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The “Chanticleer” Saga — Part 3

In this three part series from August 2000, Jim Hill looks at the long history of the Walt Disney Company’s attempts to turn Edmund Rostand’s satirical comedy, “Chantecler” into an animated motion picture.

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OUR STORY SO FAR: Since the late 1930s, Walt Disney had been trying to turn Edmund Rostand’s satirical comedy, “Chantecler” into an animated motion picture. But — in spite of the best efforts of the studio’s top artists and storymen — the project just wouldn’t jell. So Walt reluctantly tabled the proposed film back in the early 1950s.

Flash forward to 1960. Ken Anderson and Marc Davis — fresh off “101 Dalmatians” — were looking for a project they could use to drag Disney’s animated cartoons into the modern age. A story without a princess or a female fiend for a villain. A film that would work at two levels — so that children and adults could both enjoy it.

While poking around the morgue (Excuse me. “Animation Research Library”), Ken and Marc came across all the development art for those earlier versions of “Chanticleer.” Here finally was subject matter that challenged and inspired Anderson and Davis. Here was something that they could really work with, sink their teeth into, shape into an extraordinary animated film.

Working closely with Ken, Marc mapped out plans for a cartoon unlike anything Disney Studios had ever done before. The animated equivalent of a Broadway musical comedy, “Chanticleer” would have wildly funny characters, brassy musical numbers as well as a visual style and flair that would place it light years ahead of “Snow White” and “Cinderella.”

Which was kind of ironic. For — just as Ken Anderson and Marc Davis were making bold new plans to move Disney animated cartoons into the future — Roy Disney was trying to talk Walt into making feature length ‘toons a thing of the past.

Mind you, Roy’s reasoning seemed sound. Disney Studio already had 17 feature length animated cartoons in the can. These types of movies cost a lot of money to make as well as taking years to produce. So why go through the expense and bother of making new animated features when the company could make just as much money re-releasing the old films?

Walt was sorely tempted. Particularly when Roy pointed out that the money the company saved from cutting out cartoons could be applied toward the construction costs of that second theme park Walt was toying with building. But — in the end — the younger Disney just couldn’t bring himself to pull the plug on feature animation. All Walt would agree to do was scale back the studio’s feature animation operation.

At that time, Walt Disney Productions only had two animated films in active development: Bill Peet’s Arthurian fantasy, “The Sword in the Stone” and Marc and Ken’s “Chanticleer.” And — per Walt’s agreement with Roy — one of those films would now have to be shut down.

Without Bill, Marc or Ken’s knowledge, Walt brought himself up to speed concerning the current status of both projects. He did this by slipping into the animation building after hours, going into Peet, Davis and Anderson’s offices after they’d gone home for the day and examining all the pre-production art they’d produced for “The Sword in the Stone” and “Chanticleer.”

After reviewing all of the conceptual material, Disney quickly came to one conclusion: In spite of the film’s heavy reliance on magic, it looked like “The Sword in the Stone” would be the easier (read that as cheaper) of the two films to produce. It was strictly a numbers thing. “Sword”‘s cast was smaller and mostly human — which made its characters easier to draw. That film’s story — though episodic in nature — also seemed to have a bit more heart than “Chanticleer.” (Wart was an underdog that an audience could care about, root for. Chanticleer was … well … a pompous, preening rooster who thought the sun only rose because he crowed every morning. This was not exactly a character that an audience could immediately be expected to warm up to).

“Sword in the Stone” had no elaborate musical numbers to stage, nor would its characters need big name celebrities to successfully voice their parts. The final decision seemed like a no brainer. Bill Peet’s “The Sword in the Stone” would be the safer (read this also as cheaper) of the two films to produce. So Disney would have to pull the plug on “Chanticleer.”

Now came the tough part. Walt was fond of both Marc and Ken. He knew that these guys had labored for the better part of a year in their attempt to turn “Chanticleer” into an animated feature. But Disney just didn’t have the heart to tell them that all of their hard work was for naught, that their film wouldn’t be going into production.

In the end, Walt couldn’t bring himself to tell Davis and Anderson that “Chanticleer” was canceled. So he didn’t.

He let a member of Roy’s staff — with a mumbled aside — do the dirty work for him.


Marc knew he was in trouble the moment he saw where Walt was sitting.

Normally — at pitch meetings like this — Disney liked to be down front, dead center. Walt wanted to be as close to the action as possible, ready to leap up and act out a funny bit of business or quickly point out where the project had gone off track.

But Walt wasn’t sitting down front for the “Chanticleer” meeting. He quietly took a seat at the back of the room and avoided all eye contact with Davis and Anderson. The seats in the front row? They were all taken by “Roy’s Boys” — executives who worked on the financial side of the studio.

Marc and Ken quickly exchanged worried glances. But then, gathering his courage, Davis stepped to the front of the room and began his pitch for the proposed animated film.

