When everything '70s came back in style about 15 years ago, the words "lava lamps" and "fondue parties" became part of hipster lingo once again. I understood the ironic fashion of lava lamps, but fondue? The communal dish had never gone out of style in my world. My family has circled round the cheese fondue pot every Christmas Eve since, well, the early 1970s.
Few of our holiday traditions have persisted year to year, but a bubbling mass of Swiss cheese has held its steady place. If there is a fireplace or a wood stove, the logs get stoked and stirred as we assemble the small plates, the fondue forks, flour the cheese, and fill a large bowl with crusty French bread. We slice oranges to help everything slide down and maybe nibble on a pickle or two.
Using potato flour gives a nod to traditional Swiss recipes, and our family has always preferred a one-third mixture of Emmenthal, Gruyère, and Swiss cheeses. It may be a modest meal, but there is still room to let different flavors harmonize and hum.
The simplicity of fondue is as an a cappella choir to the full orchestra of holiday preparations. It offers a note of comfort amid other, grander meals. And yet the act of dipping a skewered piece of bread, broccoli, or apple with an elegantly slim fork moves the meal beyond sheer simplicity.
And focused vigilance is required. If the cheese gets too hot, it will burn on the bottom of the pot; stirring it too much will connect long strings of cheese from the pot to your plate as you dip and draw your fork. Expect a lot of standing up and sitting down and chatter as you jockey for the best spot to dip in, refresh the rapidly emptying bowls, or gingerly tend to the tiny blue Sterno flame.
As the years pass, no two holidays look alike, faces change around the table – new ones appear and some are missed. And even our fondue meal has expanded. We've recently added an oil (meat) and chocolate course. Maybe it's too much fuss, or maybe we're just trying to prolong the togetherness that leaning over a tiny flame fans at this dark time of year.
So find yourself a fondue pot to stir with a few friends. It might just prompt the gentle pondering you need before the bright new year bursts in.