Connect with us


The ExtraTERRORestrial Files — Part 2

Jim Hill delves into the troubling story behind the creation of that controversial Tomorrowland attraction, “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.”



Listen to the Article


1984 was a dark time for the Disney empire.

Teens reportedly felt that all the rides and shows found at the Mouse’s theme parks were lame, preferring the edgier entertainment to be found at Universal Studios and Six Flags Magic Mountain. That’s why newly arrived CEO Michael Eisner ordered the Imagineers to come with concepts for attractions that would quickly broaden Disney’s appeal to the younger generation.

Buoyed by the success of “Star Tours,” WDI decided to design a ride around another highly successful 20th Century Fox science fiction film series. This time around, however, the Imagineers hoped to build an interactive attraction that featured the vicious, acid-drooling monsters from the “Alien” movies.

Naturally, several senior members of Imagineering management freaked out when they learned about this proposed Tomorrowland attraction. Arguing that an attraction this scary and intense really didn’t belong in a Disney theme park, they successfully got the project shut down. Or so they thought.

Little did these older Imagineers realize that several young turks at WDI were secretly scheming to bring the “Alien” based show idea back from the dead. In fact, the version of the show that these guys wanted to go forward with made the first incarnation of the “Alien” attraction look tame by comparison …

The Imagineers had decided to go for broke.

This being WDI’s first real attempt at a horror-based attraction, the “Alien Encounter” project team didn’t want to just frighten their audience. They wanted to break through the fourth wall and really assault the guest’s senses. That’s why they decided to push the envelope when it came to the proposed show’s use of in-theater effects.

Picture this: The audience sit in the darkened “Mission to Mars” theater. They’ve told that the monster from the “Alien” movies is loose in the building. They can hear the creature creeping up behind them. They can feel its drool dribbling onto their clothes. And as the monster’s tongue begins flicking through the hair on the back on their head … AIEEE!

All these atmospheric elements that WDI wanted to use to make “Alien Encounter” a sensory break-through show may sound cutting edge and expensive. In truth, they were all low-tech effects that were incredibly easy to do. The sensation that the monster is right behind the audience member, breathing down their neck? Simple. That’s just warm, moist air being blown through a hole in the guest’s headrest — synchronized to raspy breathing sounds on the show’s soundtrack. That dribble of monster drool? That’s less that a teaspoon of warm water — dripped from a precisely positioned pipe, hidden high in the ceiling of the theater. The monster’s tongue, flicking through the guest’s hair? That’s a single strand of plastic coated wire, that quickly pokes out of the headrest and lightly brushes the guest’s hair. All ingenious illusions, it’s true. But — more to the point — they were in-theater effects that could be produced on a bargain basement budget.

Keeping the installation costs down of their proposed new Tomorrowland show was one of the “Alien Encounter” team’s main goals. With the hopes of impressing Eisner with their ingenuity, these Imagineers deliberately designed “Alien Encounter” so that it could be staged in the pre-existing “Mission to Mars” theaters with minimal structural changes to the show building. If all went according to plan, Disney could get a brand new cutting edge attraction at cut-rate prices. Best of all, WDI would finally give Eisner what he’d been begging for all these years: a Disney theme park attraction that had some real teen appeal.

On paper, it looked like this idea couldn’t miss. By combining all these in-theater effects and the “Alien” movie series mythology, Imagineering wouldn’t just be creating a thrilling new show for the “Mission to Mars” theater. They would be moving the Disney theme park experience to a whole new level. This time around, guests wouldn’t just passively sit, watching a show. They’d feel like they were right in the middle of the action.

When Eisner heard the pitch for “Alien Encounter,” he loved the idea. He immediately saw the show as a franchise, an attraction that the Disney Company could install at each of its theme parks worldwide. He quickly okayed development of the project, with the hope that “Alien Encounter” would be ready in time to serve as the centerpiece of Disneyland and WDW’s long overdue Tomorrowland overhauls which were tentatively scheduled to get underway in the early 1990s.

The young Imagineers immediately threw themselves into their work. They quickly created a prototype chair for the “Alien Encounter” attraction that featured hidden speakers in its headrest. VIPs touring WDI during this period were often treated to a demonstration of Disney’s 3D sound system. They vividly recall being strapped into the chair — with the “Alien Encounter” test soundtrack playing through the speakers — squirming helplessly as a monster snuck up behind them.