No sooner had the phrase: “The hero of our story is Chanticleer, a rooster…” left Marc’s lips when one of Roy’s boys muttered to his co-horts: “A chicken can’t be heroic.”

Then Marc knew. 30 seconds into his pitch, “Chanticleer” was already dead in the water. All of Davis’s wonderful character sketches. All of Ken’s beautifully rendered backgrounds. None of that stuff mattered. This movie was never going to get made.

Still Marc pressed on — hoping against hope that he could win this audience over to the idea of doing an all-animated Broadway style musical that starred a chicken. No dice. The people attending this pitch session were polite but indifferent. For they knew what Anderson and Davis didn’t: That Walt had already canceled “Chanticleer.” He just hadn’t gotten around to telling them yet.

When the session was over, those in attendance shuffled out silently — not saying a word.

That includes Walt. Especially Walt.

A week went by and Davis nor Anderson heard nothing from nobody. They just sat in their offices, shell-shocked at how badly the “Chanticleer” pitch session had gone.

Ken’s colleagues at Feature Animation gave these two a wide berth, avoided these two veteran animators like the plague. No one wanted to be associated with a development team that had failed that miserably in a pitch session for a proposed animated feature.

Only Davis and Anderson knew that they hadn’t really failed. They were certain that “Chanticleer” — as they designed it — would have made a wonderful animated film. Sure, it would have cost a bit more to make, taken a lot longer than “Sword” to produce. But audiences would have loved the finished product.

Only this time around, there wasn’t going to be a finished product. For some reason, the accountants — not Walt — were now calling the shots at Walt Disney Studios. And that meant an ambitious, expensive animated feature like “Chanticleer” was never going to make it off the drawing board.

What hurt most was not hearing from Walt. Walt — the guy who’d so strongly encouraged them to take this approach with the material. Walt — the guy who’d seemed so eager to get a “Chanticleer” movie made. Walt — the guy who sat in the back of that pitch session and didn’t say a word.

For a week, Marc waited by the phone — hoping that his boss would call and explain what the hell was happening. Why Roy’s Boys were suddenly deciding which features Disney’s animators could and couldn’t make.

Finally, the phone did ring. And — yes — it was Walt. But there was no explanation. No apology. Just a job offer.

“Marc,” Walt said, “Those guys at WED aren’t very good at staging gags. People have been complaining that Disneyland’s shows have gotten kind of humorless. Do you think you could go over to Glendale and help them out?”

That was it. No “I’m sorry I let the accountants torpedo your film.” No “You and Ken did a really great job. It’s just not the right time to make this movie.” No “That was the best work you guys ever did. I’m truly sorry that we can’t make this movie.” Just “Could you go over to Glendale and help those guys out?”

So Marc — because of his strong sense of personal loyalty to Walt Disney — went over to WED and helped those guys out. And he never returned to Feature Animation.

But — In the 17 years he stayed in Glendale working at Imagineering –Davis helped create some of the greatest theme park attractions the Disney theme parks had ever seen: “The Jungle Cruise.” “The Enchanted Tiki Room.” “It’s a Small World.” “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” “The Carousel of Progress.” “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “The Haunted Mansion.” “The Hall of Presidents.” “County Bear Jamboree.” “America Sings.”

All of them great shows. Each of them displaying that distinctive Marc Davis touch.

But Marc never entirely forgot about “Chanticleer.” It was — to borrow a tired phrase that almost every angler uses — “the big one that got away.” The great film that would have really put a cap on his career as a master animator.

Ah, well … It wasn’t meant to be, I guess.

Mind you, this didn’t stop Davis from folding characters and concepts he created for “Chanticleer” into his work at WED. Take another look at those singing chickens in “America Sings.” Do they look familiar? They should. Those birds belting out “Down by the River Side” are modeled after the feathered French hens would who have played the chorus in “Chanticleer.”

And it wasn’t just Marc that kept trying to recycle pieces of this proposed film. His character sketches for the aborted 1960s version of “Chanticleer” were so good, they quickly become the stuff of legends around Disney Feature Animation. Artists would repeatedly go down to the morgue (Excuse me. “Animation Research Library”), pull out the full color, beautifully rendered drawings Marc made for the movie and just marvel at them.

These drawings were so good — in fact — that veteran Disney animator Mel Shaw pulled them out in 1981 to try and sell Disney management on the idea that it was finally time for the studio to make “Chanticleer.” Hoping to improve the proposed project’s chances, Shaw worked up a story treatment that stressed the rooster’s heroic qualities — making him “the most MACHO (chicken) in all of France.”

Mel also threw together an inspiring set of pastel and watercolor conceptual drawings as he tried to sell the studio on making his vision of the film. But the folks running Walt Disney Productions in the early 1980s were more cautious and conservative then “Roy’s Boys” were back in 1960. They quickly shot down the idea of the studio ever doing “Chanticleer” as a full length feature.

