My nieces took my sister out for Mother’s Day to The Melting Pot for lunch – I, unfortunately, had to work for the cat kibble. I have always been inexpressibly fond of food one has to dip, grill or otherwise mess with in order to eat it so I was rather bummed to miss out on this experience. From the reports later, it sounds like a wonderful place (and for a 6,000 calorie meal). Apparently, the act of dipping meat/vegetable/fruit gobbets in boiling oil/cheese/chocolate does not comprise “exercise.”
I was reminded though of the other times I’ve eaten fondue out in the world (not including the tiny little pot now lanquishing in an old cabinet in the garage). The last time was in Switzerland surrounded by a high-spirited bunch of high school kids on one of those world-wind tours which was quite good if one-noted. The first time, however – was much more memorable.
I was a student at Jagiellonian University in Krakow during the summer of 1988 in a post-graduate program designed for Americans (or at least non-Poles). Poland was still Communist at that time but the cracks were showing quite clearly with many things “forbidden” making tentative appearances; rock concerts, church attendance, whispered conversations between Polish soldiers and American coeds… But I digress.
We were staying in Dom Piast – an aging post-war gulag-type dormitory with dark hallways, oddly-colored rooms (what was up with the McDonald’s themed paint choices in my bedroom?) but lovely mosaics in unexpected places and large windows that looked out on neglected gardens. Car exhaust was the most memorable scent with that buzzing, high-pitched motor sound of scoooters as the soundtrack – punctuated occasionally by the clip clop of horses dragging gypsy-like wagons through the traffic. It was my first trip abroad and I was a bit in a dazed sort of dream-like state for the first week or two. So imagine our excitement when we discovered there was a “Holiday Inn” across the road from us with an actual dining room – and a tantalizing break from the fried porkchops which were the dining room’s favorite.
It was a bit surreal – and no, I never did see the Holiday Inn’s spritely little logo anywhere in this place – but it was an actual hotel with a swimming pool and what turned out to be a very good dining room. We tried the roast turkey dinner the first night and it was surprisingly, and hauntingly, a taste of home. The wait-staff was polite and professional and I’m sure appreciated the dollar bills we left as tips. The maitre d, a tiny, gray-faced man was unctious to the point of snarkiness but we didn’t care. Things were so dang cheap there we could eat like emperors and it was nice and old world to get a little attention.
And then we discovered they had fondue on their menu.
We had made it at least twice more over the road to this paradise of nourishment before we discovered this – perhaps we never got past the first page. But we decided to try it one night and it was a life-changing experience. I’m not sure what the mystery meat was – probably horse if I were honest – but the sauces served with it would make brontosaurus tasty. They served this feast with at least 8 and the ranged from the savory to the sweet and every nuance in between. Heaven on a plate. We stayed and laughed and even joked with the waiter who tried to figure out where we were all from (yes, we were Americans but we had some exotic varieties among us). Fantastic.
It was so wonderful the next week – or maybe even a few days later – we tried to go back and recapture the moment. But when we confidently presented ourselves at the restaurant’s door, the gray-faced maitre d shook his head sadly and said there were no avialable seats. What? There were very few people ever in this restaurant which was probably far out of the range of most of the populace, the few other diners with us well-dressed middle-aged men for the most part. The tables spread before us, tantalizingly empty; white napkins pristinely folded, glittering goblets waiting for water, red damask tablecoths elegantly draped. Not a soul sitting at any of them. We asked if we could come back later – but again he shook his head. The wait staff was no where in sight.
We tried again a couple of more times before our term ended but each time we were politely firmly turned away. It was only after I returned home to my democratic-republic-middle-class-America
I can still taste the sauces….