The demo version of “Alien Encounter” proved to be a hit with WDI visitors. Even so, those same senior Imagineers who had earlier shut down the “Nostromo” project began whispering in Eisner’s ear about their concerns for the new “Alien” project. They still worried that a show built around a creature as frightening as 20th Century Fox’s “Alien” monster didn’t belong in a Disney theme park.

In response, the “Alien Encounter” team insisted that their proposed attraction had to be built around 20th Century Fox’s monster. Their argument was simple: by using a character that most theme park visitors were already familiar with, the Imagineers didn’t have to waste precious showtime on needless exposition. In-park surveys showed that the average Disneyland guest already knew who the “Alien” monster was. Upwards of 80% of those polled had seen one or more of the films in the series.

This — the Imagineers argued — was the added bonus of using the monster from the “Alien” film series for their proposed attraction. Guests who’d seen the “Alien” movies and liked them would rush to see an attraction based on the series. Those Disney theme park visitors who hadn’t cared for the movies would just steer clear of the new show. It was a win-win situation.

Having listened to both arguments, Eisner sided with the “Alien Encounter” team. Recalling the boffo business Disneyland did when “Star Tours” opened, he reasoned that another attraction based on a popular sci-fi film series could have a similar impact on attendance. Besides, having a direct tie-in to 20th Century Fox’s movies would make “Alien Encounter” that much easier to promote. It seemed like the logical choice to Eisner.

This news appalled the senior Imagineering staff. They were horrified at the thought of the “Alien” movie monster starring in a Disney theme park attraction. Since Eisner hadn’t heeded their counsel, these Imagineers decided to appeal to a higher authority: George Lucas.

At the time, Lucas was working closely with Walt Disney Imagineering. He was helping WDI finalize plans for the “Indiana Jones Adventure,” a ground-breaking new attraction that the Imagineers hoped to install at Disneyland’s Adventureland in the mid-1990s. Given Lucas’s extensive experience with special effects and sound effects, he and his staff at ILM were also doing some consulting on the “Alien Encounter” project.

Who actually spoke with George and what was said … no one today is willing to say. Why for? Well, relations between Lucasfilm and Disney are at an all-time low right now (that’s why “Star Tours” still hasn’t gotten its new ride film — the one inspired by the pod race sequence from “Phantom Menace” — yet) and no one at WDI wants to be the guy that says something that makes George even madder.

What is known is that these senior Imagineers discreetly approached Lucas and voiced their concerns about “Alien Encounter” being too intense for small children. George allegedly listened politely, then agreed that 20th Century Fox’s movie monster probably didn’t belong in a Disney theme park. Lucas promised to talk to Eisner about the proposed attraction, and then …

A few days later, Eisner called a meeting with the “Alien Encounter” production team. He announced that he’d had a change of heart and no longer believed the show should be built around 20th Century Fox’s movie monster. Eisner went on to say that he felt that the “Alien” monster was just too scary to serve as the central character of a Disney theme park attraction. He then said — while he appreciated all the hard work the Imagineers had put into the Fox monster version of the show — he was certain that WDI could come up with a monster of its own that would be just as good. One not quite as frightening as the first monster was, mind you, but something that would still work within the confines of the show.

Oh … and one other thing Eisner mentioned: George Lucas would now be acting as an unofficial producer on the “Alien Encounter” project.

While the senior Imagineers were secretly thrilled with this news, the “Alien Encounter” team was aghast. Rework the show so that it no longer featured the movie monster? Was that possible? Would “Alien Encounter” still work under these conditions? And why was Lucas suddenly riding herd on the project?

It was at this precise moment that many folks at WDI believe that “Alien Encounter” went off track. By not making use of 20th Century Fox’s well known monster, the show suddenly lost its hook. Without having the easily recognizable “Alien” creature driving the action of the show, the attraction’s storyline became harder for the average theme park guest to follow. The Imagineers would now have to make sure that the audience understood exactly what their new monster was capable of doing before they turned off the lights. Otherwise, the guests would just sit there in the dark, having no idea what was going on around them.

Since the initial concept for the “Alien Encounter” show had now been creatively compromised, many at WDI felt that Imagineering should have pulled the plug on the project. But Eisner was still so enthusiastic about the idea of Disney doing a “monster-in-the-dark” show. He seemed downright eager to give the Imagineers all the money they needed to develop all those special in-theater effects. And WDI did want to keep the boss happy.