When word got out that Disney had once again rejected the idea of doing “Chanticleer” as an animated feature, one man rejoiced. That man’s name? Don Bluth.

Two years earlier, Bluth had made a very public break from the animation operation at Walt Disney Productions. Tired of the heads of the studio constantly cutting corners, always going for the safer choices, Bluth — one of the most talented young animators Disney Studio had at the time — bailed out of Burbank. He left his cozy corporate nest, taking 15 or more of Disney’s top young animators with them.

These folks started a new animation studio, “Aurora Productions.” Their mission: to make great animated films like Walt used to do. Movies like “Pinocchio” and “Bambi.” With strong storylines and full animation. Not tired, half-hearted films like “Robin Hood” and “The Aristocats.”

Right out of the box, Aurora Productions did make a great animated film. Maybe you’ve seen it … “The Secret of Nimh?” This film has everything a hit movie should have: A solid, moving story with superb animation. Characters you care about. Big laughs. Great action sequences. A beautiful score.

Yep, “The Secret of Nimh” had everything that a hit film should … everything except an audience. In spite of receiving tremendous reviews, “Nimh” really didn’t do all that well at the box office and quickly faded from sight.

But still — buoyed by those great reviews (as well as those encouraging phone calls from Spielberg and Lucas) — Bluth remained hopeful. Maybe someday — if he played his cards right — Don might get his shot at turning “Chanticleer” into a great animated film.

For — during his 10 year long tenure at the Mouse House — Bluth too had been down to the morgue (Aw … forget it!) and seen Marc’s drawings. That’s why he knew that a truly fine animated film could be pulled out of Rostand’s barnyard comedy.

10 years later, Don did get his chance at turning “Chanticleer” into a feature length animated film. And while it would be nice to report that Bluth did want Disney couldn’t: turned this French satire into a successful cartoon … that’s not exactly what happened, kids.

What went wrong? Well, for starters, Bluth’s version of “Chanticleer” — entitled “Rock-a-Doodle” — moves the story to America and turns this French vain rooster into … well .. sort of a feathered Elvis.

Then there’s the problem with the villain. Bluth knew that if he borrowed Disney’s proposed antagonist — Reynard the Fox — that it would be too obvious where he had cribbed his original source material from. So Bluth opted to create an all new villain for his “Chanticleer” cartoon: the Grand Duke (voiced by Christopher Plummer), an owl who wanted Chanticleer out of the way so that the sun would never rise again and the world would be forever shrouded in darkness.

Alright, so that’s exactly not the greatest motivation for a movie villain. There’s still lots to like about Bluth’s “Rock-a-Doodle.” Mouse fans will be pleased to hear that old Disney favorites like Phil Harris and Sandy Duncan provide voices for characters in the film. And — as a sly tribute to the original author of “Chanticleer,” Edmund Rostand — Don named the little boy/cat who drives the action in the movie Edmund.

Unfortunately, audiences in April 1992 (when “Rock-a-Doodle” finally made its stateside debut) weren’t feeling as kindly toward Don Bluth as I did. They greeted the film with indifference. “Rock-a-Doodle” got lousy reviews, did terrible box office and quickly sank like a stone.

So — since Don Bluth Productions turned out such a mediocre “Chanticleer” movie — that’s the end of the story, right? No one will ever again attempt an animated version of Rostand’s play, correct?

Not necessarily.

Modern Disney master animator Andreas Deja remains a huge fan of Marc Davis’ conceptual work for “Chanticleer.” In Charles Solomon’s great book about Disney animated features that never quite made it off the drawing board, “The Disney That Never Was,” (Hyperion Press, 1995), Deja is quoted as saying:

“Marc designed some of the best looking characters I’ve ever seen — these characters want to be moved and used.”

Deja’s obsession with this material continues to this day. This past April — as part of the “Tribute to Marc Davis” that was held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Hollywood — Andreas took a few moments to show the crowd some of Marc’s drawings from “Chanticleer.” As he looked up at the images on the screen, Deja remarked:

“It’s kind of sad that this movie was never produced; the studio decided to do ‘Sword in the Stone’ instead. Which is also a very good movie, but wouldn’t it have been nice to see these characters come to life? Apparently, at that time, the studio felt — according to Marc — that it would be too difficult to develop sympathy for a chicken. I don’t think so. I have sympathy for these guys.”

He added, while still looking up at the pictures, “One of these days, I’ll have to sit down and do a few pencil tests of these characters — just to see them move.”

So there you have it, kids. Fowl fans rejoice! Particularly now that Dreamworks SKG had a huge hit this past summer with Aardman Animation’s “Chicken Run.” Maybe someday Deja will put together a test that finally convinces the accountants who are running the Walt Disney Company that there’s a great film to be made from Marc Davis’ “Chanticleer” conceptual material.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

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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