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Why “Western River” Went South — Part 9

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Before you hit the trail, check out a few more stories about the greatest attraction that never was !

A NOTE TO READERS: You know, you’d think – after eight long, drawn out chapters – you people would have had enough of “Western River Expedition.” (I know *I* have.) But – judging by all the notes that keep turning up in my mailbox – you folks still have a lot of questions about this proposed WDW attraction.

So – before we officially say “adios” to Thunder Mesa – I’m going to try to tie up a few loose ends.

Like: What do the “America Sings” figures being in “Splash Mountain” have to do with Tony Baxter trying to make it up to Marc Davis?

In Part 6 of this story, I mentioned the grudge that Marc Davis held toward Tony Baxter. Davis felt that Baxter had done him wrong by proposing a different attraction to be built on the “Western River Expedition” construction site.

To this day, Baxter insists that he wasn’t out to deliberately undercut Marc’s plans. He was just attempting to make Thunder Mesa’s secondary attraction – a runaway mine train ride – as good as possible.

According to Tony, it was Card Walker who came up with the idea of pulling “Big Thunder Mountain Railway” out of the main Thunder Mesa show building so that it could become a stand-alone show. It was only then – when “Big Thunder Mountain Railway” and “Western River Expedition” began being perceived as separate attractions – that the two shows went head to head for the Frontierland “E” Ticket slot.

Of course, we all know which ride won this competition. What’s not generally known outside of WDI is how personally Marc took the news that “WRE” wasn’t going to be built. Davis was angry with Tony for years after this.

Okay. We’ve recapped that part of the story. Now it’s time to touch on what Baxter did to try and make it up to Marc.

Right from the start, it’s important to understand that Tony Baxter is a really nice guy. Generous with his time and talent, quick with a compliment or a kind word, Tony is highly thought of at WDI. There are Imagineers that claim that they’ve never heard Baxter say a bad word about anybody.

(Mind you, there are some at Imagineering who wish that Baxter *COULD* bring himself to say something negative – particularly about Disney’s California Adventure Theme Park. They believe that if Tony had challenged Paul Pressler and Barry Braverman early on about some of their creative decisions concerning DCA, Anaheim’s expansion project wouldn’t be in such a mess about now … But that’s a story for another time.)

ANYWAY … Tony Baxter is a nice guy. More importantly, he *LIKES* the idea that he’s thought of as a nice guy. That’s why Tony was so troubled by the idea that Marc Davis was mad at him.

Here was this Disney Legend, this master of animation as well as Imagineering, that Baxter had inadvertently slighted. Tony tried apologizing to Marc in person. Davis just grumbled in reply.

As the 1970s slipped into the 1980s, Baxter became recognized as one of the modern masters of Imagineering. After helping to create Epcot’s original “Journey into Imagination” attraction, Tony was the driving force behind Disneyland’s New Fantasyland. Baxter then pushed Disney to forge an alliance with George Lucas, which eventually lead to “Captain EO,” “Star Tours” and the “Indiana Jones Adventure.” If you stumble across something good in a Disney theme park in the 1980s, chances are that Tony Baxter was somehow involved with that project.

And yet – Tony was still bothered by how his big break had come about. By choosing Baxter’s “Big Thunder Mountain Railway” over Marc’s “Western River Expedition,” Card Walker had kicked Tony’s Imagineering career into over-drive. But – in the process – Marc Davis’ dream (and over five years of hard work) were swept aside.

As the 1980s rolled around, Tony too had had his share of disappointment. Baxter had also dreamed up a magnificent mega-attraction for a Disney theme park – Discovery Bay – that Card Walker had (after years of hemming and hawing) opted not to build. So Tony now knew from experience what Marc must have gone through with “Western River.” And it didn’t feel very good.

So now it’s 1983. And Tony Baxter is caught in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. To kill time, Tony thinks about all the stuff that’s waiting for him on his desk once he finally arrives at work in Glendale.

