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“What we have here is a failure to communicate …”

In revisiting the “Lilo & Stitch” 2-disc DVD debacle mentioned in last Friday’s “Why For” column, Jim Hill exposes an even bigger problem at the Mouse House. Which is: Has the Disney corporation finally grown so large that the company’s different divisions can no longer effectively communicate with one another? Read and learn …

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What a difference four days make.

You may recall that back on Friday, as part of my latest “Why For” column, I reported that Buena Vista Home Entertainment would NOT be producing a 2-disc special collectors edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD.

Several hundred e-mails (and a couple of dozen phone calls) later, I am pleased to report that BVHE appears to have had a change of heart. Disney insiders are now telling me that – if we’re all really patient – there WILL (e-v-en-t-u-a-l-l-y) be a 2-disc special collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD available for purchase.

Now the bad news: No one that I’ve spoken with since Friday could tell me when exactly this 2-disc DVD might go on sale. Or for that matter, whether or not the special collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” has actually gone into production yet.

Welcome to the Walt Disney Company — circa late 2002, kids. An entertainment conglomerate that has grown so large that no one – not even Disney CEO Michael Eisner himself – seems to really know what’s going on within all of the company’s myriad divisions.

Example: “Treasure Planet.” Even as Walt Disney Company spokesmen are telling the financial press that this film was such an enormous failure that the corporation was forced to take a $74 million pre-tax write-down on this picture, the staff at Walt Disney Television Animation is still hard at work on follow-ups to this alleged flop: a “Treasure Planet II” direct-to-video sequel as well as “Treasure Planet: The Animated Series.”

Or how about this one: In just 16 days, “The Lion King” will be making its triumphant return to the big screen. And I mean the REALLY big screen, kids. This 1994 Academy Award winner (for Best Score) will be popping up on IMAX theaters all over the country starting on December 25th.

To help publicize this momentous event, it would just make sense for Disney’s marketing department to begin trotting out some of the talented people who actually worked on “The Lion King,” right? People like Rogers Allers, the co-director of the film. Surely a few reporters might enjoy talking to Roger about the experiences he’d had while making this movie.

It’s just too bad that Allers’ last day at Walt Disney Feature Animation was this past Friday.

You see what I’m saying, folks? The Walt Disney Company used to be renown for its attention to detail. For making plans months – even years – in advance, just so that things would always go smoothly.

That sort of care and attention to detail used to be possible when Disney was a relatively small entertainment company. But now that the Mouse has become this huge multi-national conglomerate that seems to live or die on how well the corporation’s stock did this quarter, this month, this week, today, this afternoon … Disney’s tradition of advance planning and/or thinking things through seems to have gone right out the window.

This whole “Lilo & Stitch” 2-disc DVD debacle is a perfect example of how the fabled fine tuned machinery at the Walt Disney Company has finally broken down. I mean, here you have two different divisions of the very same corporation (a company renown for its careful orchestration of events) telling the public two very different things about what’s actually going on with the release of a special collector’s edition of this film. This is miscommunication on a grand scale.

Yet no one from Disney management seems willing to step forward to try and sort out this mess out. Why? Out of fear of saying the wrong thing, of making the wrong decision. Doing something that could possibly end their careers. So in order to play it safe, these senior Disney managers just opt to say nothing, do nothing, go with the status quo.

It’s this exact lack of leadership – with Disney’s senior staffers being so obsessed with short term profits that they often forget to plan anything beyond the next quarter – that has allowed the corporation to drift so close to the rocks. I mean, it’s all that Disney Company employees in Burbank and Lake Buena Vista can talk about these days.

Why Lake Buena Vista? Well (in this case, anyway), that’s because this is Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida is located. This is where the staff of that studio was told earlier this year to pull out the stops. Their mission was to help Buena Vista Home Entertainment make “Lilo & Stitch” the best non-Pixar DVD that the Walt Disney Company has ever released

And the guys down in Orlando really did pull out the stops, people. I mean, they dug through filing cabinets and burrowed through flat files – pulling together huge piles of character sketches, watercolor backgrounds, even early animation tests. The staff at WDFA-F put in hundreds of hours on this project, extending every courtesy to BVHE staffers. All because they thought that they were working on the DVD that would top all of the other 2-disc sets that Disney had released to date.

