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The Sad Tale of Disney’s Secret Lab

Using “Kangaroo Jack” as his jumping off point, Jim Hill reveals how short sighted Disney studio execs robbed the Mouse House of its one big chance to become a major player in the digital film-making field.

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Have you seen those ads for “Kangaroo Jack” that have been all over the television lately? They make me sad.

Why for? Well, it’s not because I think that this Jerry O’Connell comedy is going to be particularly awful. But rather, because this Castle Rock / Warner Bros. film is the very last picture that Disney’s Secret Lab worked on.

What is Disney’s Secret Lab?

You all remember the Secret Lab, don’t you?

That state-of-the-art CG character animation and visual effects facility that the Mouse announced with much hoopla back in October 1999?

At the time, Mickey seriously thought that this digital movie-making operation would soon put Disney in the same league as Pixar and George Lucas’ ILM.

Less than two years later, Disney abruptly announced that it would be shutting down the Secret Lab.

Why did Mickey pull the plug? Not because the top flight animators and FX artists who worked at TSL did shoddy work. But because poor planning and short sighted-ness on the part of Disney studio execs.

Like I said earlier, this is a really sad story, folks. One that relates one of the greatest wastes of talent and resources in Hollywood history.

Disney Studios Acquires Dream Quest Images

Oddly enough, our tale begins on a somewhat upbeat note ‘way back in 1996, when Walt Disney Studios announced that it would be acquiring Dream Quest Images.

Dream Quest was one of the very best effects houses in the business.

Co-founded by industry legend Hoyt Yeatman, this company had done Oscar-winning work for James Cameron’s 1989 spiritual undersea epic, “The Abyss.” DQ had also done (literally) eye-popping work for the 1990 sci-fi thriller, “Total Recall,” as well as some superior sub stuff for the Mouse House’s own 1995 undersea adventure, “Crimson Tide.”

It was actually those submarine sequences that Dream Quest crafted so skillfully for this Denzel Washington / Gene Hackman action epic that caught the eye of Michael Eisner. Over the past few years, Disney’s CEO had become convinced that the studio’s own FX operation — Buena Vista Visual Effects — just wasn’t up to the task of competing with the likes of ILM.

Whereas Hoyt and his boys … well, Yeatman had had a hand in the creation of some of the most impressive visual effects films ever made (I.E. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to name just a few). So it stands to reason (to Uncle Michael’s way of thinking, anyway) that Hoyt and his Dream Quest Images crew could help Disney become competitive once more in the field of visual effects.

So Eisner ordered that Buena Vista Visual Effects be dissolved and that Dream Quest Images be installed as Disney’s new in-house effects operation. (Were the folks at BVVE upset with Uncle Michael’s decision? Well, the very last film that Buena Vista Visual Effects worked on was Paramount Pictures’ “Escape from LA.” Which — as part of its action-packed finale — featured an epic gun battle in the Main Street U.S.A. area of a long abandoned Disneyland. Which the staff of BVVE rendered in loving detail. Co-incidence? I don’t think so … Anyway …)

And — for the next three years — Dream Quest Images did absolutely beautiful work for the Mouse House. Creating killer effects sequences for Touchstone Pictures’ projects like “Armageddon” and “Con Air,” as well as memorable CG characters like Shep (the elephant who thought that he was a dog) in Walt Disney Pictures’ “George of the Jungle.”

Dream Quest Competing with Pixar – Creating Disney’s Secret Lab

And Hoyt and his Dream Quest team would still probably be working for Mickey, churning out superior FX, if some enterprising Disney executive hadn’t gotten the idea that there might be a better way of doing things. That maybe Disney could combine all of DQ’s effects wizards with all the guys who do CGI for Walt Disney Feature Animation and create …

Well, to be honest, what Disney was really looking to do was create a division of the corporation that would be capable of taking on Pixar Animation Studios. Then, as now, there were concerns that Steve Jobs would eventually walk away from his co-production deal with the Mouse. Which would then force Disney to enter into direct competition with Pixar.

