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The post-Christmas origin of character dining at Walt Disney World

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It's one of those must-do aspects of a Walt Disney World
vacation. Especially if you've got young kids. Character dining. That pricey breakfast,
lunch or dinner which is periodically interrupted as Disney characters come by
your table, pose for pictures and sign autographs.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Given that character dining is such a hugely popular – more
importantly, profitable — component  of
the WDW vacation experience nowadays (Don't believe me? Then just check out those
lines of Guests outside of the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom, Akershus
Royal Banquet Hall
at Epcot, Hollywood & Vine at Disney's Hollywood Studios
and Tusker House Restaurant at Disney's
Animal Kingdom
. Likewise that queue of customers outside of Chef Mickey's at
Disney's Contemporary Resort, the Cape May Cafe at Disney's Beach Club Resort
as well as 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa), it
might surprise you to learn that the Disney World version of character dining
didn't get its start inside of a theme park and/or at one of the resorts. But –
rather – over at Lake Buena Vista in the shopping village.

Or – for that matter – that the first "character" which WDW
visitors had the chance to dine with wasn't Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh or
any of the Disney Princesses. But – rather – Santa Claus.

It's kind of an interesting tale. But in order to properly
reveal the origins of character dining at Walt Disney World, I must first give
you a bit of backstory on that corner of the Resort which used to be known as the
Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

You see, back in the early 1970s, the folks in charge of
Walt Disney Productions wanted to make sure that the "Florida Project" truly was
an all-inclusive vacation resort. So it wasn't enough that Walt Disney World
had the Magic Kingdom, three themed hotels, two championship golf courses, a
campground, horseback riding, boating, water-skiing, bass fishing and the like.
The WDW Resort also had to have its own stand-alone retail & dining
district.

Mind you, construction of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping
Village didn't go forward just because the Company was looking for new &
different ways to get tourists to open their wallets. No, back in the early
1970s, Mouse House managers still had hopes that they'd someday be able to
deliver on Walt's last & greatest dream (i.e. pull a genuine city-of-the-future
up out of the swamps of Central Florida). And by constructing some sort of
commercial center out by what was then-known as Motor Inn Plaza … Well, that
seemed like kind of a smart intermediate step towards the Company's ultimate
goal of building Epcot-the-city.

Still, Disney being Disney … The Lake Buena Vista Shopping
Village couldn't just resemble the mall that folks had back at home. It had to
have a distinctly different take on the shopping experience. Much is the same
way that a Disney theme park was distinctly different from your average
regional amusement park.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why – rather than go with the standard indoor mall
floor plan — the Imagineers opted instead to build WDW's retail & dining
district outdoors along the shores of Lake Buena Vista. More to the point, that
this complex of 32 boutique and handicraft shops would be built out of
weathered wood & brick. And as shoppers wandered among these cedar-shingled
structures, they could then peer in through windows and watch as old-world
craftsmen cut crystal, shaped clay pots and engraved gold.

You get the idea yet? What Disney was trying to with the
Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was build the anti-mall. Create a unique
dining & retail experience that would not only appeal to WDW visitors but
also draw in leisure shoppers from all over the Central Florida region.

That was the plan, anyway. But when the Lake Buena Vista
Shopping Village opened on March 22, 1975, it quickly became apparent that
something was amiss. For while the Guests who were actually staying at the
Dutch Resort Hotel, Howard Johnson's, The Hotel Royal Plaza and Travelodge
Tower would schlep across the street from Hotel Plaza and then for check this
place out … That wasn't exactly the case for people staying at the
Contemporary, the Polynesian Village, the Golf Resort and Fort Wilderness
Campground
. Or – for that matter – most of the day guests who were visiting the
Magic Kingdom.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In fact, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village was capturing
such a small share of WDW Resort guests and day visitors to the theme park that
– in late 1975 / early 1976 – the Company commissioned a survey about this
shopping & dining district. And what they discovered back then really
startled them.

The biggest problem that the Lake Buena Vista Shopping
Village faced was that most tourists didn't link the Buena Vista name with Walt
Disney World. So when they heard "Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village," these
people thought that it was just another off-property attraction like SeaWorld
or Church Street Station. But worse than that, those WDW Resort guests who did
make a special trip over the Shopping Village to experience these artfully
designed collection of boutiques & restaurants said that they wouldn't be returning
anytime soon because – to be blunt – it just wasn't Disney enough.