There’ll be yet another memo from *** Nunis, president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Nunis has been nagging Baxter for years now to come with a flume ride for the Disney theme parks. Tony’s been reluctant to work on this project since A) every run- of- the- mill theme park has a flume ride, B) Disneyland and WDW’s Magic Kingdom *AREN’T* run- of- the- mill theme parks, so C) Baxter has to come up with a tactful way to tell *** Nunis that the Disney theme parks *SHOULDN’T* have flume rides.

Plus Disneyland management was looking for WED to come up with ways to lure guests back into Bear Country. It turned out that the “Country Bear Jamboree” show wasn’t nearly as big a hit with Disneyland guests as it had been with WDW visitors. Without sufficient guest traffic back in this part of the Anaheim park, Bear Country’s shops and restaurants weren’t meeting their revenue projections.

Then there’s the trouble with Tomorrowland. It’s been 16 years since Disneyland last got a new Tomorrowland and that side of the park is really showing its age. Most of the shows over there are ridiculously dated and out- of -step – particularly “America Sings.”

This audio animatronic musical extravaganza may have been popular with Disneyland guests back when it first opened in June 1974. But – once the hoopla surrounding America’s Bicentennial faded – attendance levels at this Tomorrowland attraction dropped off drastically. Nowadays, Most “AS” showsran with fewer than 50 people inside each theater

Even so, Tony was reluctant to do anything about “America Sings” because … Well, over the 9 year run of the show, he had grown fond of the show’s 100+ figures. Baxter believes that the AA cast featured in this Tomorrowland show was some of Marc Davis’ finest work.

(Tony wasn’t alone in his assessment of “America Sings.” Though many WDW guests still marvel at the audio animatronic Ben Franklin figure that walks upstairs in Epcot’s “American Adventure,” most Imagineers will tell you that Ben doesn’t move half as well as the alligator Davis designed for “America Sings.” Marc made that AA figure appear as if it were strolling up a set of step out of the subway while singing “See You Later, Alligator.” That 1974 audio animatronic gator had a grace and a fluidity of movement that the 1982 Franklin figure never achieved.)

Plus Tony knew that – if he were to come up with a new attraction for Disneyland’s “America Sings” / “Carousel of Progress” theater – all those great Marc Davis AA figures would end up on the WED scrap heap. Given the minor role he played in “Western River” never making it off the drawing board, Baxter wanted no part in shutting down of the *LAST* theme park attraction Marc Davis ever designed.

And yet – sitting there in his car, trapped in traffic – Tony felt sad. For he knew that whichever Imagineer came up with a new show idea for Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress,” they’d still end up getting rid of all of Marc’s AA figures. Which was a shame.

But – given their toony style – it was obvious that those “America Sings” AA figures didn’t really belong in Tomorrowland. They’d be better suited for a show set in Frontierland or Bear Country or …

Now, on one knows for sure what weird sort of alchemy occurred in Baxter’s car that morning. Somehow Marc’s “America Sings” figures got mixed up with *** Nunis’ flume ride memo and Bear Country’s dipping attendance levels. But – By the time Tony finally made it into the WED parking lot that morning – he had the whole ride in his head. A flume ride for Bear Country that would make use of all the old “America Sings” figures.

In a way, it *WAS* an ingenious idea. By re-using the “America Sings” characters to people a flume ride for Disneyland, Baxter would create a new attraction for the Anaheim park with a cast that would rival “Pirates of the Caribbean” at virtually no cost. Best of all, Marc’s great AA figures would escape being stripped for parts.

Mind you, it took another four years – and a change of management at the Walt Disney Company – before Baxter got permission to build “Splash Mountain.” By then, Tony and his team at Imagineering had had enough time to play with the model of this proposed Critter Country attraction to include a sly homage to “Western River Expedition.”

Think about it. If Thunder Mesa had actually been built, visitors – after boarding their wooden launch – would have floated over to the first sequence of “Western River Expedition.” Here, they would have glided up a waterfall while listening to the ride’s narrator, Hoot Gibson – an audio animatronic owl – do the standard safety spiel.

