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Why Disney Really Gave Up the “Ghosts”

So what were the real reasons that Disney pulled the plug on “A Few Good Ghosts”? And is the company’s Florida animation studio really closing? Jim Hill returns from LA with some rather surprising answers.

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“You have to be sh*tting me.”

That’s an exact quote, folks. That’s what I said last Friday morning around 8:30 a.m. PST when the following e-mail popped up in my in-box:

I thought you should know that Disney Feature Florida had a surprise meeting this morning with David Stainton, Pam Coats, and Andrew Millstein, at which they announced that “A Few Good Ghosts” is being cancelled, and what’s left of the animation department (over one hundred people) is being let go on January 14, 2004.

You might want to talk to some of your contacts and follow up on this …

Now you have to understand that — as I’m reading this and swearing profusely — Michelle comes rushing into the room. After I read her the e-mail, my ex starts saying “This is huge news, Jim. We have to put this up on the Web immediately!?”

Which was advice that I (to my infinite sorrow) decided not to follow. Why for? Because I didn’t know the guy who’d sent me the original e-mail. So my initial thought was that this has to be some sort of cruel hoax. A misguided prank that some disgruntled Disneyana fan is trying to pull on JimHillMedia.com.

I mean, why would the Walt Disney Company suddenly decide to shut down Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida? The studio that had just produced three straight hit films (“Mulan,” “Lilo and Stitch” and “Brother Bear”) for the Mouse? At 2/3 what it costs to make an animated film in Burbank? This is how you reward a successful team? By suddenly kicking them to the curb?

It just made no sense. Which is why Michelle and I spent the morning firing off e-mails in all directions, making all sorts of phone calls. Trying to get someone at Disney to go on the record, give us some sort of confirmation that this story was true and/or (hopefully) false.

By the time we finally got that confirmation late Friday afternoon, it was already too late. JHM had been scooped. Someone else on the Web had already broken the “Disney’s Florida Animation being shut down” story.

Which — in the long run — really didn’t matter to me. But what DID matter was the thought of those 250 talented people who currently work for WDFAF who were going to be put out of work as of mid-January 2004.

For the record: In spite of what has been reportedly earlier, the Walt Disney Company is now insisting that it actually hasn’t made its mind up yet about what it’s going to do with its Feature Animation unit in Florida. According to a statement released by a Mouse House publicist earlier this week: “At this point in time it is undetermined if there will be layoffs or not. We are exploring our options and looking at our overall development slate to determine our next steps with the many talented animators.”

However — based on what I’ve heard from several WDFAF staffers who actually attended last Friday’s fateful meeting — Stainton all but told the assembled artists that morning that the studio will be shutting down. So — while the Walt Disney Company may be holding off ’til January 14th to make a formal announcement — many of the artists and technicians who work at the Disney-MGM facility are already brushing up their resumes, sprucing up their portfolios. Since they KNOW that their jobs are going away in January of next year.

Mind you, there are some of the WDFAF faithful who are still holding out hope. Praying for the last minute reprieve. Hoping that — over the next eight weeks — that the Burbank studio might throw the Florida studio a bone, shipping a sequence or two from the films that the California crew has got in the works off to Orlando. Or that someone at Disney Television Animation may take pity on all these Central Florida artists who suddenly find themselves in jeopardy and opt to produce one of the corporation’s direct-to-video sequels right here in the states (rather than shipping that film off to Australia to be animated).

Sadly, neither of these scenarios seems very likely. At least right now. Which is why a lot of these animators figure that they’ve only got eight more weeks of paychecks ’til they get tossed out in the cold … (Okay. This is Central Florida that we’re talking about here. So I guess the appropriate cliché for this occasion would be “tossed out into the relative humidity.” But you get the idea, right? Anyway …)

Which is why a lot of these WDFAF staffers are angry. Here, they’ve spent months rushing to get “Brother Bear” ready for its November 1st, 2003 release date (How many of you out there remember that “Brother Bear” was initially supposed to open in the Spring of 2004? And how — back on December 1st, 2002 — Disney Studio officials suddenly announced that “Home on the Range” and “Brother Bear” were going to swap release dates? Which meant that Florida’s animators now had to finish their film six months ahead of schedule), delivering a motion picture that had exceeded the studio’s box office expectations. (People in Burbank are still buzzing about how well “Brother Bear” did during its second weekend in wide release, with ticket sales falling off by a mere 4%.) And what’s their reward for all their dedication and hard work?

