Day 253 – National Cheese Fondue Day

The date was 1976 and the message came urgently from Studio 8H as a plea for assistance for a struggling nation:

“Hello. I’m Mark Mbutu from the newly emerging African nation of Namibia, a former German colony located in southwest Africa. Namibia is an undeveloped nation, and we are appealing to you as world citizens. We need your fondue sets.”

I think that was the first time I had ever heard about fondue and naturally as an eight year old, this piece of comedy confused me. If you are not familiar with the skit, it was actually Garret Morris during Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and it kind of became a classic catch phrase from those early Not Ready for Prime Time Player days. The thought is kind of absurd – sending fondue pots to a nation in need, but it’s the delivery that sells it. Said in all seriousness and with sincerity, Morris, dressed in his African dashiki, pauses perfectly before he pleas for the fondue sets. Comedy gold. And that was how I learned that there was something in the world called fondue.

According to a blog called Everything Fondue, which I think by title alone I have to accept as the expert, fondue comes to us from the Swiss in the 18th century. It was a way to use aged cheeses and breads to feed families who had limited access to fresh foods during the winter time. They explain, “Producers of cheese and bread saw their busy season was during the warm months and that the food had to be saved by villagers to be used through the cold winter months. As the cheese would age and the breads became stale it became more difficult to eat. The local villagers found that if they heated the cheese with wines, garlic, and herbs they could dip their stale bread which would soften when dipped into the flavorful cheese mixture. This way of cooking together over one pot and eating by a warm cozy fire became a Swiss winter tradition known as fondue. The word fondue comes from the French word, ‘fondre’, which means ‘to melt’ and has since then been used to reference many other types of fondue for meats, chicken, seafood, and even chocolate.” Another food invented from the mouth of necessity and the need to survive on the provisions around you.

The modern phenomenon of fondue is the fondue set which seems to go in waves of being in fashion. They first started popping up in the sixties (1960’s that is) in kitchenware stores as the must-have party accessory. If you weren’t hosting a fondue party, you were pretty much a square. Their popularity continued into the seventies as more people discovered different cheeses that were particularly good in fondue form. Then we must have sent all our fondue sets to Namibia because they seemed to fade from the party circuit. My own personal theory here (with little research behind it) is that the rise of the popularity of the microwave in the eighties changed how we eat and prepare foods making the fondue set to move to the back of our junk closets. We no longer needed to heat cheese in a pot over a flame, we just needed a minute in a home radiation device. Plus the eighties also saw the emergence of Easy Cheese, the cheese in a can, and that changed the whole cheese serving game. It was different times.  More recently, the fondue set has returned to prominence and is back on the shelves of your high end kitchenware places like Williams-Sonoma and Target.  That’s probably more to do with the whole foodie culture becoming a thing and people appreciating good cheese, good bread and good wine.

I think the only time I have ever had fondue was at the home of a very Sassy friend who happens to be a loyal follower of the blog. Lola and I were invited to her home along with Lola’s sister Becky and husband Jeff. After we were warmly greeted with proper and tasty cheers, we gathered around the kitchen table to a fondue pot filled with gooey melted cheese. We dunked our apple slices and bread in and got to soak in all that yumminess. It was an experience and I could finally understand why fondue was back to being a thing. Leave it to Sassy for being on the cutting edge of food trends. We could have just sat there and ate the whole thing but her husband Matt was outside grilling up some lamb chops which ended up being out of this world good. I guess in our memory that was one delicious night. We were grateful for a great night which would become the night we lost our fondue cherry. You always remember your first.

For today’s version, I found a recipe online for one that is made using beer. I’m not sure why, but a beer-based fondue seemed more up my alley. The recipe came from the ABC television show called The Chew which I don’t watch but I follow them on Facebook and tune in to some of their recipes and ideas. The show is a little much for me but good in small doses as I like the chefs that are on the show and the rapport they have with each other. The recipe was easy enough so I headed out to Clements to pick up some cheese, some bread and some kielbasa. It took less than twenty minutes to throw together. The hardest part was trying to find our fondue pot which I have seen a thousand times as a random piece of decor in our house that we have never used. It was a leftover from Lola’s parents and I kind of doubt if they ever used it too. But even though I have seen it a thousand times, when I needed it, I couldn’t find it. I started my scavenger hunt and eventually found it buried in a cabinet in our living room where we store all kinds of plates and extra kitchen stuff. It looked in good shape too. It was made of bronze, I think, with a steel pan in the middle for the fondue. I cleaned it up nicely and then lit the candle that was in the warming spot beneath the set. I couldn’t find any fondue forks, so as gauche as it was, we had to use real forks to eat the fondue.

It was another one of those days where Lola was deep into her work and when she is in deep, she doesn’t pay to much attention to what I’m doing even though I’m cooking all around her. So I was busy getting everything together for the fondue. I was grilling the kielbasa and even cooking the bread (it was one of those take and bake loaves). At one point she said something smelled good, but outside of that, she was oblivious. I told her dinner would be ready in about five minutes so she took a few minutes to clean up and take a breather outside. Then she walked back in and saw the fondue feast that I had set up for us.

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When she popped back into the room, a look of great surprise came across her face. She couldn’t believe the feast that was before her and she was excited. We sat down with a nice glass of wine to enjoy our fondue. This kind of feast is everything Lola likes in a meal: small bites that you can dunk and create your own combinations. The kielbasa was a nice touch and picked up the beer flavor in the cheese, especially with the fresh grilled taste. We don’t often eat kielbasa, so it was a nice change of pace. The bread was nice and crusty and when you dunked it into the cheese, the cheese would wrap around and leave small strings of melted goodness hanging off the bread. The best surprise was the apple which when combined with the cheese really gave the best combination in flavors. It was the tartness of the apple and the sweetness of the cheese together that made the perfect bite. It surprised us. The recipe said to use cheddar although I used a mix of cheddar and gruyere as gruyere seemed to be an ideal cheese for a fondue. I think taste-wise it came out great. Lola commented that it tasted a lot like the Welsh Rarebit that I made back on Day 34 and that would be exactly what it tasted like as the recipe was very similar. Still, it was more fun to eat in fondue form.

Back in 1976, thanks to the kindness of Americans, the great fondue set shortage of Namibia was resolved and once again cheese became a hero to the world. Ok, maybe not, but of all the stupid jokes that have been stored in my mind over the years, I was glad this one was stuck in there. It gave me my first introduction to fondue and it would stay with me as a food of curious possibility. It was Sassy Steph who gave us the first taste and proved to both Lola and I how tasty fondue can be and how festive it can be too. But it was today that I truly became a fondue-ist. It was today that I dusted out a well-aged fondue pot. It was today that I melted cheese in simmering beer and kept it warm by the heat of a candle. And it was today that I got to share the joy of good food that you dunk into cheese with your best friend. That’s a pretty successful National Cheese Fondue Day. If only we had those fancy forks!

Next Up: National Grilled Cheese Day

 

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