fondue, n. 1 a (1) : a preparation of melted cheese (as Swiss cheese and Gruyère) usually flavored with white wine and kirsch (2) : a dish that consists of small pieces of food (as meat or fruit) cooked in or dipped into a hot liquid b : a chafing dish in which fondue is made
2 : a dish similar to a soufflé usually made with cheese and bread crumbs *
Originally, the Swiss made fondue (from the french word for 'to melt' or 'to blend') out of necessity—cheese and bread made during the summer and fall would become harder and less and less palatable as the winter progressed; the bread would occasionally reach such a level of staleness that it needed to be chopped with an axe. Heating the cheese with wine softened it and made it much more edible, and dipping the hardened bread into this mixture proved to be quite the taste treat.
By the middle of a long, cold Swiss winter, even chocolate wasn’t looking so hot, but melting it and serving it over dried fruit, cake, or bread was a definite improvement.
Likewise, Fondue Bourguignonne, meat fondue (cooked in oil), came into being in the vineyards of Burgundy, where harvesting grapes took precedence over lunch breaks. During the middle ages, a monk named Johann du Putzxe came up with the idea of dunking pieces of meat in pots of hot oil, which could be set up in the vineyards. This way, the workers could enjoy a hot, fresh meal without losing a lot of time.
Fondue parties were a big hit in the U.S. in the 1970’s, and these days, there seem to be signs of a comeback. Restaurants such as The Melting Pot offer gourmet versions of traditional favorites; there’s even a healthier option of cooking the meat dish (filet mignon, duck, chicken, pork, seafood) in a bouillon or wine-based broth rather than in the more fattening oil.
Of course, with any luck, you can find an old avocado-green or burnt-orange fondue set (metal pots for meat fondues; ceramic or earthenware caquelons for chocolate and cheese) in your own or your parent’s attic; haul it out and fire it up. Recipes for fondue abound, and it's just so damn fun to use those long, skinny, color-coded forks to dip the food. Personally, I like making cheese fondue with beer instead of wine; some garlic, a little Worcestershire sauce sauce, and grated and lightly floured cheddar (Gruyere, Emmenthaler) is all you really need. Diced-up french bread and Granny Smith apples are great for dippin’.
When you've recovered from your food-induced coma, and you're ready for dessert, try mixing Chambord with dark chocolate in the fondue pot, and then break out the marshmallows, strawberries, cheesecake, pound cake. . . you get the idea.
Postscript: I've been trying to cook (and live, for that matter) without alcohol recently. It is a testament to how little I cook that it took me two days to figure out that chicken broth (or stock) would work as a substitute for beer or wine as the base for cheese fondue. When I went to experiment, however, I was out of broth, so I used water mixed with powdered low sodium chicken bullion. I am pleased to report that with a few dashes of Worcestershire and plenty of garlic, it works just fine.
PostPostscript: sloebertje suggests apple juice as a substitute for the wine or beer, to make the fondue appropriate for children. Sounds like an idea worth trying.