Meanwhile, back in Burbank, Disney’s market research staff was briefing Michael Eisner about what the public really thought about Disney’s DVDs. As it turns out, there really are a hardcore group of film fans and Disneyana fans who love all the extra features that BVHE adds to their discs. But these folks are only 8% of the market. The other 92% are parents who buy Disney’s DVDs just to entertain their children. So all these additional features that Disney piles on its discs aren’t really that big a selling point to the people who actually buy most of the DVDs.

If anything, most of the parents surveyed seemed to actively dislike Disney’s 2-disc sets. Why for? Well, the adults expressed concern that – should their children try (on their own) to swap disc 1 for disc 2 (in order to see the additional features) – they might accidentally end up breaking the family’s DVD player. Which is why these parents told Disney that they’d honestly prefer it if BVHE went back to the single disc format. To these folks, anyway, ease of use and convenience is infinitely more preferable to any additional features.

Based on this info, Eisner supposedly made a decree: From that point forward (this was approximately May of this year), the Walt Disney Company would begin scaling back production of Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s 2-disc DVD sets. Oh, sure. Disney would continue to support the 2-disc series that BVHE had already started — like its much praised (and highly profitable) “Platinum Edition” collection. But beyond that …

Well, the new thinking was that these 2-disc DVD sets are mostly favored by serious film fans as well as hardcore Disney dweebs. Which is a much smaller share of the marketplace than had been previously thought. Which is why – from this point forward – BVHE would be issuing these special edition collector’s sets in significantly lower numbers then they had in the past.

Case in point: The second installment of the “Walt Disney Treasures” series. You know, those three 2-disc DVD sets — the ones in the attractive tins — that are out in stores right now? Last year, Buena Vista Home Entertainment put 150,000 copies of “Mickey Mouse in Color,” “Silly Symphonies” and “Disneyland U.S.A.” up for sale. This time around, BVHE only put 125,000 copies of the newer titles in the “Walt Disney Treasures” series (“Mickey Mouse in Black & White,” “The Complete Goofy” and “Behind the Scenes at Disney Studios”) out on sale. Shaving a full 25,000 copies of each title off of its production run. All in an effort to economize. Keep profits high and production costs low.

This same “What-can-we-do-to-save-a-few-bucks?” philosophy was then extended by Buena Vista Home Entertainment to the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD project. Given how few copies of the special collector’s edition of “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Dinosaur” had actually sold (which might explain why earlier this year Best Buy began offering a “Disney’s Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVDs” boxed set. Where that store created a special boxed set that bundled the special collector’s edition of “Groove” and “Dinosaur” in with “The Ultimate Toy Box,” “The Fantasia Anthology” and the collector’s editions of “Tarzan” and “a bug’s life” at a deep discount. All in an effort to finally get these very slow moving titles off the shelves), Disney didn’t want to get stuck with a large pile of 2-disc special collector’s editions of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD that they’d have trouble moving. Which is why all talk of doing a deluxe collector’s edition of this film were quietly tabled by mid-June.

The only problem is … someone forget to tell the folks down at Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida about this decision. The very folks who had busted their butts for Buena Vista Home Entertainment back in May, assembling those master tapes that were chock full of cool extra features for the deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD. So these guys were still assuming that the DVD to top all other Disney DVDs — the project that they had worked so hard on — would still be hitting store shelves come January 28, 2003.

This is why “Lilo & Stitch” co-director Dean Deblois — when he was being interviewed last summer about the film that he’d just finished working on — kept talking up the deluxe 2-disc DVD of this movie. Whenever a reporter would bring up the movie’s infamous 747 rescue scene (the one that had been cut from the film immediately after 9/11), Dean would say “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to include that scene as one of the extra features to be found on the 2-disc version of the ‘Lilo & Stitch’ DVD.”

