With Wisconsin’s love of cheese, it’s no wonder this food craze caught on

There are few things Americans adore more than melted cheese
veggies being dipped into fondue
Courtesy of Fromagination

The fact that fondue, Switzerland’s national dish, became a fun American food fad wasn’t an accident. This rustic Alpine combo of cheese melted in wine and eaten with crusty bread dates back to the 17th century. However, it was the Swiss Cheese Union (Schweizer Käseunion) that engineered its worldwide fame. For 84 years, this cartel functioned much like OPEC does, but it controlled the price and production of cheese rather than oil. It came about between the two World Wars when Swiss dairy exports fell on hard times due to increased trade barriers and depressed economies. The group strictly regulated how much and what could be made — only seven varieties, but mostly Emmenthal and Gruyere. When the export market began to boom again in the 1950s, the Swiss Cheese Union recognized there were only so many ham and cheese sandwiches people would eat and looked for recipes to stimulate sales. Fondue was the answer, since it commonly used Emmenthal or Gruyere, which they needed to unload.

There are few things Americans adore more than melted cheese, and the timing of fondue’s arrival upon our shores was cosmic. It was during the 1960s when mores about relationships and entertaining radically changed. The concept of dipping your own color-coded fork into a communal pot of gooey cheese set over an open flame went viral. First introduced as an appetizer, fondue morphed into a whole meal with the addition of chunks of meat and seafood cooked in hot oil, and cubes of cake and fruit dunked into warm chocolate.

In the 1970s, more health-conscious eating caught on, and many fondue pots made their way to the attic or yard sales. The Swiss Cheese Union dissolved in 1999, but fondue never disappeared, and it made a comeback in the late ’90s partially spurred on by The Melting Pot. This chain of eateries devoted exclusively to the enjoyment of fondue launched in 1975. In the ’90s and early 2000s, The Melting Pot rapidly grew. It now boasts more than 90 locations, including one in Madison.

A genuine flavor of Switzerland awaits just 25 miles down the road in New Glarus, an idyllic village settled by Swiss immigrants more than 150 years ago. Both the Glarner Stube and New Glarus Hotel feature traditional Helvetian atmosphere and cuisine — and, of course, authentic cheese fondue. The version served at Chalet Landhaus Restaurant uses award-winning Roth Käse Grand Cru, a Gruyere-type cheese made in nearby Monroe.

Originally, fondue was intended to be enjoyed at home with family and friends, or as a romantic tête-à-tête. It’s easy to make, and whether you’re a pro or a novice, the best place to go is Fromagination. This downtown cheese store is a gem, and not only does it have everything you need, but it also offers a classic recipe on its website.

Whether it be quiche or cupcakes, food fads come and go. Perhaps fondue’s resilience proves it’s more than just another flash in the pan.

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.