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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files — Part 4

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

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OUR STORY SO FAR:

It was supposed to be the scariest show ever presented at Disneyland. A squirm-in-your-seat, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs special effects extravaganza. Had construction of “Tomorrowland 2055” actually gone forward, “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” could have easily become *THE* attraction you *HAD TO* see while touring this radically revamped side of the park.

Only Disney CEO Michael Eisner just couldn’t bring himself to sign off on the $200 million plus price tag for the “Tomorrowland 2055” project. Which was why he eventually pulled the plug on this ambitious Disneyland redo. Which is how “Alien Encounter” ended up debuting in WDW’s Magic Kingdom rather than at “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Ah, but Uncle Mikey’s meddling didn’t end there, kids. Because “Alien Encounter”‘s original production team had all moved on to other projects at WDI, Eisner assigned a whole new team to work on this Tomorrowland attraction. Their mission? Lighten up “AE,” pull back on the intensity of this show by folding in a few new gags. Which — hopefully — would make “Alien Encounter” more accessible to children and families.

This the new WDI writers did. But what Michael didn’t realize is that — by ordering that extraneous jokes be shoe-horned into this Tomorrowland attraction — he was also upsetting the balance of “AE”‘s carefully crafted storyline.

The damage that had been done to the show by this rewrite wouldn’t really become apparent until “Alien Encounter” began its in-the-field test and adjust period in December 1994. Of course, by then, it was too late to make any quick fixes …

 

But — up until that point — everything about this Tomorrowland attraction seemed to be right on track. After all, Disney had its “A Team” working on its “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” show.

I mean, listen to the folks that the Mouse had riding herd on the original version of WDW’s “AE” show:

Tom Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Theme Park Productions. Tom had had a hand in the creation of numerous Disney theme park attractions that successfully combined film elements with audio animatronic figures. Prior to “Alien Encounter,” Fitzgerald had helped produce “Star Tours,” “Jim Henson’s Muppetvision 3D” as well as “From Time to Time.” So Tom certainly seemed up for the “AE” challenge.

Then there was Eric Jacobson, Senior VP in charge of Creative Development at Walt Disney World. Name a huge new attraction that’s opened at the Florida parks in the past 10 years — “GM Test Track,” “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster,” etc. — and Eric’s probably had a hand in it.

Disney also recruited top notch talent to handle the film portion of WDW’s “AE” attraction. Sitting behind the camera was noted animation director Jerry Rees. Best known as the visual effects supervisor on “Tron” as well as being the director of “The Brave Little Toaster,” Rees had also helped produce another fine little film for the Disney theme parks. Do you remember the “Michael and Mickey” movie that used to run at the Disney-MGM Studios? You know, the one where Chernabog cowered before the Disney CEO and said “Sorry, Mr. Eisner. It’ll never happen again.” Jerry did that.

The Mouse then recruited a talented group of actors to appear in Rees’ “Alien Encounter” film sequences. Among these was Academy Award nominee Jeffrey Jones as Chairman Clinch, the head of X-S Tech; TV favorite Kathy Najimy as the cautious Dr. Femus and comic Kevin Pollak as Spinlock, the impatient alien marketing rep. (Special bonus for all you “AE” trivia buffs: That out-of-this-world spokesmodel you see on the video monitors in the lobby? Under all that green make-up, that’s Supermodel Tyra Banks!)

But — even with all these talented, experienced people on board the project, trying to get “AE” to succeed — there was still no getting around the flaws in “Alien Encounter”‘s badly reworked script. According to WDI insiders, the production’s first real mis-steps came when it was time to decide who would do the voice of the sales-droid in “AE”‘s pre-show.

Hoping that he might be able to give WDW guests a few big laughs before they got scared out of their socks by the show in the main theater, the Imagineers hired Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman to provide vocals for the robot who ineptly demonstrated X-S Tech’s teleportation technology in the pre-show. Being the old show business hand that he was, Hartman turned in a wonderfully smarmy performance, very reminiscent of his failed B movie actor Troy McClure from The Simpsons.

Imagineering had assembled what they thought was a top flight production. They spent months redoing the exterior of WDW’s old “Mission to Mars” show building so that it became the bland but somewhat sinister looking Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center. When test audiences first entered the inner lobby area in December 1994, they were amused by the numerous in-joke meeting announcements they read on the overhead monitors (Eg: “Lunar Disneyland — The Happiest Place Off Earth” and, my personal favorite, “Mission to Mars: Fact or Fiction?”). After that, these same WDW guests wandered into the pre-show, where they’ll chuckled warmly as Hartman’s robot character accidentally fried Skippy. Smiling broadly, these folks then wandered in the main theater …

… and that’s when all the trouble started.

