film that one day ” … may take (its) place besides the great animated features,” now became a repository for gimmicks. EX: Since Ron Miller wanted “The Black Cauldron” to be seen as a big important picture, the decision was made that this animated feature should be then shot in 70MM. Which was the first time that Disney had used 70MM for an animated feature since “Sleeping Beauty.”

Actually, the most audacious gimmick that was proposed for use in “The Black Cauldron” never actually made it beyond the test phase. You see, for a time during this film’s production, Disney’s animators were in league with the Imagineers to create the first hologram that could be projected in a conventional movie theater.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

The idea here was that — at the moment in this motion picture where the very first “Cauldron-born” emerged from this cursed kettle — the holographic projection system would suddenly click on. And there on the big screen, this seemingly undead spirit would emerge in three dimensions and appear to loom out over the audience for a moment.

That sounds like a truly cool effect, don’t you think? Well, I’m told that those who actually saw the test version of the holographic “Cauldron-born” emerging from the Black Cauldron were impressed. They thought this effect would truly wow audiences, turning Disney’s newest animated feature into a “must see” movie for film fans.

The only problem was … The projected cost of creating a holographic projection system that then could be used in conventional theaters was astronomical. Given that — after its years & years of development — “The Black Cauldron” was already severely over-budget (“How severely over-budget?,” you query. When this film was finally released in July of 1985, Disney execs admitted to spending $25 million to produce this full length animated feature. Though some company insiders would tell you that the movie’s actual final production costs were much closer to $40 million). So adding a holographic projection system to the mix just to make this motion picture seem more special than it actually was was out of the question.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

And — in the end — all that extra effort that Ron Miller had put in, in order to make sure that “The Black Cauldron” became a memorable motion picture, didn’t really matter anyway. For — by the time that this Joe Hale production finally reached the big screen — a new regime was then in power at Disney Studios. Ron Miller was out & Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg were in.

And — to be honest — these three newly arrived execs just didn’t get “The Black Cauldron.” They couldn’t understand why Walt Disney Productions — a company that had, for decades now, produced the finest in family entertainment — would go out of its way to create an animated feature that had to be rated PG.

Speaking of which … When Jeffrey Katzenberg finally got to see a nearly finished version of the film and saw the sequence where one of the “Cauldron-Born” brutally slaughtered one of the Horned King’s cronies (I.E. A human who got too close to the Black Cauldron) … Well, Katzenberg quickly got out his scissors and started cutting the picture. As the brand-new head of Disney Studios tried to change the deliberately dark “Black Cauldron” into a much more family-friendly film.

Now let me stress here that a lot of very talented people worked incredibly hard on this Walt Disney Productions release. Were you to look at “The Black Cauldron” ‘s credits today, you’d see that a veritable “Who’s Who” of modern animation masters worked on this motion picture.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s take a look at a few members of this film’s production team:

Production Manager — Don Hahn

Animators — Andreas Deja, Hendel Butoy, Dale Baer, Ron Husband, Shawn Keller, Mike Gabriel,
Barry Temple, Ruben Aquino, Ruben Procopio, George Scribner, Mark Henn & David Pacheo

Effects Animators — Barry Cook & Mark Dindal

Additional Animation — Kathy Zielinski & Maurice Hunt

Additional Story Contributions — Steve Hullet, John Musker & Ron Clements

Assistant Animators — Jane Baer & David Pruiksma

Inbetween Artists — Kelly Asbury & Robert Minkoff

Effects Inbetween Artist — Gary Trousdale

Anyway … In spite of the heroic effort that all these talented people put in, this film was released to theaters in North America and only earned $21 million. Which didn’t even come close to covering “The Black Cauldron” ‘s production costs. And given the bad taste that this animated feature had left in the mouths of Disney’s new management team, I guess it’s easy to understand why this Joe Hale production then got locked away in the Disney vault for over 13 years.

Unlike most Disney animated features, “The Black Cauldron” was never re-released to theaters. It was only begrudgedly released on VHS in August of 1998 after thousands of animation fans repeatedly wrote to the Walt Disney Company and asked that this movie finally be made available for purchase in the home video format.

Yes, in spite of this film’s prolonged production and the somewhat flawed final product, “The Black Cauldron” still does have its fans. Were you to hammer on this link or this link or this link … You’d see what I mean.

But me … I can’t help but wonder if things would have turned out differently — not only for “The Black Cauldron,” but for the entire Walt Disney Company — if Ron Miller … Well, rather than holding WDFA’s set of then-young turks back in the mid-1970s, if Ron Miller had just turned these guys loose on the Lloyd Alexander books. Telling them “Look, I know that this ‘Prydian Chronicles’ project will be really be a challenge for you guys. But let’s give this a shot anyway. Let’s try and make the best possible motion picture that we can.”

If Ron Miller had just done that, maybe Don Bluth wouldn’t have left Walt Disney Productions in September of 1979, taking a quarter of WDFA’s staff with him … And if that seismic event hadn’t occurred, we’d probably be talking about a very different version of “The Black Cauldron” right now. Or — for that matter — a very different history of Disney’s Feature Animation department.

Anyway … That’s my somewhat protracted take on what went wrong with the production of Disney’s “The Black Cauldron.” Do you folks have any thoughts about this somewhat flawed animated feature? An FYI for all you “Black Cauldron” fans out there!

The finished roughs for Taran, Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam that were used to illustrate today’s article are currently up for bid over on eBay. So if you’d like something extra special to add to your “Black Cauldron” collection, I suggest that you go check these drawings out ASAP.

 

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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