By Chris Pais
The sun is blazing with its seventy degree heat in the dead of winter but this is nothing unusual for Houston. Peter and Yvonne have turned the air-conditioning in their small apartment to its lowest setting and left it running for days, hoping to cool down the apartment in preparation for their annual fondue dinner. It has been a ritual that they have followed for over twenty years since moving to Texas from Switzerland. Peter worked for a precision machinery manufacturer in Switzerland and easily found a job in the engineering hub of Houston. Yvonne teaches French at the local high school.
Today, they are going to have their annual fondue dinner. They spent weeks gathering the ingredients. The cheese blend had to be of precise proportions, the Emmenthaler, the Appenzeller and the Gruyere had to be aged perfectly. The liquors they use to make the fondue had to be just right; white wine from their favorite vineyard and kirsch, a colorless brandy made from cherries. They use heads of organic garlic to season the pan and flavor the fondue. They bought bread with a hearty crust and a soft center in advance and let it sit in the open for a few days so that it develops just the right amount of staleness. After all, fondue originated a few centuries ago in the Swiss countryside when people – as a measure of austerity – stretched leftover scraps of cheese and stale bread in the long winter months to make an additional meal. The bread is cut into one inch cubes and becomes the perfect vehicle to transport the molten cheese onto a hungry mouth. For accoutrements, Peter and Yvonne have prepared the choicest gherkins, pickled pearl onions and blanched asparagus. They added slices of Bartlett pear to lend a tinge of sweetness to the otherwise salty fare. They will gently spice the fondue with nutmeg and paprika.
It is very cold in the apartment and they are ready for dinner. The fondue has been made, the fixings have been fixed, the drinks have been poured, a glass of kirsch and white wine for each. The fondue is set at the center of their small dining table over a low flame and the smell of melted cheese, garlic and brandy fills the air. Classical music is playing softly in the background. Peter and Yvonne are wearing their favorite sweaters and start eating. The tiny forks have to be first inserted into the soft part of the bread cubes until it reaches the crust and is pushed in until it is halfway through the thick crust. An experienced fondue eater will not let the fork pass all the way through. However, if the fork is not inserted deep enough into the crust, the insufficient grip may cause the bread to dislodge and fall into the fondue. When this happens, the victim becomes an object of ridicule around the table and is traditionally asked to do the dishes.
They talk about the last time they had fondue in Switzerland over twenty years ago. They remember the blizzard and the sub-zero temperatures. They talk about the incident without referring to it in literal terms, treading lightly around it, and making occasional verbal skirmishes without actually talking about it. The incident changed their lives forever and caused them to leave Switzerland, never to return. For twenty years, they’ve missed the mountain air and the alpine lakes, the hiking trails and the punctual trains, but most of all, they missed their fondue.
They continue to dip their cubes of bread into the fondue and eat it with the gherkins, onions, asparagus and pear. They sip on the wine and the kirsch. As the level of fondue in the pan drops, the molten cheese starts to bubble furiously like the lava in an angry volcano. When there is just a little bit of fondue remaining, they decide to stop eating and let the remnants cook until it turns into a disc of golden brown crust in the center of the pan. This is called religieuse; Peter and Yvonne often argued about the origin of this word but not today. They turn the flame off, scrape off the religieuse and break it so each gets a semi-circular portion. The religieuse captures all the essence of the different cheeses and the spices and distils the meal into a single bite. As they bite into the crispy religieuse, tears stream down their eyes. They raise their glasses of kirsch and say a silent toast. They reach across the table and hold hands, communicating by touch what words cannot accomplish. Outside, the Texas sun is setting. It shines through the window shades to form long, orange shadows on the wall. Soon, Peter and Yvonne will put their fondue pot and cutlery away until it is time for them to be used again next winter.
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Chris Pais grew up in India and came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in engineering. His work appears in Poetry India, The International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, Wingless Dreamer, Wild Roof Journal, The Literary Bohemian, Defunct Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he works on clean energy technologies and tinkers with bikes, guitars and recipes.