Fondue headlined suburban American theme parties in the 1960s, then pretty quickly fell out of favor, as fads so often do. Americans briefly rediscovered the communal meal in the early '90s, albeit with a more modern and health-conscious approach to the recipes. But if everything old eventually becomes new again, that fondue pot set you stashed in the basement might be due to come out for another round.
The idea of fondue likely calls to mind the style that originated during the 1800s in the Swiss Alps as a way to use hardened cheese and stale bread during the winter months. Deriving from the French verb fondre, meaning "to melt," fondue was a classic peasant dish made fashionable across the country after World War I by the Swiss Cheese Union. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin mentioned fondue in his 19th-century writings.
But fondue-like dishes originated in cultures around the world, such as Asian hot pots in which diners cook chunks of meat, seafood or vegetables in a communal pot of bubbling oil or steaming broth. Mexico's queso fundido resembles the cheesy Swiss dish, though served with tortillas, while bagna cauda in Italy relies on pureed anchovies for texture and flavor and is typically accompanied by vegetables. Chef Konrad Egli of New York's Chalet Suisse Restaurant gets the credit for chocolate fondue, which he developed in 1964 to support a marketing effort by Swiss company Toblerone.
Traditional Swiss fondue combines Emmentaler and/or Gruyere cheese and wine, melted in a communal pot. A cherry brandy called kirsch gets added to the mixture, which becomes a dip for pieces of stale bread and crusts. In Switzerland, cooks in different regions produce fondue with other local melting cheeses and variations on flavorings. But they all agree that the best bite develops at the bottom of the pot during the course of the meal. The crusty slab of cheese, called le religieuse, gets reverentially scrapped off by fondue connoisseurs and shared around the table.
Those same connoisseurs (and hopefully any good cheese fondue host) will tell you to drink white wine, kirsch or herbal tea with your meal—and nothing else. Those in the know say beer or juice or even water can cause the cheese in your belly to coagulate, which doesn't sound like a pleasant end to the meal.
Chocolate fondue might seem like a foregone conclusion, but the editors at Bon Appetit don't recommend the high-cholesterol combination. A few slices of fresh pineapple make a much better choice for dessert because the natural enzymes help with digestion.
You don't even need a special fondue pot to serve a meal for family or friends. A slow cooker makes a convenient substitute and keeps the cheese warm. You can also melt the cheese in a double boiler on an electric hot plate, or prepare it on the stove and transfer it to a chaffing dish.