Given how light and comical the pre-show elements of “Alien Encounter” had been, test audiences were shocked by how dark and intense the show in the main theater was. As guests left the “AE” show building, they complained long and loudly to cast members doing exit polls about the attraction that they had not been properly warned that this Tomorrowland show was going to be really, REALLY scary. They had assumed that “AE” would like all of the other supposedly scary Disney theme park shows, which are thrilling … but not truly terrifying.

But even with no 20th Century Fox “Alien” creatures in sight, WDW guests still found this new Tomorrowland attraction plenty scary. And — given that members of the test audience had walked right by huge signs that clearly told everyone about “Alien Encounter”‘s intense nature — the Imagineers wondered what else they could do to better prepare audiences for the show they’d see inside.

The obvious place to start was “AE”‘s pre-show. As funny as Phil Hartman’s performance as the sales-droid might have been, it was clear that this piece of the attraction wasn’t doing that good a job of setting the stage for the show that followed. Sensing that “Alien Encounter”‘s introductory scenes needed more menace, the Imagineers shelved Hartman’s recording as they reworked the script for “AE”‘s pre-show — deliberately putting a much darker spin on the proceedings.

The Imagineers then asked “Rocky Horror Picture Show” legend Tim Curry to come and record some new dialogue for the sales-droid. The new script and Curry’s sinister vocals did the trick. Guests still laughed at what they saw in the pre-show, but they were a little creeped out too. As they turned to enter the main theater, these WDW visitors were now filled with a vague unease. Which meant they were in the perfect frame of mind for the carnage that was to follow.

Having fixed the pre-show, WDI now turned its attention to the “Alien Encounter” attraction itself. Test audiences had found the first version of the 3D sound show intense but also hard to follow. By sitting in on dozens of performances of “AE,” the Imagineers determined that the audience was screaming so long and so loudly at parts of the show that they were missing out on several crucial pieces of expository dialogue. Consequently, a lot of the members of the test audiences had trouble following the original version of the attraction’s storyline.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner — who first experienced “AE” in the field in December 1994 the weekend he was down at WDW to attend the grand opening of Pleasure Island’s Planet Hollywood — also agreed that the attraction had some serious story problems. (It’s been rumored that Michael actually took Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzeneggar along with him the first time he test-drove this Tomorrowland attraction. Which is not as far fetched as it might seem, folks, given that both of these men were also in Orlando the weekend that Eisner was. Since all three were taking part in the WDW PH festivities. But — to date — I’ve never been able to get any official confirmation on this story. Sorry about that. Anyway …) That’s why Eisner agreed to let the Imagineers shut down “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” — so that WDI could have all the time it needed to make the appropriate repairs to the attraction’s plot holes.

So all those stories that you’ve heard over the past six years about how Michael Eisner ordered “Alien Encounter” closed because he didn’t think the show was scary enough … well, they’re not entirely true, folks. Sure, Michael wanted extra thrill elements to be added to the show. But the real reason that Eisner allowed the Imagineers to temporarily close “AE” was because he wanted the show’s storyline to come across more cleanly, more clearly, more coherently. Michael’s main aim in closing the show wasn’t to add extra scares. But rather because he wanted “Alien Encounter”‘s story to be easier for the average WDW visitor to follow.

Mind you, this simple sounding task took an awful lot of effort. Some of the changes that WDI made to the “Alien Encounter” show were small and subtle — like waiting an additional six seconds before playing a crucial piece of dialogue over the speakers in the theater (just so the line wouldn’t be drowned by the audience’s screams). Other changes involved providing the people who were in the middle of experiencing “Alien Encounter” with additional visual reference material (I.E. throwing a graphic up on the theater’s four video monitors that clearly shows that the monster that was trapped inside the teleportation tube has a pair of wings … that brief image was just enough to get WDW guests to finally understand how the monster was making its way around the room once it supposedly broke out of the containment field).

Perhaps the biggest change that was made to the in-theater portion of the “Alien Encounter” attraction was the show’s new finale. In the original, jokier version of “AE,” after the alien has been successfully beamed out of the theater, Chairman Clinch is finally beamed in. However — given how disastrously the demonstration has gone — Spinlock and Femus are reluctant to raise the blast shield on the teleportation tube. So, as WDW guests exited out of the theater, they could clearly hear the increasingly exasperated X-S Tech Chairman banging on the inside of the tube, demanding to be let out.

Again, a funny idea. But not really in keeping with the tone of the scary show that preceded it. That’s why the Imagineers opted to drop the gag-filled ending of the show and go with a new “Blood & Guts” finale. To add a disgusting coup de gras to the whole “Alien Encounter” experience, the guests seated in the “AE” theater now got splattered with warm water just as the teleportation device supposedly overloaded and blew the evil alien creature in a million tiny wet chunks. (To put a grotesque but funny tag on this part of the show, the Imagineers deliberately added one additional piece of dialogue to “AE”‘s explosive finale. The fat stupid guy who’s supposedly been sitting behind you now says “Yuck! I had my mouth open.” Ewwww!)

