Monday, February 06, 2006

Would You Like Some Cheese With That Wine?

When my roommate/friend/boss, Sebastien, invited me to eat fondue at his parent’s house, my first question was, “Now what exactly is fondue?”

“It’s cheese. You break bread up, put it on a long fork and then dip it in melted cheese.”
My second question was, “Now why exactly would I want to do that?”

“It’s good. You’ll like it.”

“What kind of meat do you serve with it?” I asked.

“No meat. Just cheese and bread.”

I thought about his proposal, imagining Seb, Heather and I sitting around with Seb’s parents, opening up Kraft singles and microwaving them. Although it didn’t seem like a night of good times, I knew I couldn’t reject the offer because I was in Switzerland to experience new and unusual things and this was definitely a new and unusual thing.

Later that night, I sat in Seb’s parents’ living room with his mother, who we call Marie Jose, drinking a glass of wine while Heather played with Lea and we waited for Seb and his father to show up. The best way to describe Marie Jose would be to imagine an older, more updated, Swiss version of Martha Stewart. She is a very cheerful, generous woman who speaks constantly and with great detail and you listen closely to see if she'll reveal her secret recipe for "Mojitos a la Martha."

However, a statement like, “I bought new shoe strings today,” could take her forty-five minutes to say.

Normally, I can listen to such a story with great enthusiasm and even join in on the discussion.

“Now what size shoes were these? Was the lace brown or another color? Is there one store that offers a wide selection of laces?”

However, this became difficult with Marie Jose because she only speaks French. I speak and understand enough French to order food, buy train tickets and mail things at the post office, but not enough to understand an adult conversation unless it’s about Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s relationship.

Marie Jose didn't talk about these things though, so I understood about twenty percent of what she told me. To entertain myself and be polite, I pretended to understand everything by making expressions which I felt corresponded with the tone of her voice. If her voice was low and her eyes looked upset, I shook my head from side to side and said, “C’est pas bon.” If she seemed happy, I leaned forward and laughed and slapped my knee like I got a real kick out of something. This backfired though because one time after I leaned forward and laughed, Heather quickly explained to me that Marie Jose had asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.

“Oh. Non merci,” I said and then Lea started crying (saving me) and pointing at the door of a cabinet. I knew she wanted something inside of it because she often did that at our apartment. I had a feeling that she wanted her pacifier, which her mother is trying to wean her from. Heather’s not having very much luck and usually caves, in the early evening when Lea becomes cranky. Because Lea now understands the word pacifier and we try not to mention it around her, we have started calling it, “Kevin.”

“Is Kevin in that cabinet?” I asked Heather in English.

“Yeah,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

She seemed uneasy so I knew to keep quiet.

“Come on Lea. Let’s go change your diaper,” Heather said. “Jacques, do you want to help me?”

Marie Jose said something in French to Heather which I didn’t understand except for the last word; “caw caw.”

“Did she just say the word, “caw caw”? I asked Heather when we were alone.

“Yeah. They use that to describe the word, “poo poo”.

I knew what the word, “caw caw,” meant from all the times my older brother told me that my breath smelled like caw caw or that I was full of caw caw or just called me, "caw caw face". I didn’t however, realize where the word came from or that adults used it. I realized then that it was probably an old French word and the reason that my brother knew it was because I was from a Cajun family.

Lea’s diaper was full of caw caw and as her mother changed her, the baby screamed and wiggled all over the place. Usually when she acted that cranky, we gave her the pacifier.

“Do you want me to go get Kevin?” I asked.

“No. Seb’s mom doesn’t believe in it. Seb and his sister never used one and his sister’s kids didn’t use one.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering why Heather cared what Marie Jose thought but not dare asking because I had the feeling the question would open Pandora’s Box or in French, “Le Boite de Pandora.”

Thirty minutes later, after Seb and his father arrived, I watched Seb’s father, a jolly man who has the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen, prepare the fondue. The cheese was not American or wrapped in plastic as I’d thought, but instead shaved pieces of Gruyere and Vachern. I watched Seb’s father’s beautiful hands dance around a big black pot as they transformed unsuspecting shavings of cheese into a thick, bubbling liquid. I learned that the recipe to Fondue is as follows:

Put shavings of cheese into hot pot on the stove. Pour shots of a very strong liquor called Kirsch into the cheese and then into your mouth. Stir until the cheese melts or you’re drunk.

Seb, one of the friendliest guys I know, who always has a smile on his face and expression that makes one fear that he might break out into a song about cattle farmers who live on the side of a mountain, announced when the fondue was ready.

"A table everyone!"

Heather glanced at me and said, "I hope we can get through this without having to give Lea, Kevin."

The rest of the evening was spent just as Seb said it would be. We put pieces of bread on long forks and then dipped it into the pot of cheese. The taste was a little bitter because of the Kirsch, but I have to admit that it was the first time I ever got a little buzzed from melted cheese. It was a bit salty and when I asked for water, everyone looked at me like I’d used the Lord’s or Swiss Army’s name in vain.

“You shouldn’t drink water,” Heather told me. “It’s not good with all that cheese if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t know what she meant, but didn’t want to hear about it during dinner time, so I poured myself glass after glass of wine, which became difficult for two reasons. One, the wine glasses used during fondue are small and resemble a shot glass. My brain is wired so that when I see a shot glass filled with something, I pour it down my throat in one sip. This created a second problem. During a Swiss dinner party, it is considered rude to pour yourself a glass of wine without topping off the others in the party first. Since I was drinking faster than anyone else, and didn’t want to be rude, I had to hold the bottle just right so a drop of wine fell into the other’s glasses, without overflowing, before I could refill my glass. Not as easy as it may sound when you’re eating cheese spiked with Kirsh.

For the rest of the evening, Marie Jose talked, Seb’s father led his beautiful hands in a ballet, Lea cried for Kevin, Seb asked where Kevin was, Heather moved uneasily in her chair saying that Kevin couldn’t come out and play and I smiled thinking that I wouldn’t trade that evening of dipping bread into melted cheese (even if there was no meat) for anything else in the world.