And Disney desperately wanted to be ready to face that situation (should it actually ever come down to that). Which is why it opted to merge Hoyt Yeatman’s Dream Quest crew and certain elements of Disney Feature Animation together to form “The Secret Lab.”

It should be noted here that lots of folks at WDFA found that “Secret Lab” name to be pretty pretentious. Which is (perhaps) why they went out of their way to make fun of it as soon as possible. (Why else do you think that Ezma — as she was getting ready to have her revenge on Kuzco in “The Emperor’s New Groove” — turned to Kronk and said “Quick! To the secret lab”?)

Well, even if the studio’s other animators were making fun of the “Secret Lab”‘s name, Disney execs were certainly taking the launch of this whole new division of WDFA very seriously. I mean, why else would the Mouse have poured tens of millions of dollars into retooling one of Lockheed’s old “Skunk Works” building out by the Burbank airport in order to create a state-of-the-art production facility for the Secret Lab and its staff?

Did Disney ever have any second thoughts about throwing all this money around while it got the Secret Lab up out of the ground? It didn’t seem so. And why was that? Because the Mouse was positive that it had an ace up its sleeve. A film that just couldn’t miss with the public: “Dinosaur.”

Disney’s Dinosaur (2000 film)

And why couldn’t “Dinosaur” miss with the public? Because Disney executives knew that little kids just loved dinosaurs. I mean, look at how popular those “Land Before Time” videos are. That series is up to its ninth installment now (“Journey to Big Water”) and shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Each year, those direct-to-video sequels to that Don Bluth dino flick earn tens of millions of dollars for Universal Studios.

Disney knew that an animated film that features these prehistoric creatures would go over big-time with movie-goers. Particularly a movie that used digital film-making techniques to overlay hyper-detailed CG dinosaurs on top of live action background plates. Which would create a totally life-like illusion. Something that movie-goers had never seen at the multi-plex before: realistic dinosaurs.

If all went according to plan, “Dinosaur” would be a huge hit at the box office. Garnering great reviews as well as racking up huge grosses at movie theaters around the world. Then the Mouse’s competitors — who would be anxious to cash in on this new digital movie-making craze that would erupt in the wake of “Dinosaur”‘s enormous success — would come crawling. Begging Mickey, offering up large piles of money, if Disney would just allow the folks at the Secret Lab to produce a few eye-popping effects sequences for their upcoming movies.

This is honestly how Disney executives saw the whole “Dinosaur” scenario playing out. They were so supremely confident that they never gave any thought to the idea that the competition might be working on the very same idea.

Which is why the Mouse was caught flat-footed when the Discovery Channel aired “Walking with Dinosaurs,” that cable network’s own CG-prehistoric-creatures-overlaid-on-top-of-live-action-background plates in April 2000 (a full two months before “Dinosaur” was due to hit theaters). This BBC mini-series (produced at a 10th of the cost of Disney’s “Dinosaur,” by the way) totally stole the Secret Lab’s thunder.

What was once supposed to be a unique event in cinema history now looked like a TV rerun. Which is why “Dinosaur” under-performed at the box office. Though it did pull in an impressive $38 million on its opening weekend, the film eventually ran out of steam. Earning just $137 million during its entire domestic run. Which wasn’t exactly a flop. But — due to the movie’s extremely high production costs — “Dinosaur” didn’t even come close to breaking even. Let alone covering the additional tens of millions that the Mouse spent on promoting the picture.

It had honestly never occurred to Disney executives that “Dinosaur” might be a box office disappointment. That the film would not be a smashing success. Which is why the studio had no contingency plan in place for its Secret Lab.

According to the animators that I’ve spoken with, it had always been assumed that — once “Dinosaur” opened — the staff of the Secret Lab would get right to work on a sequel to the film. Using the very same wire frame and live action background plates to create the further adventures of Aladar and family. (Thereby giving the Walt Disney Company a way to get a taste of all that “Land Before Time” dough.)

This was what the Secret Lab was supposed to be doing from 2000 to 2002, as it also went about creating innovative new special effects sequences for Disney Studio films (as well as any of the Mouse’s competitors who would be willing to pay Mickey top dollar for TSL’s services). But — when it became apparent that there was no need to begin production of a sequel to “Dinosaur” — the big question was: What do we do with the Secret Lab now?