Given that most of these changes don’t seem all that involved — a new line here, a graphic there — why did it take the Imagineers so long (nearly six months) to finally fix WDW’s “Alien Encounter?” Simple. Given all the elaborate technology that was necessary to seamlessly co-ordinate the hundreds of elements of this Tomorrowland show, it took weeks to properly reprogram the show’s computers so that they could smoothly handle even the simplest of changes.

For all you techno-nuts out there, here’s a little insight in the gear involved with running “Alien Encounter”: “AE” actually works off of an SSU — a show-supervisor unit. This rack mounted system controls all the lighting and smoke effects as well as the audio and video elements used in the show. This ambitious little machine also keeps tabs on three SIUs — show-interface units. One of these state-of-the art machines rides herd on the pre-show, while the other two take care of the side-by-side sit-down theaters. (Aren’t you glad you asked?)

In order to get all the necessary changes made (which often involved hours and hours of trial and error), Disney officially closed WDW’s “Alien Encounter” in January 12, 1995 — less than six weeks after the Mouse had been begun doing test and adjust on its new Tomorrowland attraction. Though the show had never officially opened to the public, Walt Disney World was still abuzz with rumors about why the new Magic Kingdom attraction had suddenly shuttered.

The Mouse tried to put a funny spin on the story. They distributed thousands of copies of a flyer property-wide that had supposedly been written by X-S Tech Chairman, L.C. Clinch. In his message to WDW cast members, Clinch apologized for the delays involved with getting “Alien Encounter” opened. “We look forward to a profitable relationship with your species,” or so said the pretend memo. The flyer then went on to say that the projected re-opening date for this new Tomorrowland attraction was Easter 1995.

Unfortunately, the Easter Bunny would be long gone before most WDW guests finally their chance to “Seize the Future with X-S.” It wasn’t until June 20, 1995 before “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” officially re-opened in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. By then, Michael Eisner had reportedly lost all enthusiasm for this new Tomorrowland attraction.

What exactly caused Eisner to sour on it? Some say that it was the additional $10 – $15 million Disney had to pump into “Alien Encounter” so that this new Tomorrowland attraction would finally play properly for WDW guests. Others suggest that it was all the negative publicity that was associated with the “AE” redo.

The most likely reason for the Disney CEO falling out of love with “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” attraction? I believe that Eisner eventually began to believe what those old Imagineers had been saying: that a scary show like “AE” doesn’t really belong in the Magic Kingdom. Given the hundreds of letters that the Walt Disney Company still receives every year from angry WDW guests — people who’d just gotten off “Dumbo the Flying Elephant” or just been whirled around in the Teacups, only to unwittingly wander in “Alien Encounter” and find themselves locked down in a chair, suddenly being threatened by a rasping, drooling monstrosity — there are obviously quite a number of folks who feel this way.

Which — to some Disneyana fans’ way of thinking — is a real shame. For — as vocal as “Alien Encounter”‘s critics may be — there’s an equally hardcore group of theme park fans who absolutely adore this Tomorrowland show.

These are the folks that you’ll spy at the N.F.F.C. conventions proudly wearing their “Fried Skippy” t-shirts. These are the same people who eagerly snatched up all the “Alien Encounter” action figures Disney began selling last year. You can usually pick out their cars in the WDW parking lot. Their vehicles are the ones with the Skippy beanie baby sitting on their dashboard.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that there are also a lot of “Alien Encounter” fans inside WDI. These are the Imagineers who had their hearts set on adding this edgy attraction to every single Disney theme park worldwide. These guys insist that — if Eisner had okayed construction of “Tomorrowland 2055” and followed Imagineering’s original plans for “Alien Encounter” (and not the dumbed down, gag-filled WDW version) — Disneyland’s “AE” show would have been a huge hit right out of the box. A “Star Tours”-sized success which would have served a template for all the other “Alien Encounter” attractions to follow, giving the company a successful franchise show that they could have quickly rolled out at the corporation’s theme parks worldwide.

Ah, but I guess that’s not going to happen now. WDW’s “Alien Encounter” appears to be the one and only version of this high tech new Tomorrowland attraction that will ever make it off the drawing board. (Though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” interactive game that’s currently available for play at DisneyQuest. I’m told that this multi-player game — which is very loosely based on the WDW attraction — is hugely popular at both the Chicago and the Lake Buena Vista DQ locations.)

But still you have to wonder. Given that WDI’s reportedly in the process of putting together a new dark, scary, intense attraction — the long-rumored “Armageddon” exploding-Russian-space-station effects show — for both Disney’s California Adventure and Disney Studios Europe, wouldn’t it just be cheaper and smarter just to do “Alien Encounter” as it was originally supposed to be done? Featuring the creatures from 20th Century Fox’s “Alien” movies?

Come on, Disney! “Seize the Future.” Take another stab at doing “Alien Encounter.”

Only this time, don’t let Eisner muck it up.

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.

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“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

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And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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