While other homely creations like toasted cheese sandwiches and welsh rerebit languish in the kitchen, fondue, which is, after all, only another way of serving melted cheese and bread, has moved out to the dining room, a suitable dish for company.
And that is probably because fondue is fun to eat, raising competitive spirits as bets are won or forfeits paid while chunks of bread are lifted (or not lifted) from pot to mouth.
Although there are infinite variations of fondue, the basic distinction is between those which use eggs and those which do not. Brillat-Savarin, a man who bragged of his fondue, belonged to the former category with this recipe:
"Weigh the number of eggs you wish to use, according to the presumed number of your guests.
"Then take a piece of good Gruyere cheese weighing one-third of this amount, and a morsel of butter weighing one-sixth of it.
"You must break and beat the eggs in a casserole, after which you add the butter and the grated or minced cheese.
"Put the casserole on a lively fire, and turn the contents with a spatula until they have become properly thick and soft; add a little salt, or none at all according to whether the cheese is old or not, and a good amount of pepper, which is one of the important characteristics of this time-honored dish; serve it on a gently heated platter; call for the best wine, which will be copiously drunk, and you will see miracles."
When two elderly cousins told him that he had boasted too long of his fondues and it was time for him to put up or shut up, Brillat-Savarin invited them to a breakfast where, after feeding them first on oysters, grilled skewered kidneys and a pastry shell of truffled foie gras, he produced that innovation, the fondue, causing the elderly gentlemen to "exclaim with delight . . . and ask for my recipe."
In her translation of Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste," M.F.K. Fisher gives another recipe, one which uses flour instead of eggs:
"For four people, 800 grams of very fat Jura cheese (i.e. about 1 3/4 lbs. of Gruyere or, if you can't find that, Emmentaler) grated or finely minced. Take a sufficiently ample earthen pot; rub its belly with a garlic clove, and put into it a piece of butter as big as a little egg. Add a small spoonful of flour, moistened in about 5 ounces of white wine from Neuchatel. Let it come to the boil while working it with a wooden spoon. Add the cheese, and let it melt slowly, without ceasing to stir it. At the last moment add a small glass of kirsch, flavored with a little freshly ground pepper. Serve over a flame."
Cut French bread in bite-size chunks so that each chunk has a bit of crust attached. Guests spear the bread through the soft part, anchoring the fork (long handled, please, or you'll land your guests in the cheese) in the crust. In turn, each guest dips bread to cheese, stirring it to keep the cheese moving, takes the fork out, twirling it gently to capture the strands of cheese, and pops it in his or her mouth. If the bread gets lost in the pot or falls to the table, a forfeit is paid, usually a round of drinks or a round of kisses, depending on the direction you want your party to take.
When the cheese has been eaten, the crusty remnant on the bottom of the pot should be scraped up and divided among the guests.