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Why For returns!

After a slight summer siesta, JHM’s most popular column returns with even more answers to your Disney-related questions. This time around, Jim answers your queries about LA’s Storybook architecture, “A Few Good Ghosts,” what’s going on with WDW’s Treehouse Villas, as well as sharing some info about the “Tinker Bell” movie.

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First up, Ari S. writes in to ask:

Jim —

There’s this weird old house on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills. You may have seen pictures of it in LA history books. It looks like something straight out of a Disney animated feature from the 1930s.

That’s actually why I’m writing today. A friend of mine swears that this house was actually designed by a lead animator on “Snow White.” But I don’t know if I can buy that story.

So I was wondering: Do you know anything about the Spadena House at 516 Walden Drive? Was it really built by somebody who worked on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”?

Ari S.

Dear Ari S.

You’re talking about the “Witch’s House,” aren’t you? Arguably the most famous of Los Angeles’ Storybook houses.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

Man, I’ve looking for an excuse to visit this place for years. So — using your e-mail as an incentive, Ari — Nancy and I made a special trip out to the Spadena House while we were in LA last month. In fact, the photos that I’m using to illustrate this “Why For” answer were actually taken at the “Witch’s House” the Saturday before last.

Anyway … To answer your question, Ari … Your friend’s wrong. Yes, a story has circulated around Hollywood for decades now about how the Spadena House was reportedly designed by the art director of “Snow White.” How all the work that this guy did on Walt Disney’s first full length animated feature supposedly inspired him to create a home that looked like the Seven Dwarfs could live there.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

The only problem with this Tinseltown tale is that the times and dates involved here don’t really jib. By that I mean: Yes, a studio art director named Harry Oliver did design and build the “Witch’s House.” But the fact of the matter is that Oliver built the Spadena House (which was originally used as office space & dressing rooms at the long-since-defunct Willat Studios in Culver City) back in 1921. Whereas Walt didn’t begin working on “Snow White” ’til late 1934 / early 1935.

So you see what I’m saying here, Ari? The details of your friend’s story just don’t add up. Mind you, if someone wanted to try & sell me on the idea that the “Witch’s House” somehow influenced that look of Disney’s “Snow White” … Well, that I might believe.

After all, the Spadena House is a wonder. Or — rather — it will be a wonder again. Once the multi-million dollar restoration job that the “Witch’s House” ‘s current owner — Beverly Hills realtor Michael Libow — is having done to this Walden Drive home is finally complete.

Photo by Nancy Stadler

As you can see by the above photo, no expense is being spared in Libow’s effort to restore this stylized structure to its former glory. Michael’s even going so far as to authorize the use of real wooden shingles to replace all of those that have fallen out of the house’s roof over the past 70 years. Which is a decision that you just know Libow’s insurance company can’t be all that crazy about.

Anywho … The way I hear it, this restoration should finally be complete sometime over the next six months. So tell you what: The next time Nancy and I are out in LA, we’ll swing on by 516 Walden Drive and see if we can’t get some more pictures of the “Witch’s House.” Just so JHM readers can see what this Storybook house looks like when all the work is finally complete.

Speaking of Storybook houses: If you’d like to learn more about this unique aspect of Los Angeles’ architectural history, then I suggest you check out John Robert Marlow’s storybookers.com. Which (admittedly) is a kind of work-in-progress. But — that said — this website still has a great selection of photos of some of LA’s more famous Storybook homes.

Next up, Robert P. writes in to ask about an aborted Feature Animation Florida project:

Jim —

Thanks for all the images from SIGGRAPH this week. It really gives me some hope to see that Disney Feature Animation has so many good looking projects in the works right now. That maybe the studio really has finally turned a corner and is on the way back to greatness.

But still I wonder about all those films that Disney almost made. Like the one I heard about while I was vacationing in Orlando a few years back. It was supposed to be this backwoods fantasy. A hillbilly version Romeo & Juliet. Based on what that tour guide at Disney/MGM told us about the picture (I remember that the film’s cast was supposed to feature Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Hal Holbrook. And that the movie’s music was supposed to be done by Ricky Skaggs), this project sounded like it could have been a hell of a lot of fun.

For the life of me, I can’t remember what this movie was supposed to be called. But I still wish Disney had finished making it so that I could have seen this.

Do you know anything about this movie? It was supposed to be made at that animation studio at Disney/MGM.

Thanks,

Robert P.

Dear Robert P. —

The movie that you’re talking about was first called “My Peoples,” then “Angel and her No Good Sister,” then “A Few Good Ghosts.” Production of this 2D / CG hybrid was officially shut down on November 14, 2003. When David Stainton, president of Disney Feature Animation, quietly slipped into town and suddenly announced to staffers who work ed at the Florida animation studio that the Disney-MGM operation would soon be shutting down.