Now let’s consider Disneyland’s “Splash Mountain.” In that attraction, guests riding in wooden logs also float over the show’s first sequence – the grist mill at the base of the mountain. But – once they’re inside the grist mill – these same guests pass an audio animatronic owl while gliding up a waterfall.

Do that seem a touch too co-incidental to you?

And consider this ironic factoid: Had Thunder Mesa actually been built in Frontierland at WDW’s Magic Kingdom, it would have risen up out of the ground right behind where the “Briar Patch” shop is currently located.

But – if you think about it – there *IS* a water-based ride featuring Marc Davis designed AA figures rising up behind the “Briar Patch” shop now. It may not feature the exact same cast Marc originally had in mind. But there’s no denying Davis’ influences on “Splash Mountain.”

Think about it: The WDW train rumbles through the “Splash Mountain” show building, giving folks on the train a preview of the attraction – which is what Marc had wanted the train to do while traveling through the “Western River Expedition” show building.

And “Splash Mountain” climaxes with guests zooming down a steep waterfall and racing toward the edge of the Rivers of America – just like guests riding on “WRE” were supposed to do.

Now please don’t think of these pieces of “Western River” turning up in “Splash Mountain” as Tony stealing ideas from Marc. That’s *NOT* what Tony was doing here. Rather, he and his “Splash Mountain” design team were just trying to pay tribute to Davis’ much- beloved- but- never- built Frontierland attraction.

Sure, you’d have to be a bit of a Disney dweeb to get all those obscure references to a ride that was never built. But that pretty much describes 90% of the people currently working at WDI.

Mind you, after all this hard work, it would be nice to report that Marc Davis really appreciated Tony Baxter’s efforts to save his “America Sings” AA figures as well as get some of his ride ideas for “Western River Expedition” finally off the drawing board. But this isn’t a Disney film, kids. This is real life.

In spite of Baxter’s best efforts, Davis was furious that his “America Sings” AA figures had been ripped out of Tomorrowland’s “Carousel of Progress” theater. It didn’t matter to Marc that attendance had fallen away to nothing for the original “AS” show or that millions more people each year now got to see and appreciate his AA figures.

All Marc knew was that one of his attractions he designed been shut down and Tony Baxter was to blame. From the day “America Sings” closed in April 1988 until the day Davis passed away in January 2000, this elder statesman of animation continued to bad-mouth the younger Imagineer.

It’s like they say, folks. No good deed goes unpunished.

By the way, before we move on with the “Western River” stories, I’d like to take a moment here to poke a hole in some Disneyland mythology: If you’ve ever spent any time in the queue area of “Star Tours” with a Disneyana buff, they’ll invariably give you the inside scoop on the two labor droids – G214 & G219 – that you see in the repair bay.

As the story goes, these robots weren’t originally created for “Star Tours.” They’re supposedly two geese AA figures that WDI decided to recycle from Tomorrowland’s recently closed “America Sings” show. So the Imagineers just pulled off these animatronics’ costumes and feathers off, quickly reprogrammed them and – Presto Chango! – “Star Tours” has two additional droids in its repair bay. (That’s reportedly why the robots are named G214 & G219. “G” stands for “goose.”)

Well, that’s a great story and all. Except that “Star Tours” opened on January 9, 1987 and “America Sings” didn’t close ’til April 10, 1988.

So where exactly did these goose droids come from?

Of course, it’s possible that the Imagineers just took two of the singing geese out of “America Sings” to use as labor droids in “Star Tours.” But wouldn’t you think that someone would have noticed two of the attraction’s AA figures were missing?

Alright – enough about “America Sings” and the geese …

Several other D-I-G readers wrote in and asked about the WDW “Western River Expedition” preview display. They’d heard that there was some sort of bizarre story associated with the model.

Indeed there is! This model – which illustrated the sequence where a cowboy on horseback got up on the roof of the town’s saloon – was a beauty. Done to 1′ to 1″ scale, it featured upwards of 10 different characters reacting to this silly scenario. The bartender trying to shoo the man and his mount off the roof. Three saloon girls. Other cowboys who were hooting and a- hollering.

