Avocado fondue pots and Bellewood Drive
By By Robert St. John / food columnist
June 25, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian, www.nsrg.com. He can be reached at Robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.
Fondue hit Bellewood Drive the same year the Beatles broke up.
My mother purchased the first fondue pot on our block. It was avocado green and stood on a metal plate, supported by three stainless steel legs. There was a space for Sterno under the pot and high above sat an avocado-green top with a small walnut acorn for a handle.
The fondue set came with six, long color-coded forks to be used for stabbing and dunking foodstuffs and for imaginary swordfights between siblings.
I was 9 years old and passionate about food. The fondue cooker was the most astounding thing my brother and I had seen since our mom came home with a pair of pantyhose stuffed in a plastic egg.
The avocado-green fondue pot was displayed in a prominent place next to a wooden bowl that held bananas, an obvious and high-profile location for the cooking instrument that placed our family among the gastronomic avant-garde of the entire subdivision.
Visiting friends would ask, "What's that?" I proudly proclaimed, "We fondue, don't you?"
Leave it to the Swiss
Fondue's development is credited to the Swiss. They combined cheese and wine, heated it and then dipped bread into the cheese mixture. Years ago, it was a good way to dispose of stale bread. The term fondue comes from a French verb, "fondre" which means, "We'd eat the Eiffel Tower if you dipped it in enough cheese."
Fondue made a big splash as an American dinner-party fad in the 1950s and 1960s, but people have been fonduing for centuries.
There is a recipe for fondue in Homer's "Iliad" goat cheese, wine and flour. The addition of alcohol lowers the boiling point so the proteins in the cheese don't curdle.
A touch of acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar, usually helps the cheese melt evenly. Goat cheese was a distant dream in the South Mississippi of the 1970s.
Most fondue recipes call for cheese or chocolate in the cooking pot. Some use flavored stocks or broths. To my recollection, we never ate a traditional fondue meal of melted cheese or chocolate. My mom used Crisco. In the finest of Southern traditions, we deep fried our fondue.
And we fried cheap cuts of grocery-store meat, with no marinade, no seasoning, no dry rub just meat, hot fat and ketchup avant-garde cooking South Mississippi style.
My older brother asked for a fondue dinner on the occasion of his 14th birthday. My mother went all out for this rite of passage and set the table with her finest china, sterling silver and crystal. She dispensed with the traditional floral centerpiece and placed the guacamole-colored fondue pot in the middle of the table directly under the crystal chandelier.
There we were, in the middle of her formal dining room, stabbing small chunks of discount meat with three-pronged forks and submerging them into two quarts of molten, hot lard gurgling in a cheap metal container supported by three, skinny chrome-plated legs.
Fad dining is dangerous stuff. A sharp, metal instrument submerged in a wobbly vat of scalding hot grease is a fire marshal's nightmare. The birthday dinner ended with a fondue fork swordfight between me and my brother.
Amazingly enough, no one ever called the fire department or the National Safety Council about the St. John boys running through the house wielding a red-hot fondue forks like a sharp-edged branding irons.
All good things come to an end
Our fondue pot was mothballed midway through the decade. It was shelved along with the Mr. Microphone, mood rings, puka beads, Ginsu knives, CB radios, platform shoes, dog-eared copies of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and new math.
We eventually moved on to more cutting edge cuisine such as: quiche Lorraine, Lipton Onion Soup dip and Tuna Helper. Years later, the pot was sold at one of my mother's infamous garage sales.
Somewhere out there, in Hattiesburg or in parts unknown, there is another family of deep-fat frying carnivores waiting for fondue to make another comeback so they can make gastronomic waves on their block with our old and wobbly avocado-green cooking machine.
Those were simpler times. Times when doors were left unlocked, take-out meals meant eating on the patio, televisions had only three channels and Michael Jackson actually looked like someone from the planet Earth.
Maybe that's what happened to Mike. Maybe he was having a fondue-fork swordfight with Tito and fell face first into the fondue pot. Ah, the price we pay for modern cooking.
Deep in the Piney Woods of South Mississippi, in the small hamlet of Hattiesburg on a quiet street known as Bellewood Drive the St. John family was for one brief moment tip-toeing on the cutting edge of the 1970s cultural and culinary revolution and cooking fondue.