So to quickly address these issues, the suits in Burbank
first decided to change the name of WDW's dining & retail district. Which –
in late 1976 / early 1977 – went from being the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village
to the Walt Disney World Village. They also made sure that every new ticket
book sold for the Magic Kingdom then featured an ad that urged theme park goers
to " … Visit the other side of the World … You haven't seen the whole World
until you've visited Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista. Open daily
10 to 10."


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And to counter Guest complaints that " … this shopping
village just isn't Disney enough," the Imagineers then decided to build an
iconic piece of Disneyland Park and WDW's Magic Kingdom. Which was a  recreation of a three-decked Mississippi River
stern-wheeler that would then be parked right along the shore of Buena Vista
Lagoon. Which – the wizards of WED hoped – would become the new focal point of
the shopping village.

And Disney spared no expense when it came to the
construction this 150-ton vessel (which – truth be told – wasn't a steamboat at
all. But – rather – a restaurant complex designed to look like a boat which
then sat on this submerged concrete foundation). With two 84-foot smoke stacks,
its 22-by-36-foot churning paddle wheel as well as its gingerbread railings, this
steamboat – at 220 feet long by 62 feet wide – was twice the size of the
paddle-wheelers which cruised around the Rivers of America at the Magic Kingdom.

And as for those " … this shopping village isn't Disney
enough" complaints … Well, that's why the Imagineers opted to name this faux
steamboat the Empress Lilly after Walt's wife, Lillian. In fact, on May 1,
1977, Lillian herself took part in the gala private christening ceremony for
this new WDW restaurant complex. And as she toured this building with Donn Tatum,
Mrs. Disney Truyens supposedly commented on the antique 24-foot-table inlaid
parquet table that she found in the Texas Deck Lounge. Which had reportedly
been chosen by Walt himself to serve as the dining table for the Disney family
suite
that was supposed to be built over "Pirates of the Caribbean" in
Disneyland's New Orleans Square area.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And while the name change as well as the addition of the
Empress Lilly did compel more WDW Guests to go visit the Walt Disney World
Village, this retail & dining district still struggled to catch on with
Central Floridians. So to draw even more leisure shoppers from the region,
Disney was then forced to start staging all sorts of special weekend-long
events down along the shore of Lake Buena. The Boat Show, The Car Show, The
Festival of the Masters
. Anything that Mouse House managers could think of as a
possible way to lure in additional local customers in.

And given that – at least back in the mid-1970s, anyway –
the weeks leading up to the holidays were an especially slow time for the Walt
Disney World Resort … Well, that's why the folks who ran WDW's shopping village
began staging the "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" there. Which was this
Renaissance-style, live Nativity scene that was staged right under the
Captain's Tower right at the very heart of this shopping & dining district.

Given that we now live in an age when people will actually go
to court to prevent a crèche from being placed on public property, it must seem
kind of bizarre to hear that – right up until the mid-1990s – that this
traditional retelling of the Christmas story was staged during the month of
December right on WDW property. And the "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas"
was a pretty elaborate affair, featuring 39 cast members and live animals. Not
to mention the Dickens Carolers from the Magic Kingdom, which – between scenes
– performed such decidedly non-secular tunes as "O Little Town of Bethlehem,"
"Away in a Manger," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "We Three Kings."


The finale of "The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" living Nativity at the Walt Disney
World Village. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas" became so popular
with Central Floridians that there were nights where – in order to deal with
the crowds – the Walt Disney World Village was forced to present three
performances of this living Nativity nightly, once at 6, 7:30 & 9 p.m.

Which was great when it came to bringing nighttime shoppers
into WDW Village during the month of December. But as for the early morning
hours, Disney World's shopping village genuinely struggled when it came to
bringing in customers. Or at least it did until one enterprising Mouse House
manager decided to borrow a bit of holiday magic from the local mall.

As Disneyland president George Kalogridis recounted at his
"A Word from the President" presentation at D23's Destination D: Disneyland '55
event in September of 2010, one member of the WDW Shopping Village's management
team noticed that several Orlando area malls were doing extremely well with
their "Have Breakfast with Santa" promotions. So why couldn't Disney stage a similar
sort of event to convince shoppers to come out to Lake Buena Vista during the
early morning hours?