Stainton sneaking into town, pulling a surprise meeting on the staff in order to pull the plug on “A Few Good Ghosts” and get the studio ready for closure.

You see, you have to understand, folks: NO ONE at the Disney-MGM facility had known that Disney Feature Animation president David Stainton would be dropping by last Friday. Not even the folks who worked with David back in Burbank. WDFA staffers on the main Disney lot were supposedly given a cover story: That — on Thursday afternoon — – Stainton would be flying to New York City to meet with the folks at Disney Theatrical to “discuss future projects.”

“Why did Stainton provide the folks back in Burbank with a cover story? Not reveal where he was really headed and/or what he was really up?” you ask. It’s simple, really: To keep this potentially explosive announcement under wraps until the very last second on Friday. So that news of this pending Florida Animation lay-off wouldn’t leak out in advance to the financial press. Which could potentially have had a disastrous impact on Disney’s stock price.

For the most part, Stainton’s plan succeeded. The news of “A Few Good Ghosts” getting cancelled and Feature Animation Florida possibly shutting down didn’t really get picked up by the mainstream media ’til late Friday afternoon. And — by then — the New York Stock Exchange had actually closed for the weekend. Which meant that Disney’s stock price really didn’t take a whack from this potentially embarrassing bit of news on Friday. (Mind you, when the market re-opened on Monday morning, the price of Disney stock almost immediately dipped by $.25. Suggesting that there were at least a few Wall Street analysts who were distressed by this recent turn in events. And the value of Disney stock has continued to fluctuate as the week wore on. It closed yesterday at 22.79, which is clearly down from last Friday’s close of 23.06. ) Which meant that David’s attempt at damage control succeeded … again, for the most part.

But you know what really galls the crew down at Feature Animation Florida? The fact that they were lied to by Disney management.

Look, no one at WDFAF is going to pretend that “A Few Good Ghosts” wasn’t a film that had some pretty serious problems. Just listing the various titles that this movie has gone under over the past two and a half years (“My Peoples,” “Elgin’s Peoples,” “Once in a Blue Moon,” “Angel and Her No Good Sister” and “A Few Good Ghosts”) speaks volumes about this troubled production.

So troubled — in fact — that, back in April of this year, Stainton ordered production of this film shut down so that WDFA could radically overhaul the movie’s storyline. Which director Barry Cook and his talented team of story artists actually did. The end result of all their effort was screened for Disney CEO Michael Eisner not three weeks ago. And what did Disney’s Big Cheese supposedly say once he saw the new version of Act 1 of “A Few Good Ghosts”? “You folks finally have a movie here.”

Eisner’s positive comments were reportedly echoed a week later from Stainton as well as veteran WDFA producer Pam Coats when they too saw Act 1 of “A Few Good Ghosts.” They — of course — had a few minor story notes. But overall, David and Pam seemed quite positive about the picture.

Which is why everyone — from Barry Cook on down — feels blind-sided and betrayed by what happened last Friday morning. Given that the story crisis seemed to have passed for this production and that animation was finally officially gotten underway on “A Few Good Ghosts,” no one at WDFAF had an inkling that anything like this was in the works. That their new film was ever in any danger of being shut down and/or that Disney’s Orlando animation operation would ever be shuttered.

So what really happened here? Based on what I’ve been hearing from folks on both coasts, this is what I’ve been able to piece together:

Senior Disney Company managers had evidently decided months ago to shutter the Florida animation operation. But they opted not to announce this decision until AFTER “Brother Bear” was actually out in theaters. For fear that all the negative publicity that would inevitably erupt surrounding such an announcement might have a detrimental impact on the film’s box office.

Want proof? Then drop by the “Magic of Disney Animation” exhibit at Disney-MGM Studio theme park when it finally re-opens this coming weekend after being closed for seven weeks refurbishment. Notice how the new version of this walk-thru attraction no longer talks up how Disney-MGM guests will be able to see actual animators in action. But rather, borrows a page from DCA’s “Disney Animation” attraction. Which tries to give Disneyland Resort guests a basic understanding of how the animation process works without actually having to show them a real live animator.

This long-in-the-planning refurbishment of Disney-MGM’s “Magic of Disney Animation” exhibit speaks volumes about what’s actually been going on in Orlando. Mouse House managers have obviously known for months now that WDFAF would eventually be shutting down. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of turning this studio theme park attraction into something that could still entertain WDW guests once all the animators were gone?