Deblois and his co-director Chris Sander only learned that the deluxe 2-disc edition of version of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD had been cancelled and/or postponed when they got the news (second hand, mind you) that Buena Vista Home Entertainment was planning on releasing a single disc version of the film on December 3rd (a full eight weeks ahead of when BVHE had originally announced that it would be putting home video and DVD version of “Lilo & Stitch” out on store shelves). When Dean and Chris asked if this meant that the deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” would still be released on January 28th, the answer they got from Buena Vista Home Entertainment went something like this: “Er … Um … We’re going to have to get to you on that.”

Now keep in mind that all of this is going down while Walt Disney Studios was in the middle of trying to negotiate a new production deal with Deblois and Sanders. Given that “Lilo & Stitch” is Feature Animation’s first real hit since 1999’s “Tarzan,” Mouse House executives weren’t all that eager to have Dean, Chris and their new Stormcoast Pictures production company walk off the Disney lot and go set up shop elsewhere. Like at – say – Dreamworks. Which is why the Mouse was doing everything within its power to try and make these guys happy.

And — since these guys were absolutely furious that the deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” had been cancelled / postponed / whatever — Disney was bending over backwards to try and placate Deblois and Sanders. Which is why BVHE allowed Dean and Chris to personally edit the original 45 minute version of the “On Location with the Directors” featurette (which has been created expressly for the 2-disc deluxe DVD) down to 18 minutes (so that the featurette might now fit on the single disc version of the DVD). Just so at least some of the extras that the “Lilo & Stitch” production team had worked so hard to create might actually get seen by the public.

This gesture may have placated Deblois and Sanders (who finally did get around to signing a new production deal with Disney back on November 19th). But not the rest of the staff down at Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida. You see, the folks down in Lake Buena Vista were reportedly furious that the 2-disc deluxe collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” has been cancelled / postponed / whatever … which is why they began complaining to anyone who’d listen.

Now you have to understand that a large number of staffers who work at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista animation facility already have a bit of a Rodney Dangerfield complex. AKA: They feel that they “don’t get no respect” from the Mouse. EX: Just because they live and work in Florida (a right-to-work state with a lower cost of living), staffers here are paid considerably less than their California counterparts.

Then there’s the whole “How come our movies don’t get treated with the same care and consideration that the ones that are made in Burbank are given?” issue. Which – to be honest – dates back to the short shrift that WDFA-F staffers supposedly feel that “Mulan” (the feature length cartoon that was primarily produced at Disney’s Florida facility) was given during its June 1998 world premiere.

To explain: Some of you may recall that “Pocahontas” was given this huge send-off back in the summer of 1995, with its world premiere actually being held on the Great Lawn in NYC’s Central Park. And that – in June of 1996 — Disney’s marketing department actually tried to top “Pocahontas”‘s premiere by staging a “Hunchback of Notre Dame” event in New Orleans. That film’s world premiere featured a special Disney-themed parade through the city as well as a screening that held inside the Super Dome.

And “Hercules” … well, in June of 1997, “Hercules” had the biggest world premiere of them all. It featured Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade being rolled up Fifth Avenue in NYC as well as a star studded screening at the New Amsterdam Theatre.

The only problem is … there seems to have been this weird correlation between how much promotion Disney’s marketing department put behind these pictures and how poorly they performed at the box office. EX: “Pocahontas” – with a fairly large amount of hype – grossed $142 million during its initial domestic run. “Hunchback” – with an even larger amount of hype – only grossed $121 million. “Hercules” – with the largest amount of hype of all – only managed to pull in $99 million at the domestic box office.

You see what I’m saying? Since Mouse House executives eventually came to think that the main reason that “Hercules” had under-performed at the box office because there had been far too much hype and hoopla associated with the launch of that film, Disney’s marketing department decided to take a “less is more” approach with “Mulan.” Which meant soft peddling the promotion of that picture. Staging a much smaller, far more modest world premiere for “Mulan.” Which is why this film got just a quickie, low budget event that was staged at the Hollywood Bowl.

