Fondue Memories

In 2010, Smithsonian’s Food & Think blog had an invitational on the topic of college food.  Food — the good, the “bad” and the blech — plays a big part in my best college memories, so I couldn’t help putting aside the writing I’d planned to do that night and in favor of this.  By the way, that also played a big part in my student career — finding ways to do anything other than the work I was supposed to be doing!  In retrospect, my serendipitous peripheral activities often turned out to be the most fruitful, and this was no exception. I’m excited to say that Amanda Bensen, the editor of Food & Think at that time, enjoyed my unscheduled sense memory enough to post it on September 20, 2010. As long as they keep it in their archive, you can read it there.

Or you can read it right here:

At my freshman orientation, the culinary high note was that a former alumna had set up a fund to ensure that every student, lunch and dinner, had access to fresh salad. In other words, an iceberg lettuce fund. In those days, you couldn’t find arugula unless you were Italian and grew it in the yard. Julia Child was just wrapping up The French Chef, and easy access to things like balsamic vinegar, chutney, or even Sichuan cuisine was still a couple of years in the future. In short, the American Food Revolution hadn’t yet begun.

Hopping from room to room, looking for likely friends among the strangers, I noticed that a girl named Susan and I had both considered a few books from Time-Life’s “Foods of the World” series important enough to drag to school. I had The Cooking of Provincial France, The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire and another about Italy, I think. (I know one of Susan’s was Russian Cooking, because we used it the following year to cater a dinner for our Russian History class…but that’s another story.)

It was astounding to find someone else who thought reading cookbooks was a reasonable hobby, not to mention someone else who understood what it meant when the instructions said “beat till fluffy.” Susan and I became firm friends. Over the course of our college careers, we swapped a lot of recipes, talked a lot of food and teamed up to cater a few theme-heavy history department functions. But to this day, if you ask either one of us about food and college, the first thing that comes to mind is our favorite midnight snack: chocolate fondue.

If you were in New York in the 1970s, you’ll remember the fad for narrowly-focused “La” restaurants: La Crepe, La Quiche, La Bonne Soupe (still standing!) and of course, La Fondue. Eating at these, we felt very adventurous and—more importantly—European. In this context, it shouldn’t come as a thunderbolt that my school luggage contained not only a facsimile of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but also an avocado green aluminum fondue pot, a set of forks and an illegal electric burner.

The “illegal” bit is crucial to the experience. Our dormitory was built in 1927 and, at the dawn of the consumer electronics age, hadn’t yet been rewired. We were told not to use hair blowers in our rooms, and we were not even supposed to possess such things as burners, toasters, irons, televisions…and certainly not refrigerators. We were supposed to avail ourselves of the common-use shelf on each floor, which had an electric burner and a grounded plug. No one listened. Everyone had some sort of appliance for playing music, and I had a television, as I considered myself constitutionally unable to study unless seated in front of one. Susan had a bar-sized refrigerator that masqueraded, under a tablecloth, as a storage box.

I can’t remember how it started, but the routine was always the same. Throughout the term we kept boxes of Baker’s chocolate and miniature bottles of flavored liqueurs—Vandermint, Cherry Heering—in the metal safe boxes nailed near the doors of our bedrooms. When the craving would strike, we spent two or three days filching pats of butter (that’s where the refrigerator came in), stale cake and fruit from the school dining hall. It was pure forage—whatever we found, that’s what we’d be dipping. The anticipation was intense.

When we finally had enough, we would muster our ingredients in one room or the other late at night, after studying to whatever goal we had set. While the chocolate and butter and booze melted together in my one saucepan, we cubed the cake and fruit. The smell of melting chocolate would snake out of the transoms (1927 dormitory, remember), driving everyone else who was awake in our hall half-crazy.

We listened to Joni Mitchell, stuffed ourselves with chocolate-covered goodness and talked for hours, the way you do in college. Afterward, we’d have to wash out the saucepan and the pot in the bathroom’s shallow sinks, with the separate hot and cold taps—not so easy, but a small price to pay.

There are photos that capture that memory. We sit on the floor by the painted trunk that, when not in active service between campus and home, did duty as my “coffee table” and held the fondue pot. There’s one of each of us, looking slantwise up at the camera while carefully holding a dripping fork near the pot of molten chocolate.

A couple of years ago, some friends pulled together an ad hoc dinner after work one night. The host had a brand new fondue pot and wanted to put it to use. Stepping up, I found myself in her kitchen, melting chocolate and butter and raiding her liquor cabinet for an appropriate soupcon. The smell floated out into the living room, drawing everyone near. People picked up their forks and speared strawberries and cubes of cake, and we sat in a circle dipping chocolate and talking for hours.

Don’t you love when your college education pays off?!

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