The Dismantling of Disney’s Secret Lab

That’s when WDFA executives decided to put a picture that still had a lot of story problems on the TSL production track. So the staff of the Secret Lab spent at least six months (and as much as $20 million) working on “Wild Life,” the bizarre tale of an elephant who somehow became a sensation on the New York City club circuit.

Okay. I know. That sounds like a kind of an odd story to build a Disney animated cartoon around. But the thing of it is … “Wild Life” directors Howard Baker and Roger Gould weren’t actually out to create your typical Disney animated film. They were hoping that — once “Wild Life” was completed — this CG feature (with its adult-tinged humor) might be released under the Touchstone Pictures label or even (perhaps) through Miramax.

Unfortunately, the project never got far enough along in production for this option to even be seriously considered. In the fall of 2000, Roy Disney caught a work-in-progress screening of “Wild Life” and — appalled by the film’s adult humor (I’m told that one joke in particular – where one gay character teased another gay character, as they were entering the New York City sewer system, for claiming that he’d never been down a man hole before — really set Roy off) — immediately ordered that production of the picture be shut down.

So — with no “Dinosaur” sequel on the horizon and “Wild Life” suddenly DOA — the brass at WDFA felt that they had little choice but to begin laying off animators and FX artists at the Secret Lab.

Some 110 people were let go during TSL’s first lay-off. Which was really unfortunate, given that — now that Yeatman’s FX department had suffered such deep staff cuts — it found itself unable to handle (all on its own) the few big special effects pictures that Disney would toss their way.

Case in point: Touchstone’s 2000 release, “Mission to Mars.” When Disney decided to accelerate production of this Brian DePalma picture (in order to beat Warner Bros.’ own Mars-based movie — “Red Planet” — into theaters), Hoyt didn’t have enough people on hand to handle all of the FX shots necessary to complete this picture. Which is why Mickey was forced to ask ILM to take on several key visual effects sequences for “M2M.”

And — when word got out that the Secret Lab wasn’t actually able to handle the few feature assignments that Disney studio brass had given it — that made film-makers nervous about using Yeatman and his crew to do their Mouse House pictures. This is reportedly why Michael Bay wouldn’t allow the Secret Lab to do the finished effects for his Summer 2001 film, “Pearl Harbor.” Oh, Michael was perfectly happy to let Hoyt’s team do all the pre-visualization of the film’s FX shots. Just not the finished work. Which is why ILM ended up doing most of the visual effects for “Pearl Harbor.”

Which just wasn’t fair. Given that Hoyt and the artists that remained with the Secret Lab really were capable of doing truly superior FX work. Just look how they handled that train wreck sequence in M. Night Shymalan’s 2000 hit, “Unbreakable.” Or all of those CGI puppies that were used in “102 Dalmatians.”

Yeatman and his crew kept hoping that a film would come along that would really show what the Secret Lab was capable of doing. And Disney almost did put a picture like that into production: “The Gemini Man.” A special effects-laden thriller that told the tale of a professional hit man who was being stalked by his 20-year old clone.

Unfortunately, in spite of some really impressive test footage that TSL put together (which showed Mel Gibson’s character from 1982’s “The Year of Living Dangerously” seemingly interacting with Mel’s character from 1999’s “Payback”), Disney opted not to go forward with “Gemini Man” immediately. The projected cost of the film (as well as the difficulty that the studio had in landing a bankable star like Gibson or Harrison Ford) forced the Mouse to postpone production for a while. The studio even hired screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh to rewrite Darren Lemke’s original script for “Gemini Man” in order to make the film easier to shoot, lowering production costs.

But — as Howard and his crew waited for Hensleigh to finish his revamp of the “Gemini Man”‘s script — the staff of the Secret Lab found themselves further and further out of the loop. With Disney Studio executives reportedly refusing even to return their phone calls to find out what was going to become of TSL.

The breakdown in communication between senior Disney Studio staffers and Secret Lab personnel got so bad in the Spring in 2001 that Yeatman was reportedly forced to take drastic measures.

