WHEN SOMEONE SAYS FONDUE, do you automatically think of 1970s “Stepford Wives” in flowing caftans swirling their skinny forks in avocado green pots?

While spear-as-you-go vats of oozing cheese, molten chocolate and savory broths might’ve received the most press during the Nixon era, the concept of dunking food in melted or heated dip has been around since ancient times — there’s even a mention of a blend of wine, goat cheese and barley in “The Iliad.”

These days, going to (fondue) pot is quite literally a hot way to dine, whether it’s at home or at restaurants like New York‘s Artisanal and Arlington‘s new Grand Cru Wines (4401 Wilson Blvd.). There’s an intimacy to gathering around the cute little vessels with loved ones and sharing a meal, bite after yummy bite. Just know that the fondue fork that guides food into the sauce or broth is for dipping only — it’s bad form to eat off it. Transfer the morsel to your plate and chomp it from a different fork.

French-speaking regions of Switzerland are credited with popularizing the gooey dish. Bethesda‘s Maja Wildermuth, 58, a staffer in the Embassy of Switzerland‘s cultural section, grew up on cheese fondue back home in Zurich. Now she uses a pot from her homeland to create a trad fondue with Emmenthaler, Gruyere, dry white wine and a touch of cornstarch to ensure a smooth, thick consistency.

When it comes to dunking, Wildermuth gets creative. “I cube green apples and serve raw zucchini slices,” she says. “You could offer little tomatoes, or chunks of whole-grain bread, though white bread chunks are the most traditional.” Bite-size pieces of almost any bread, veggie or fruit can be swirled in cheese fondue — just be sure the tidbits are sturdy enough to withstand a fromage bath.

To get cheese fondue that’s tastier than those dips made with Velveeta, Cheesetique (2403 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-706-5300) owner Jill Erber suggests pairing “a good base melter” like Gruyere or Emmenthaler with a second, unexpected queso such as Parmesan or Jarlsberg for flavor.

Blue cheese offers a nice kick, she says, and washed-rind Italian Taleggio creates “an incredible silky texture.” Just be sure to cut the rinds or wax off your cheese before plopping it in the pot. Erber left the rind on some Brie she was melting once. “I thought using the rind would give the fondue some tooth,” she says. “But it looked gross with chunks in it. People had to dip around it.”

A splash of kirsch (cherry brandy) is traditional in cheese fondue, but white wine or beer would also enhance a recipe’s smoothness and taste. You can go hooch-free.

Even the war-hating Swiss fight over the layer of crispy fromage lurking at the bottom of an empty cheese fondue pot. It’s called la religieuse, French for “the nun.” Pry it loose with a fork — and try to share.

Some fondues involve cooking and dipping. Broth or oil is kept at a simmer in the pot, providing a bath in which to heat chunks of poultry, fish or beef. Lou Seibert Pappas, author of “Fondue” ($15, Chronicle), borrows from global kitchens when making these sorts of dishes. Think Beef Teriyaki Fondue (sake-perked broth used to cook sirloin) or Indonesian Turkey Sate cooked in curry-infused hot oil.

One recent New Year’s Eve, Teresa Schofield, 32, a public affairs pro from Alexandria, threw a fondue party with her husband, Mark, and another couple. The dark chocolate and Gruyere cheese fondues tasted great, she says, but cooking chicken and beef in hot oil was “a bit more of a hassle,” especially when it came to ensuring the meat was done.

Most dessert fondues involve chocolate, which oozes almost as yummily as cheese. But Pappas’ book suggests a few unusual alternatives — a caramel-pecan concoction for apple slices and a blackberry-balsamic vinegar blend to submerge macaroons into.

Though whipping up fondue is simple, it is one of those culinary feats that requires gear, aka The Pot. Look for a heavy-bottomed one with a mouth wide enough to accommodate four or five fondue forks at most (otherwise, the fondue cools too quickly). It’ll also need room beneath for an old-fashioned Sterno can — light it and it gives off melty heat. Calphalon and Bodum both make sets powered by the tiny-but-toasty guys ($90-$150, Crateandbarrel.com).

Some models no longer even require the often-temperamental canned heat. “I bought an electric fondue pot,” says Pappas. “It’s a joy, because you can control the temperature with ease.”

Plug-in pots and fondue mixes (sold at Cafe Mozart, 1331 H St. NW; 202-347-5732) mean even non-cooks can get bubbling. Just don’t be shocked if pals start calling you the fondude.

Photo courtesy 2007 ”Fondue„ by Lou Seibert Pappas» TUSCAN FONDUE
Serves 4-6
» 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
» 2 large cloves garlic, minced
» 3 cups shredded Fontina cheese
» 1 cup shredded Asiago cheese
» 2 tbsp. cornstarch
» Dippers: crimini mushrooms, trimmed and halved; small cooked artichoke hearts, halved; red or gold cherry tomatoes; and/or bread sticks, broken into bite-size pieces.

» IN A FONDUE POT over medium heat, heat the wine and garlic until bubbles form. Toss the cheese lightly with the cornstarch until evenly coated. Gradually add the cheeses to the pot, a handful at a time, stirring each time until the cheeses are completely melted. Serve with bowls of the vegetables and bread sticks for dipping.

Written by Express contributor Amy Rogers Nazarov
Photo by Alison Miksch, recipe from © 2007 “Fondue” by Lou Seibert Pappas, Chronicle Books