Now some people will tell you that the real reason that WDFAF was closed was “A Few Good Ghosts” had significant story problems. That this film just wasn’t ready to move into full-blown production. But I’ve seen a few clips from the work-in-progress version of the picture & looked at a few storyboards. And you know — based on what I saw of that picture — I think that “Ghosts” could have been a really fun flick. This project had a genuinely quirky charm and a style all its own.

And the film’s music … That (to my way of thinking, anyway) was one of the real losses of “A Few Good Ghosts” ‘s cancellation. Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs wrote three songs for the film. Marty Stuart also contributed several tunes to the movie’s score, including one that Stuart collaborated on with Skaggs. Plus Ricky worked with Hank Williams III on a Hank Williams song that was to have been featured prominently in the picture.

So we’re talking about a Disney animation feature with a decidedly bluegrass score. Which — given “A Few Good Ghosts” setting and storyline — only seems logical.

Now normally when production of a Disney animated film is cancelled, all of the material that was prepared for that picture goes straight into the vault. Never to be seen or heard again. But when it came to “A Few Good Ghosts,” something unusual happened.

For some reason, rather than lock this stuff away forever, Walt Disney Feature Animation actually agreed to give Rick Skaggs back two songs that he’d prepared for “Ghosts” : Two instrumentals called “Appalachian Joy” and “Monroe Dancin.’ ”  Skaggs then included these two cuts on his latest album, “Brand New Strings.” Which was released to stores back on September of 2004.

So even though production of this WDFAF film didn’t actually go forward, a little bit of “A Few Good Ghosts” still lives on. At least as instrumentals on the new Ricky Skaggs album. So if you still want to get a sense of what “Ghosts” was going to be like, Robert P., I suggest you pick up a copy of “Brand New Strings.”

Next up, William writes in to ask:

Do you know why the Tree House Villas at Walt Disney World have never reopened? They were “temporarily” closed after 9/11 and they have never reopened. When taking the boat launch from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney, the Tree House Villas are still visible. The only problem is they still have trees and tree branches on top of them from the hurricanes of last year. It looks like nothing has been done to repair them or even clean up the downed trees. I would really like to know why this resort remains abandoned and neglected.

You know, I’m not actually sure about this one, William. So why don’t we turn to JHM resident WDW hotel expert — Scott Liljenquist of Mouseketrips.com — and see what he has to say about what’s going with the Treehouse Villas at Disney World? Scott?

That’s an interesting question, William, and one that we get asked quite often. Apparently there is still plenty of interest in the Treehouse Villas if the number of inquiries we get is any indication.

First a little history for those who might not be familiar with the Treehouse Villas. Disney announced plans in 1973 for a permanent residential area to be constructed on Walt Disney World property. To be called Lake Buena Vista, it was to have included townhomes, single family homes, apartments, condos, a shopping area, and recreation facilities. The 60 Treehouse Villas were built in 1975 as a part of this project, which was renamed the Village Resort in 1985 when the original residential concept was abandoned.

The Treehouse Villas are two-story, octagonal-shaped structures that feature 3 bedrooms, a living room area, full kitchen, dining area, and two bathrooms. Located right on the bank of the Sassagoula River, each Treehouse Villa is a free-standing structure and is surrounded by trees and wooded areas. The second floor is cantilevered and makes for a very interesting architectural design.

The entire Village Resort and along with the Treehouse Villas were absorbed in 1996 into the Villas at the Disney Institute, Michael Eisner’s “Education on Vacation” concept. You can see the villas at the north eastern end of the property in an original property map below.


All of the Treehouse Villas were closed in 2001 after 9/11, with an undetermined future as a reopening date was never set. Although given a valiant effort, Disney in late 2002 finally determined that the “educational vacation” was just not appealing to visitors and closed the Disney Institute permanently. The Disney Institute land was to be turned over to the Disney Vacation Club for construction of Saratoga Springs, a new vacation ownership property which opened its first phase in 2004.

The Treehouses, however, remain closed. Why For? The Treehouse Villas, as they currently exist, don’t fit architecturally in the theme of Saratoga Springs and would require extensive renovation in order to make them inhabitable again. In addition, the freestanding construction of each unit dramatically increases maintenance and housekeeping costs.

Disney would ultimately like to tear down the Treehouses and replace them with another phase of Saratoga Springs, but they can’t. The Warren S. Henderson Wetlands Protection Act of 1984 prohibits most new construction in any area designated as wetlands. The Treehouse Villas property, located as it is on the shore of the river, falls under this Wetlands Protection Act, which means that new construction on the scale desired by Disney would not be allowed.