Some of you may recall — as part of the promotion for “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” — that Disney Auctions offered animation fans a unique opportunity: whoever bid the highest on eBay could win the right to have lunch with Roy Disney in the exclusive executive dining room in the Team Disney Burbank building.

Well, Hoyt and his crew had supposedly grown so desperate to meet with someone in Disney management to discuss what was going on with the Secret Lab that they began bidding on this lunch with Roy. Just so Walt’s nephew would then be forced to sit down with Yeatman and explain what WDFA executives intended to do with TSL.

Unfortunately, Hoyt allegedly lost out on that auction. Supposedly getting outbid at the very last minute by some un-named individual who ponied up $12,000 just for the privilege of breaking bread with Roy Jr. So the TSL staff went back to doing they’d done for the last six months: small filler assignments, like animating a CG version of the Magic Mirror from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to serve as the host of the Platinum Collector’s edition of that film’s DVD.

In October 2001, the ax finally fell. Disney officially announced that it would be shutting the Secret Lab and that — from here on in — it would be farming out the studio’s visual effects assignments to other FX houses like ILM. As a direct result of this decision, over 300 animators and FX artists lost their jobs.

Yeatman (who I keep hearing is a pretty decent guy) stayed behind to supervise the transition. Overseeing a skeleton crew as they completed the CG dragons for Touchstone Pictures’ Summer 2002 release, “Reign of Fire,” as well as the CG kangaroos for WB’s “Kangaroo Jack.” Now that that picture has finally been buttoned up … who knows what Hoyt’s next move will be?

So that’s it in a nutshell, kids. The sad, sad story of the Walt Disney Company’s great experiment in digital film-making which flamed out after just two years.

And you want to know the REALLY sad part? All of these visual effects artists that Disney let go? They’re now working for Disney’s direct competition. Creating great FX sequences for films like “Spiderman,” “Stuart Little 2,” and “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

You see what I’m saying here? Walt Disney Studios appears to be having a really rough time lately because its pictures haven’t been nearly as appealing to movie-goers as big FX-laden epics like “The Two Towers” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Unfortunately, the very people who could have helped pull the Mouse out of this hole aren’t available anymore because Disney execs can’t plan ahead anymore. These suits couldn’t see that — given the way that the rest of the industry was aggressively embracing digital film-making — that they might actually need Hoyt Yeatman and his Secret Lab staff in the not-so-distant future.

All these Disney execs saw was an immediate cost savings for the corporation if they shut down the Secret Lab. Which is why they went for it. Walking briskly away from that $100 million-plus investment in hardware and talent. All just to save a few bucks.

It’s that exact quality that I personally find so exasperating about the Walt Disney Company’s current management team. No one thinks ahead anymore. These days, everyone in the executive suite is concentrating on how they can look good right now. What they can do today that will guarantee that they still have a job tomorrow. It’s all short term thinking. With little thought as to what the long term ramifications of today’s actions might be.

Given the success of recent FX heavy pictures like “The Two Towers” … I’m now certain that there are Disney Studio execs who realize that it was a mistake to shut down the Secret Lab (or — at the very least — to not have any other animated projects lined up for TSL beyond that “Dinosaur” sequel and the ill-fated “Wild Life”). Particularly now that Disney wants to have its affordable version of “The Alamo” out in theaters in time for the 2003 holiday season.

So who are they going to get now to create those thousands of CG Mexican soldiers to storm the fort in this film? I’m guessing ILM. I’m also betting that George Lucas will make Mickey pay through the nose for the privilege of using his FX artists.

Which is just so sad. Why? Because Disney Studios really could have handled this John Lee Hancock picture in-house if they’d just thought ahead a few moves and kept the Secret Lab alive.

Well, the secret’s out now. The Walt Disney Company lost out on the chance to be a major player in the digital film-making field. All because Disney studio executives’ idea of advance planning seems to be something along the lines of “What am I doing this coming weekend?”

Now do you understand why a TV commercial that features a rapping kangaroo makes me sad?

Your thoughts?

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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