Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I'm part of a very unique and elitist book club. There are just three members, and we insist on reading bad books. Apparently.

While Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, How to be Alone) has a real way with words and the ability to describe the most mundane situations with startling beauty, he's also kind of crazy, and totally obnoxious. His memoir The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History beats around the bush of his life story, dipping in and out on various tangents about cartoons and high school high jinks. Like a poorly sequenced album, or one with just too many tracks, the good stuff (and it's really quite brilliant) is overshadowed by the boring, self-indulgent, or the ├╝ber-intellectual. What a shame.

But allow me to hang on the positive. His mother has died and he's telling us how she has, over the years, finally perfected her home, having "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas."

Although the furniture in her final draft was sturdy and well-made, of good cherry and maple, my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want what we didn't want; I couldn't prefer her maple nightstand to the scavenged wine crate that I kept by my bed in New York. And yet to walk away and leave her house so fully furnished, so nearly the way she'd always wanted it to look, gave me the same panicked feeling of waste that I'd had two months earlier, when I'd left her still-whole body, with her hands and her eyes and her lips and her skin so perfectly intact and lately functional, for a mortician's helpers to take away and burn.

Nice, right?

Anyway. Perhaps there's an abridged version, with just the parts readers might care to read. It would be about 8 pages long, but a fantastic mini-memoir for sure.

Our book club meetings are really more about the food and wine anyway, who are we kidding? And, naturally, themes are important. I chose this book, so I hosted our chat. I had thematic options - Serve up the food of Jonathan Franzen's childhood (real Middle American fare - a casserole, or a pineapple upside down cake!) or serve food of the era, the late 60s and 70s. Because I'm no good with meatloaf, I opted for a true 1970s-dinner-party-staple: Cheese fondue!

Jeff and I are big fondue people, but I've never actually made cheese fondue, only oil-based for meat and seafood, or, of course, chocolate. And get this: It's super easy!

Grate 250 grams of swiss, and 250 grams of gruyere. I got mine at the market and it cost about $16. Mix 2 tablespoons of flour, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, and a whack of freshly ground pepper - Sprinkle that over your grated cheese and toss to coat. You can do this part ahead, if you like. I did, so when my guests arrived, I could just do the melting and cooking, and not the grating and prep. No guest wants to watch you grate cheese.

About half an hour before you want to eat, pour 1 3/4 cups white wine into a medium-sized pot. (I used a much-too-large pot - not that it really matters - because I was nervous and wanted to guarantee ample stirring-clearance. Be assured, you can use a standard "medium-sized" pot.) Back to the wine. You know the rules: If you wouldn't drink it, you shouldn't be cooking with it! A dry white wine is recommended. Pictured above is Kim Crawford's Sauvignon Blanc - Don't use that. It's very fruity and far too pricey. I used an Italian Pinot Grigio (Collavini, $14.05) which was great. Allow that to simmer on medium-high heat, until bubbles start rising to the surface: 6 - 8 minutes. Stir handfuls of cheese into the wine in a zig-zag pattern - If you stir in circles, the cheese could ball-up on you. Melt handful after handful until it's all in. It will thicken up beautifully and the house will smell like sweaty balls - Mmm!

Now, here's the thing. Most recipes call for an ounce of kirsch - a cherry brandy. I don't need that, particularly, so didn't want to invest in a whole bottle. Inexplicably we had a bottle of Kirsberry (a cherry liqueur) in the cupboard, so I added about half-an-ounce of that, when the cheese was fully melted. For good measure I tossed in a splash of the delicious Prosecco we were drinking. I also stirred in 1/8 teaspoon of minced garlic. Keep stirring, let it all soak in. Give it five minutes or so, then transfer it to the fondue pot. A note on fondue pots: We are avid fan-dues. We have experienced fondue via many different types. Our electric Cuisinart is fantastic. Even, consistent heat, an ultra non-stick surface, and it's totally immersible for cleaning! If you love fondue (and how could you not?) it's worth the small investment.

Serve with cubes of bread, an inch square or smaller. The bread should be a bit . . . stale. I cut mine up before my guests arrived and allowed it to sit out for about 30 minutes. You don't want that chewy, moist freshness. You know? This will easily feed 6 to 8 people, and more if there's another fondue course to follow.

Oh, in case you're wondering, T.J. announced his choice for our next Book Club Selection: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. See you next month.


  1. Two comments:
    I LOVE prosecco!! Drank it every day when I was in Italy last year.

    And B:
    Try adding a little dry Keens mustard to the sauce before you add the cheese. That and a little "Wooster" brings out the flavour. Yum.

  2. Thomas of Wash DCJune 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    love the pictures!