In 1971 Hattiesburg, Mississippi was a meat-and-potatoes town. It’s not because we weren’t well travelled or suffered from low exposure. It’s just that exotic foods weren’t readily available. My across-the-street neighbor, Barbara Jane Foote, steamed artichokes and served them with drawn butter. That was a food that seemed exotic and from another world. My neighbors a few blocks away— the Bowens— ate avocado for breakfast. Very exotic.
Almost 20 years later, after I opened my first restaurant, I received a telephone call from a friend. “Robert do you know what a Shiitake mushroom is?” Though she didn’t pronounce “shiitake” in the proper manner. She broke the fungi into two words— the two most obvious words— one of which can’t be printed in a newspaper; the other was “take.” I tactfully corrected her and moved on.
This was a time before reality food shows on television. There were no cooking challenges or hour-long contests showcasing cake decorating. There were a couple of cooking shows on Public Television, but that was it. Fine dining was left to male chefs, most of whom were imported from France. Those who weren’t imported were trained in the classical French style. Grocery stores carried two types of lettuce and one variety of every other vegetable.
In 1971, I was 10-years old and my mother changed the culinary culture on our block. I came home from fourth grade one day and, sitting on the breakfast room table, was an odd-shaped pot, with a wooden handle, atop a small stand with an electric cord running from it into the wall. It was painted harvest gold and several sets of long forks were lying next to the pot.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s called a fondue pot. They’re all the rage,” my mom said.
“What do you do with it?”
“You cook in it, right here on the table.”
“Anything. They use them over in Europe. They put cheese in the pot, heat it up and then dip bread in there. They also melt chocolate in there and dip all sorts of foods into the chocolate.” I didn’t know who “they” were, but whatever country they were from over in Europe must have been a really cool place to prepare an entire meal with cheese and/or chocolate. I was fired up and ready to use this new fondue thing immediately.
That night we christened the fondue pot. I was excited. Cheese and chocolate for supper! I could feel myself becoming worldlier by the minute. Had I owned a blue sport coat with a crest on the chest and an ascot I’m sure I would have worn them to dinner that evening. My future looked bright in this worldly setting— no more meatloaf, no more beanie weenies, no more broccoli casserole. From here on we’ll be eating cheese and chocolate like “they” do over in Europe.
My worldly bubble was burst when I sat down to our new pot and it was filled— not with chocolate or cheese, but— with Crisco.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s oil. We’re going to eat steak,” said mom.
“What’s wrong with the grill?” At that age steak took a back seat to cheese or chocolate.
“Nothing. We are going to fondue tonight.”
I became skeptical of the “They Europeans” when I took my first bite of the cheap cuts of meat that were being skewered with color-coded forks and dipped into the small pot of hot grease. There were no accompanying condiments— no curry sauce or chutney, no flavored aioli or relish. On Bellewood Drive we ate our fondue’d meat with ketchup. Worldly dining, South Mississippi style.
I can remember wondering why the “They Europeans” didn’t just grill their meat and save the fondue pot for cheese and chocolate. I learned later that they did.
We had a few more fried meat dinners before the fondue pot was mothballed and later sold at one of my mother’s infamous garage sales.
Last week I turned 53-years old. One of my closest friends, and the daughter of the artichoke lady across the street, Laura brought me a birthday present— my mother’s fondue pot. Barbara Jane (who already owned an avocado-green colored fondue pot) had purchased it at my mom’s garage sale and kept it in her attic all these years. It was the perfect gift.
I think I’ll host a fondue dinner for my family. I might even skip the cheese and chocolate and drop some olive oil into the pot. I might also upgrade the beef and add a few condiments into the mix. Then again, maybe not. Maybe I’ll go old-school Bellewood Drive and opt for Crisco and cube steak.