This model – along with a few production paintings nearby – gave WDW guests a real taste of what “Western River Expedition” was going to be like. However, that wasn’t good enough for the Imagineers. As part of their Thunder Mesa, they included an audio animatronic owl.

That’s right. “Hoot Gibson,” the narrator of this proposed Frontierland attraction, sat on a perch in the post show area of the “Walt Disney Story” theater. If you pressed a button near this display, this robotic owl would come to life and – while he explained a bit about audio animatronics – “Hoot” would also give a brief preview of “Western River Expedition.”

Below, you’ll find an exact transcript of the spiel “Hoot Gibson” gave to Walt Disney World guests. I personally recorded this speech during a trip to the Orlando resort in the summer of 1980. (A special thanks here to Michelle – a.k.a. the Fabulous Disney Babe – for transcribing this recording.)

It goes as follows:

This short show opens with Hoot Gibson asleep on his perch. Nearby, a large storybook – labeled “Our Family Tree” – sets on a pedestal. Below this is a mock-up of an audio animatronic programming console.

HOOT(Snores for a moment, then wakes with a start) Woooooo! Who are you? Uh, Who am I? Why, hee hee, I’m the real Hoot Gibson, that’s who. I’m the star of a brand new western show being made for Walt Disney World.

I’m what they call audio anima .. animo… animah .. Hee Hee ! You see, before my kind came along Walt Disney’s Characters were strictly movie- star types. (The book on the pedestal now opens open, revealing a picture of the wise old owl from “Bambi.” ) My grandpa, for example, had one of the lead roles in Bambi.

But with all due respect, he and the rest of the family were sort of flat actors. (The book turns to another page, revealing a family tree of Disney animated owls. ) Yeah, they were these flat drawings.

Well. one day Walt felt it was high time to work up some three dimensional animation. (The book turns to another page, revealing an Imagineer working on an audio animatronic figure.) It took years and years of thinkin’ and tinkerin’.

First there were little bitty figures (The book turns to another page, revealing an Imagineer working on one of the toucans for “the Enchanted Tiki Room”), then full size ones (The book turns to another page, revealing the Imagineers working on the Lincoln AA figure for “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln), and finally out of all of this came a brand new kind of animation Walt called ani .. anima audio .. audio animatronics.

Today right here in Walt Disney World you see the greatest animated stars here led by the old mousetro himself, Maestro Mickey Mouse (The book turns to another page, revealing the Mickey Mouse AA figure from “The Mickey Mouse Revue”).

I’ll tell you something, though… It wasn’t easy for any of us to break into this kind of showbiz. Why, whooood whood ever thought that even I had to start right at the bottom? (The book turns to another page, revealing Hoot Gibson in one of Marc Davis’ “Western River” concept drawings.) There I was, just a rough idea on an artist’s sketchpad. Hee hee hee!

Next, they made me very carefully into a tiny little model. (The book turns to another page, revealing Hoot Gibson recreated as a tiny macquette for the “WRE” scale model.) Pretty cute, huh?

Just when I figured I was good enough, they did me up full size, big as life. Hee hee! (The book turns to another page, revealing the Hoot Gibson AA figure being assembled.) Well, from the sculptor’s table, I winged over to the workbench to get loaded up with all those nuts and bolts and wires, control hoses and even air hoses… You can’t hoot without an air hose! Oooh hoo hoo hoo!

After that my very own makeup crew came along. Treated me just like a star out of Who’s Whoooo. and finally (The audio animatronic programming console now comes to life, with all sorts of lights flashing and beeps & bips) I got my schoolin’ from a mighty smart fella and his computer console.

One set of switches makes my beak a-snap. Another set of switches gets my wings to flap. They use a bunch of rotors to make my head go ’round. Put them altogether, you’ve got a real cool sound!

(Brief musical interlude while Hoot performs on his perch. The audio animatronic programming console quiets down and the book on the pedestal closes as the demonstration draws to a close.)

Well, that’s my story, folks. I sure hope you’ll come back and see me in the future at the Western River Expedition right here in Walt Disney World.