So the Imagineers reluctantly began to revamp “Alien Encounter.” But — before they started on a new version for the show — one of the first things they did was called Disney’s publicity department. The Imagineers then asked the PR people to return all “Alien Encounter” pre-production art they had been given to help promote the proposed attraction. The reason the Imagineers did this? All that artwork was from the original version of “Alien Encounter,” which prominently featured 20th Century Fox’s movie monster.

Disney’s PR department ignored WDI’s request. In fact, they continued to use that “Alien Encounter” pre-production artwork — which clearly showed 20th Century Fox’s monster bursting out of the tube at the center of the proposed attraction — to promote the show for the next two years.

The Imagineers then turned their attention to producing a new script for “Alien Encounter.” For months, they labored — trying to come up a new plot line that audiences could grasp quickly. Finally, they settled on the ‘XS Tech’ scenario — where a sinister alien corporation tries to sell teleportation equipment to the people of Earth … when something goes horribly wrong! Admittedly, this version wasn’t nearly as much fun as the original 20th Century Fox’s “Alien” based story. But the Imagineers hoped that the show’s innovative use of in-theater effects would still put “Alien Encounter” across to the Disney theme park audience.

Eisner — who reportedly really enjoyed the jabs at greedy corporations the Imagineers slipped into this version of the script — okayed the ‘XS Tech’ scenario. Lucas also gave his approval of the new storyline. So WDI threw together a production team and gave the project a preliminary budget. With that, work on ‘Alien Encounter’ officially got underway in the fall of 1992.

Given the multi-media aspect of the show, lots of individual pieces had to be put together before Imagineering knew if “Alien Encounter” was actually going to work. Academy Award nominee Jeffery Jones, comic Kevin Pollak and TV favorite Kathy Najimy were hired to play XS Tech employees for the film vignettes to be featured in the attraction. Elaborate foley sessions were staged to record the numerous 3D sound effects used in the show. AA figures for the pre-show, as well as the two “Mission to Mars” theaters, were built at WDI’s Tujunga facility.

As work continued on “Alien Encounter,” Imagineers assigned to the project kept wondering when George Lucas was going to get actively involved with the show. During the development of “Star Tours” and the “Indiana Jones Adventure,” Lucas had played a very active part in the creative process on these attractions. But on “Alien Encounter,” Lucas offered very little input. After attending a few initial story meetings, he pretty much left the Imagineers working on the show alone. For all intents and purposes, George was the absentee landlord of this attraction, its producer in name only.

Now, it’s crucial to understand that — while “Alien Encounter” was actually in production — the Imagineering division of the Walt Disney Company was going through one of the worst periods in its corporate history. Euro Disneyland has just opened and was hemorrhaging money. The Westcot and Port Disney projects had stalled. And Disney management was putting tremendous pressure on the division to cut staff and contain costs.

So WDI was hit by wave after wave of layoffs, which left the remaining staff depressed and demoralized. Then Imagineering management — in a further attempt to keep costs down — decided to cut back on in-house testing on work-in-progress attractions.

This last bit of news terrified the “Alien Encounter” production team. WDI had never put together a theme park attraction that was as complicated as “AE” was. For this show to succeed, video clips, binaural sound, in-theater physical effects, and audio animatronic figures would all have to work in perfect synchronization. Without that split second blending of multimedia technology, “Alien Encounter” would be a hopelessly jumbled mess.

To avoid this sort of disaster, the Imagineers needed as much time as possible to run tests on the “Alien” attraction at WDI headquarters in Glendale, CA. At least there — if they ran into problems — the “Alien Encounter” team would have other talented Imagineers right on hand to help them quickly debug the attraction.

WDI management wouldn’t hear of it. They insisted that — after the physical pieces of “Alien Encounter” were completed — they were to be immediately shipped out to the field for installation. After the equipment was loaded into the “Mission to Mars” show building, then the “Alien Encounter” team could make all necessary adjustments to make the show succeed.

The “Alien Encounter” team begged for more time, but WDI management turned a deaf ear to their pleading. They couldn’t be bothered with the production staff’s complaints that their show wasn’t getting enough advance in-house testing. The heads of Imagineering were far more concerned with determining which Disney theme park would get the “Alien Encounter” attraction first.

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.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling



Listen to the Article

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 prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Continue Reading


Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont



Listen to the Article

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

Continue Reading


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



Listen to the Article

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

Continue Reading