However, because the Treehouses existed before the passage of the act, they are “grandfathered” in and may remain as they are currently constructed. They can be maintained under strict guidelines, and can be improved or renovated under even more strict guidelines, and therein lies the problem for Disney. Do they renovate and reopen the Treehouses as an ill-fitting and maintenance intensive part of Saratoga Springs, do they tear down the Treehouses and not re-use the land, or do they just leave the Treehouses as-is until a better plan can be devised?

As anyone who has taken the Sassagoula River Cruise or the water taxi from Port Orleans to Downtown Disney knows, option number 3 seems to be the choice for now. The Treehouse Villas are still visible from the boat, and most captains will gladly discuss the history and future of the Treehouses if asked.

Most of the Treehouses are empty, although some are used for storage. Disney, in an attempt to maintain a good image for the property, has connected lighting in the Treehouses to timers so that lights are on at night to prevent the appearance of abandonment.

This strategy was working well until last fall. As most of you know, the area was pounded by three powerful hurricanes. The Treehouse Villas suffered severe damage from water and fallen trees, most of which was clearly visible from the water taxis.

Disney wanted to clean up the damage with the same speed and efficiency with which the rest of the hurricane damage on property was handled. However, a long, intensive governmental permitting process had to be commenced in order to fix the damage within the confines of the Wetlands Protection Act. Permission was finally given earlier this summer for Disney to repair the storm damage. The fallen trees have been removed, the damaged roofs have been repaired, and a couple of the decks that were destroyed have been rebuilt.

So what’s the future of the Treehouse Villas? Disney has begun the long permitting process required to renovate the property. Current speculation has Disney renovating the Treehouses from the inside out and reopening them at a future date as a part of Saratoga Springs.

Our guess is that, assuming the necessary permits can be secured, that the Treehouses will reopen when they can be accessed from Saratoga Springs without having to travel through any of the current construction areas.

We hope they do. The Treehouse Villas are a unique experience at Walt Disney World, and were a fun place to stay. As they existed previously they were a fairly reasonably priced lodging that would accommodate up to 6 people. They were secluded and private, and the wooded, rustic setting was a welcome change.

Okay. Now let’s toss this week’s “Why For” back to Mr. Hill. Jim?

Thank you, Scott. It’s always a pleasure to hear from the guys over at Mouseketrips.

Okay. Where were we? Oh, yeah. Answering your questions about what actually goes on at the Mouse House.

For our final “Why For” question for this week … Chris B. writes in to say:

Hey Jim,

Any scuttle on the possibility of Tinkerbell actually talking in the new fairy movie supposedly in development?
That would sure open up a can of worms in the Disneyana world, wouldn’t it?

Love the site. Read it every day after I check my e-mail.
Chris

Chris —

You know, late last month, I actually caught a glimpse of Tink as she’ll be seen in the “Tinker Bell” movie. In that promo reel that WDFA was showing in their booth at SIGGRAPH. The footage flew by in the blip of an eye. But — for the tenth of a second there — it clearly showed an animator at DisneyToon Studios working with an image of a CG version of Tinker Bell on their monitor.

Oh, did I forget to mention that? That the “Tinker Bell” movie that DisneyToon Studios currently has in production will be computer animated?

Now before all of you Disney purists out there start to work yourselves up into a frenzy about how ” … Walt would have never allowed this,” how this project is ” … a total betrayal of what the Walt Disney Company used to stand for,” etc. … Let me start by saying this is not the same CG Tink that you see at the end of “Soarin’ ” or at the beginning of ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” television program. This computer animated version of Tinker Bell is several generations ahead of that one. And — to be honest — it looks pretty good.

Secondly, this “Tinker Bell” movie … It’s kind of a departure from the Tink we’ve known to date. The cute little pixie who was Peter Pan’s sidekick. As it turns out, this diminutive blonde actually has a life outside of work. She has friends. More to the point, Tinker Bell can talk. At least to other fairies.

You want a hint of what’s about to come? Go over to Amazon.com now and place an order for Gail Carson Levine’s “Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg.” This Disney Press title isn’t actually due to hit store shelves ’til September 20th. But it speaks volumes about what the Walt Disney Company plans to do with Tinker Bell. Particularly when the corporation gets started with rolling out all of its “Disney Fairies” stuff next year.

Speaking of which, Chris … That “Tinker Bell” movie. It’s actually the first of four films that will feature Ms. Bell and her new pals. The first is the stand alone feature, which will then be followed by a trilogy. Yes, a three part epic adventure from DisneyToon Studios. It’s perhaps the most ambitious project that that division of the Walt Disney Company has ever attempted. Though — given that DisneyToon will be farming all of this CG out to outside companies to produce — it’ll be interesting to see how good the finished product turns out to be.

And — speaking of finished — I guess that about wraps it up for this week’s “Why For.” You folks have a great weekend, okay? And we’ll pick up where we left off on Monday, alright?

Talk to you later,

j

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

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

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

Photo by Jim Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

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

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

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

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

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