It’s also fairly obvious now that Disney Studio officials had been counting on “Brother Bear” to tank during the film’s domestic release, and then using the film’s alleged failure as a convenient excuse to shutter the Florida animation studio.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s take another look at Disney’s decision to release “Brother Bear” on Saturday, November 1st versus the traditional Friday opening. The Mouse said that they went with this release date because they were concerned that kids would be too busy trick-or-treating on Friday, October 31st to bother with going to the movies. But could this have actually been done as a way to artificially hobble the picture, make “Brother Bear” appear to under-perform at the box office by giving it only two days to sell tickets on that crucial opening weekend, rather than the traditional three-day total?

And then you have to factor in Disney’s decision to put “Brother Bear” into theaters in direct competition with another Mouse House movie, “Scary Movie 3.” (For those of you who don’t know: “Scary Movie 3” is a production of Dimension Films, which is a division of Miramax Films, which is itself a separate division within Walt Disney Studios.) Why would you do something like that — put an animated film that you hope will appeal to young adults head-to-head with a movie that you KNOW will appeal to young adults — unless your aim all along was to trip up “Brother Bear”?

However, given “Brother Bear”‘s obvious success at the box office, Disney studio officials could no longer use this film’s alleged under-performance as their convenient excuse to shut down Feature Animation Florida. So what did they opt to go with instead? Suddenly expressing grave story concerns with a film that Eisner, Stainton and Coats had all already said was markedly improved mere weeks earlier: “A Few Good Ghosts.”

And what was the excuse that David reportedly gave Florida’s animators for his sudden reversal on “A Few Good Ghosts”? Stainton supposedly said that there were concerns at the studio level that the film’s characters, music and storyline weren’t “universally appealing.” Translation: Given that this is an animated film that’s set in Appalachia, featuring a blue grass score written by country music legend Ricky Skaggs and performed by Nashville favorite Dolly Parton, the suits back in Burbank were suddenly concerned that a cornpone cartoon wouldn’t appeal to moviegoers overseas. Or — for that matter — that “A Few Good Ghosts” (with its hick-centric story about two star-crossed lovers who are brought together by a family of ghost who live inside a bunch of folk-art dolls) wouldn’t be all that entertaining to many American moviegoers who live in the inner city and/or suburbia.

Now keep in mind that Stainton is trying to sell this sorry excuse as the REAL reason that he’s suddenly decided to pull the plug on “A Few Good Ghosts.” That country music — and a country-themed storyline — wouldn’t really appeal to moviegoers today. At a time when one of the top concert acts in the US of A is Toby Keith. Who’s about as country as they come.

But — then again — what do you expect from a Disney executive who allegedly makes fun of some of his studio’s top animators because they actually live “way out in the sticks”? In far-off Valencia, CA!

So, you see, the truth of the matter is: Disney Studios execs didn’t just suddenly decide to shut down production on “A Few Good Ghosts” last week. They’d actually left that film in production as busy work. As something to keep WDFAF animators preoccupied. So that no one down in Orlando would be aware of what was REALLY in the works: Which was the eventual shut-down of the Feature Animation Florida studio.

Which brings us to the bigger question: With Disney shutting down its Feature Animation operations in both Paris and Orlando as well as its Television Animation unit in Japan, and coupled with the Mouse’s decision to sell off its Disney Stores retail chain … what’s really going on here?

So I asked a Wall Street analyst (one of those very folks that Michael Eisner is so desperate to please these days, rather than focus on pleasing the Disney Company’s customers and/or cast members) to take a closer look at the situation. After agreeing that I would not reveal his name to JHM readers, he offered this analysis:

Were you to strip the Disney name off of this company, it would be fairly obvious what’s going on here. Jim. Shutting down or downsizing somewhat redundant divisions. Selling off unprofitable operations. This is what a major corporation always does when it’s trying to look more attractive to outsiders.

So I have to wonder: Is Eisner looking to redeem his now somewhat toxic reputation with Wall Street insiders by trying to merge the Mouse with some other media giant? Or is he just looking to sell the Walt Disney Company outright to the highest bidder?

Kind of scary to think about, isn’t it? That pulling the plug on “A Few Good Ghosts” and the potential closure of the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Orlando, FL may actually be indicators of bigger things to come. Like the whole Walt Disney Company supposedly going up for sale.

Make you think, doesn’t it? Me? It just makes me mad. Just thinking about all the animators and artists in Orlando who poured their hearts and souls into “A Few Good Ghosts.” Never realizing that they were just being strung along by a bunch of suits in Burbank. Who only saw the Florida studio as yet another pawn in Michael Eisner’s never-ending game of corporate chess.

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.

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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