This post is the first of blogger May Wijaya's new series examining food fads past and present.
In your kitchen, perhaps on a hard-to-reach shelf, there lives a dusty fondue set. You may have received this kit on a birthday, Christmas or perhaps when someone went off-script for the wedding registry. You don’t see or think of it often, but when you do, you get a case of the warm fuzzies.
Fondue has become one of the foods most easily identifiable with the kitsch foods associated with the 70s, happily outliving fabulous banana candles and glistening moulded aspic delights. Those who grew up in 1970s America or Great Britain may remember dinner parties of their early youth. Seated around a little ceramic pot of, you may have cast off bite-sized vegetables and pieces of bread into a pool of melted cheese.
Fondue’s history heralds back to the 17th and 18th centuries (possibly even earlier depending on who you’re talking to) and was a peasant’s meal to make something edible of hardened cheese and stale bread. Although the origins of fondue are contested, the widespread popularity of the Alpine delicacy is largely attributed to the Swiss.
A spectacularly successful marketing campaign for Switzerland, the proliferation of fondue was brought about by pragmatic economic imperatives. The Swiss Cheese Union declared the fondue as Switzerland’s national food in the 1930s, lifting it from regional obscurity to embody Swiss national spirit. The Swiss Cheese Union, an iron-fisted cartel regulated the tiny country’s cheese production from 1914 to as late as 1999. To this end, the hundreds of varieties of cheese previously produced were pared right down to only an official three: Emmenthal, Gruyère and Sbrinz.
In addition to paying heavy subsidies, the Union effectively promoted fondue to keep the domestic cheese industry afloat. Promotion was so heavy handed that after rationing ended after the Second World War, the Union even sent fondue sets to military regiments as part of their campaign. This was the perfect strategy to get people at home and abroad to eat Emmenthal and Gruyère, the two principal cheeses used in “traditional” fondue, by the barrel.
Fondue restaurants spread beyond the continent, reaching New York City by the 1950s. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the fondue served at the Swiss Pavilion’s Restaurant ushered in the era of fondue’s mass appeal. The 70s was also the heyday of fondue in the UK, where holidaymakers returning from the Continental ski-fields brought back their fondness for the dish.
If imaginable, early iterations of fondue was an even richer dish thickened with eggs and balanced with wine. As it evolved, corn starch replaced the eggs which gives fondue the silking consistency it is known for today. In the glory days predecessing lean cuts of meat, and reduced-fat offerings of milk, fondue found a happy home in many domestic kitchens.
By the 1970s socio-political changes at home had created a fertile environment for fondue to flourish in the US. Deregulation in the airline industry meant that air travel had become more accessible and the world seemed smaller. Suddenly Nixon was eating duck in Beijing and Julia Child was bringing French cooking into every American living room. Home life was more relaxed with more meals eaten away from the dining table (in front of the television set, say).
Two fondue variations had even been created here in the America, albeit by a Swiss implant. Konrad Egli who owned the famed New York restaurant Chalet Suisse is credited for creating chocolate fondue (to market the quintessential airport chocolate, Toblerone) and the deep-fried meat atrocity that is fondue bourguinonne in the 50s and 60s. We can only cast assumptions as to why the craze took off…but it must have something to do with the fact that fat is flavor and melted cheese is delicious.
May Wijaya is an experienced arts administrator and a big time food nerd. She is fascinated by the stories people tell through foodways. It is possible she spends too much time thinking about food. She also has a keen interest in food policy including childhood obesity issues.