Chances are if you’re an average middle-class sort, somewhere tucked away in a cabinet or closet you have a fondue pot and chances are as well that you’ve never used the damn thing and likely never will because you’re more likely to order out chicken wings or pick up a meat-and-cheese/vegetable tray from the local supermarket than go to the trouble of making anything on your own, especially something as weird and baffling as a fondue.
Fondue is (of course) a Swiss dish, likely begun by people of simple means with simple ingredients, cheeses and wine at its most basic. The French word fondue itself simply means ‘melted’. Most Swiss would agree that a proper fondue is made with a blend of cheeses–of gruyere, emmental, and a softer local cheese such as raclette or appenzell–white wine, a little kirsch, a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and nothing else. Fonduta, the Italian version of fondue, is made with fontina cheese…There is also a similar Dutch dish called kaasdoop (cheese dip), which begs the question of why we insist on calling it fondue in the first place.
Trendy American cooks embraced fondue in the middle of the 20th century. The early recipes were startlingly elaborate—as were the fondue sets themselves—and included prescribed serving rituals as well as a warning against drinking cold beverages while consuming cheese fondue because the hot cheese would harden in the stomach and cause constipation. (It won’t.) Fashionable authors recommended using those long two-tined forks with the cute little colored knobs on the end to skewer the bread cubes, which is why colorful glazed fondue pots with matching forks were standard gifts at bridal showers and weddings. Many of you likely remember your mother’s fondue set in harvest gold and avocado green. The “canned heat” was typically Sterno brand. Fondues became quite popular because the ingredients were inexpensive and familiar; the equipment novel and within reach, and while most of us consider a fondue about the gayest thing you can serve at a party, it makes for a novel holiday dish (particularly New Year’s) and is actually quite good.
The following basic recipe is from Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining, [Golden Books: New York] 1970, 1974 (p. 55). I recommend you lightly toast the bread cubes.
1 loaf French bread or 6 to 8 hard rolls
1 pound Swiss cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine (Rhine, Reisling, Chablis, Neuchatel)
2 tablspoons kirsch or sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Dash white pepper
Cut bread into 1-inch cubes. Cut cheese into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups). Sprinkle flour over cheese and toss until cheese is coated. Rub cut clove of garlic on bottom and side of ceramic fondue pot, heavy saucepan or chafing dish. Add wine; heat over medium heat just until bubbles rise to surface (do not allow wine to boil). Gradually stir in cheese, adding only 1/2 cup at a time and stirring after each addition until cheese is melted and blended. (Do not allow mixture to become too hot.) Stir in liqueur and seasoning. If fondue has been prepared on range, transfer fondue pot to source of heat at table and adjust heat to keep fondue just bubbling. Guests spear cubes of bread with long-handled forks and dip into cheese mixture. Stir fondue occaional. (If fondue becomes too thick, stir in about 1/2 cup warm white wine.) 4 servings.