As this image capture from "Holiday Time at Disneyland" (i.e. the "Wonderful World of
Color" episode that originally aired on December 23, 1962) proves, Walt and Santa
go way back. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So – just as a test in December of 1977 – the Walt Disney
World Village put together a "Have Breakfast with Santa" promotion. Where kids
& their parents would come on board the Empress Lilly (which was completely
open and available at that time of day. Given that – at this point in its
operating history, anyway – this riverboat restaurant wasn't serving breakfast.
It only served lunch & dinner) and enjoy some scrambled eggs, bacon and
pancakes while Santa slowly worked his way around the Promenade Deck and
visited with every child at every table.

To hear Kalogridis tell this story, the "Have Breakfast with
Santa" promotion was a huge seasonal success. Resulting in huge foot traffic
through the stores. More importantly, an overall increase in sales at the Walt
Disney World Village at a time of day when this retail & dining area was
usually dead.

But then December gave way to January. And as the morning
foot traffic and per-store sales slumped to their usual pre-holiday levels,
Walt Disney World Shopping Village managers wondered if there was a way that
they could perhaps replicate the "Have Breakfast with Santa" phenomenon by –
say – giving WDW Guests the chance to dine with some of their favorite Disney
characters.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why – in February of 1978 – the WDW Shopping
Village began offering a "Have Breakfast with Snow White and Friends" event aboard
the Empress Lilly. Which immediately became hugely popular with Resort
visitors. So much so that – at the height of its popularity – the
eventually-renamed "Breakfast a la Disney" was selling out three seatings
daily.

Which is why – in order to deal with demand – Walt Disney
World then began offering character dining at other venues around the Resort.
Among them the Minnie's Menehune Breakfast at the Papeete Bay Veranda at the
Polynesian Village and Melvin the Moose's Country Breakfast Jamboree at Fort
Wilderness
's Pioneer Hall. And with the success of these spin-off character
breakfast events, it was only a matter of time before the Parks got involved.

And now that character dining is a standard feature at every
WDW theme park and at virtually every Resort on property … Well, to me, anyway,
it just seems a little less special.


French-style service in the Louis-the-XV -themed Empress Room.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But – then again – the entire Walt Disney World Resort has
seemed like a less special place since the Empress Lilly was closed on April
22, 1995 and then gutted to make way for Fulton's Crab House … If you ever got
the chance to dine in the Empress Room with its glimmering chandeliers, as the attentive
staff there served gourmet fare on special made-to-order china … Well, that was
an evening that you'd never ever forget.

Likewise the great Dixieland music that you used to be able to hear played nightly
inside of the Baton Rouge Lounge. Or those Monday Night Huddle events. Where Tampa
Bay Buccaneers
players would — every Monday evening from early September through
late December – come on board the Empress Lilly riverboat restaurant and then review
the previous day's football game, showing play-by-play films as well as responding
to questions from the crowd.

Yeah, the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village / Walt Disney
World Village may have not been hugely successful as Walt Disney Productions
officials had hoped that it would be in the mid-to-late 1970s (And one wonders
what would have happened if Card Walker had ever followed through with his
post-Epcot-opening plan. Which was to add a third loop to the Resort's monorail
system, which would have then allowed visitors to that futuristic theme park to
travel over to the Walt Disney World Village & Hotel Plaza area and then
disembark for a bit of shopping & dining).


A model of the future expansion of WDW's Hotel Plaza area. Please note the proposed
monorail loop that would have not only serviced these hotels but also the Walt Disney

World Village. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway … So if you or your family has ever enjoyed a bit of
character dining while vacationing at the Walt Disney World Resort, you have
the managers of the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village / Walt Disney World
Village to thank. Who were only looking for additional ways to make the cash registers
ring at WDW's dining & retail district after the holidays when they then
came up with the idea of charging Guests to eat breakfast on board the Empress
Lilly with Snow White & friends.

Which seems like a suitable post-holiday story, don't you
think?

Anyway … How many of you out there also have fond memories
of the Empress Lilly and/or have stories to share about memorable character
encounters that you & family members may have had at a "Breakfast A La Disney"
?


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Your thoughts?

Tis the season, folks. So as 2011 winds down, if you've enjoyed what you've read on JHM over the past year, please feel free to throw a little something-something in
this site's new tip jar.

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.

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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