Now that you know whoooo I am, Whoooo are you?

The Hoot Gibson AA Figure now closes its eye and goes into its rest position on the pedestal, waiting for the next guest to come along, press the button and restart its demonstration program.

The Hoot AA figure and the “Western River Expedition” model were on display in the post show area of the “Walt Disney Story” from April 1973 ’til the Spring of 1981. Then this area was rethemed to serve as the preview center for WDW’s soon- to- be- opening second theme park, Epcot Center.

As guests exited the Epcot preview film that was playing in the “Walt Disney Story” theater, they now encountered a room full of displays hyping all the new shows and attractions top be found in the new theme park. Hoot Gibson also got into the Epcot promotional game. This AA owl had been reprogrammed by WED to serve as a spokesbird for WDW’s newest theme park. Nowhere in his two minute speech did Hoot ever mention “Western River.”

The same thing happened in 1988 when WDW was getting ready to open the Disney / MGM Studio Theme Park. Once again, the post show area of the “Walt Disney Story” theater was redone as a preview center. This time around, Hoot was reprogrammed to play a movie directing owl. Wearing a beret and perched next to a director’s chair, this AA owl tried to convince WDW guests to return to Orlando next year to take part in all the move-making fun that would be found at Disney / MGM.

After that … Well, it appears that Hoot flew the coop. No one at WDW ever saw that audio animatronic owl again. It was assumed that the Imagineers had just packed Hoot away in the same warehouse where they’d stored that “Western River Expedition” model.

Only the Imagineers hadn’t stored that “WRE” model away. When rehabbing the “Walt Disney Story” theater back in 1981, the workman couldn’t be bothered with taking down the elaborate display in the post- show area. So they just sealed the “Western River” model up in the wall – covering up its glass front with a big sheet of fiber board.

13 years later .. Another set of workman were once again renovating the post show area of the “Walt Disney Story” theater. This time, they were making the space into a preview center for WDW’s 25th anniversary celebration. So the workman pulled down some fiber board along one of the walls to find … this long forgotten display hidden away in the wall ! Not only is the ‘Western River Expedition” model still intact … But the tiny lights in the lanterns and the windows of the model are still lit.

The workman who had sealed the display up in the wall 13 years earlier had never bothered to turn off the electricity going to the “WRE” model!

The folks who were redoing the post- show area had no idea what they’d uncovered, so they called the Imagineers. When WDI learned what had been unearthed at the “Walt Disney Story” theater, they moved quickly.

Now please remember that most of the figurines that had been sculpted for the original “Western River” model had disappeared ‘way back in 1975 as part of a mysterious theft at WED. And now here was a sequence from that proposed attraction with all its figurines still intact.

WDI moved fast. The Imagineering office at WDW quickly sent over several staffers to take pictures of the “Western River” model as it had been found. Then each of the figurines and set pieces were carefully packed away in bubble wrap and sent back to WDI headquarters in Glendale, CA. Once there, I’m told that the “WRE” model was lovingly restored and reassembled. It’s now on display in the Imagineering Research Library and is considered one of the true treasures of the WDI collection.

And that – my friends – is the last bit of trivia associated with Thunder Mesa and the proposed “Western River Expedition” ride. I want to thank you all for your patience and understanding with this series. It took a long time for all of us to get to the end of this tale. Hopefully, the wait was worth it.

In particular, I’d like to thank a few individuals for their information, insights and help on this project. These include Mike Lee of the “Widen Your World” web site (Who did the first – and arguably the best – story on “WRE” for the Web). I’d also like to thank James Disney of the “Southern California Coaster Club” web site for lending me his expertise on Disney’s thrill rides. Dan Alexander and Marvin Mitchell also deserve kudos for their insights on “WRE” and other Disney theme park attractions.

And an extra-special “We’re not worthy” goes out to Michelle AKA the Fabulous Disney Babe for coming throooough with that “Hoot Gibson” transcript.

Hope you enjoyed the tale …

GUESS WHAT – this series is finally completed – really – honest – we mean it! Thank you for following along.

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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