Now you have to understand that after they’d spent five years busting their butts to make “Mulan,” the staff of Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida were really looking forward to the elaborate world premiere that the Mouse’s PR staff would be staging for their picture. (Which — had Disney’s marketing department stuck with its original plan — the “Mulan” event would have probably been held in a major West Coast city with a large Asian population [San Francisco and Los Angeles were reportedly discussed as possible sites]. The world premiere was also supposed to have featured yet another appearance by Disneyland’s then-still-retired Main Street Electrical Parade.) But now — because management had become concerned with over-selling their picture — “Mulan”‘s world class world premiere suddenly got scaled back to barely a blip.

(It should be noted here that there may have been – in fact – some method to Mickey’s marketing madness. Whether it was because Disney’s PR department deliberately took a low key approach with the promotion of this picture or maybe it was just because “Mulan” was just a better movie than the Mouse’s last few films, who can say. But this made-mostly-in-Florida picture did gross $121 million during its initial domestic run in the summer of 1998. Which was least a 20% improvement over the business that “Hercules” had done at the box office a year earlier. Anyway… )

So the staff of Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida had been nursing this grudge over how badly “Mulan” was supposedly treated during its initial release for over four years now. But now here comes another chance for this somewhat neglected division of the Walt Disney Company to shine once more. By helping Buena Vista Home Entertainment turn the collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD into the best 2-disc set that the company has ever produced by really loading this DVD up with extras.

But once again. due to circumstances that are beyond their control (I.E. Disney CEO Michael Eisner — because he’s concerned that his cushy position at the top of the Mouse House may be riding on whether or not he can radically improve his corporation’s performance over the next few months — is ordering every division of the Walt Disney Company to make extreme cuts in order to maximize profitability) have conspired against the crew at WDFA-F. So these guys feel like they’re getting the shaft. Again.

So is it any wonder that the folks at Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida have been aggressively putting the word out about what consumers are actually missing out on because Buena Vista Home Entertainment opted to quietly cancel / postpone / whatever the 2-disc special collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch”? All of the cool extras and additional features that that the crew at WDFA-F worked so hard to pull together. These extra features are already properly formatted on those master tapes, just waiting to be used … if only BVHE would actually get off its ass and produce a deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD.

Which bring us back to our main question. Which is: when WILL Buena Vista Home Entertainment actually get around to producing a 2-disc special collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch?” As I mentioned at the very start of this article, all the reps at BVHE that I’ve spoken with over the past few days now say that a deluxe version of this film’s DVD IS actually in the works. But when pressed about when this 2-disc set might be released (or – for that matter – when actual production on the collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” might begin), everyone suddenly clammed up.

It should be noted here that some of the suggestions that I made during last Friday’s “Why For” column (I.E. Releasing a deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD day and date with the film’s direct-to-home-video sequel and/or around the same time that “Stitch! The Animated Series” begins airing in late 2003) are supposedly already being discussed by BVHE staffers. Though – to be honest (based on conversations that I’ve had over the last couple of days with Buena Vista Home Entertainment insiders) – I’m fairly certain now that these possible release dates for the 2-disc “Lilo & Stitch” were already on the table PRIOR to my suggesting them in Friday’s JHM column. So it would appear that semi-great minds DO actually think alike.

Which brings us back to those poor slobs who work down at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Florida. Can’t anyone in Mouse House management cut these guys a break? I mean, first the deluxe 2-disc collector’s edition of “Lilo & Stitch” gets cancelled / postponed / whatever. Then – just last week – they learn that their next film, “Bears,” is swapping release dates with “Home on The Range.” Which means that this movie now has to be ready for release by November 2003. A full year ahead of when the picture was originally supposed to roll into theaters.

This, of course, adds tremendously to the pressure that this division of Walt Disney Feature Animation has been feeling lately. Not to mention the very persistent rumor that WDFA-F will soon undergo a significant layoff of staff.

I mean, haven’t the guys in Florida suffered enough? Please, Buena Vista Home Entertainment – cut the crew at WDFA-F a little bit of slack and release that 2-disc collector’s edition of the “Lilo & Stitch” DVD sooner rather than later.

That way, the dedicated employees down there will at least have a lovely parting gift as they’re booted out the door.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

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

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

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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

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

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

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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