Equal Cheese and Melted Rights
I have a loud voice, and I have opinions. Observe me at social events, when small talk devolves into descriptions of the weather, recent vacations, or remodeled baths and kitchens; where viewpoints absorbed from the boulevard press are exchanged, and the mind is numbed by the sound of men explaining. If I can neither leave nor uphold a pretense of listening, I’ll abandon the rules of etiquette, and interrupt to pontificate on something of actual interest to me. Women’s rights, for example.
When I arrived in Switzerland in the early Seventies, Swiss women had just achieved suffrage in federal elections, and were dealing with husbands telling wives how to mark their ballots. Several acquaintances confided in me that they voted exactly as they pleased, but lied about it to their spouses. This apparent necessity for domestic dishonesty struck me as a lingering and specific kind of insult to female dignity. In 1981, an article meant to guarantee equal pay for equal work was written into the Swiss constitution (and subsequently ignored), but equality in marriage wouldn’t come into law until 1985—when the statutes ensuring a husband’s position as “head of household” with the authority to determine place of residence, the power to prevent his wife from pursuing a job or opening a bank account, and the right to manage her inheritance and savings from both before and during wedlock, were finally struck down.
Not long ago, in a crowded theater foyer in Lucerne, standing on the periphery of a male-dominated discussion, signaling my husband to get me more wine, I heard someone mention fondue. A tendency to free-associate kicked in and, immediately, my thoughts were transported from the well-lit lobby into the shadows of an imagined mountain hut where, over a hissing blue flame, surrounded by hungry misogynists, a sea of garlicky, melted cheese seethed and bubbled in a giant, edelweiss-decorated caquelon. I blurted out: “I hate fondue!”
The wheels of progress in the Swiss Confederation grind slowly. Helvetia, Switzerland’s national personification, a female figure whose attributes are a shield and spear, demands stability and changes that persist. After the majority of cantons had aligned with the federal decision on women’s voting rights and, later, accepted equality between men and women, only the stubborn half-cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden resisted—for almost two decades. In 1989, the former relented, but the latter held out until 1990, when the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland stepped in and forced the provincial patriarchs to comply.
Fondue is not the traditional alpine meal for which it’s routinely mistaken. It was created and promoted in the middle of the twentieth century by the Swiss Cheese Union, which profited from increased exports and sales of government-subsidized cheeses, particularly Gruyère and Emmental. The newly concocted recipe, which called for huge amounts of these varieties, was based on an obscure specialty from a small, French-speaking region of Switzerland, whose inhabitants prepared it solely in the summer, using a much smaller proportion of cheese, in a version more easily digested and less damaging to arteries than its modern incarnation.
The cartel-like Cheese Union was disbanded in the 1990s amid accusations of corruption; but the culinary monstrosity it popularized through extensive publicity remained, as did the promotional acronym still used in ads and restaurant menus throughout Switzerland: FIGUGEGL. Its eight letters stand for the Swiss German slogan “Fondue isch Guet und git e gueti Luune”— “Fondue is good and creates a good mood.” Based on personal experience, fondue is not good, and creates indigestion; it also leaves behind a persistent odor that defies ventilation and clings to clothing, curtains, all textiles—until you wash, discard, or burn them. A few years ago, in a remarkable exploitation of fondue’s unfortunate stench, one of Switzerland’s largest food retailers launched their own cheesy campaign with the motto “Chli stinke muess es”— “It needs to stink a bit”—which, perversely, boosted sales and consumption of ready-made, vacuum-packed fondue mixtures.
Making fondue from scratch involves more than just grating and melting two pounds of perfectly good Swiss cheese over the unreliable flame of a spirit or gas burner placed imprudently in the middle of a table, nowhere near a fire extinguisher. You also pour in and waste a bottle of entirely palatable white wine, add cornstarch, ground pepper and nutmeg, infuse the coagulated casein with far too much garlic, and then huddle with other people around a shared pot, stirring and poking the simmering mass with chunks of bread skewered on long stabbing utensils. After you’ve blocked your digestive system and burned your pharynx, tongue, and lips with the lava-like suspension, a dark crust will remain stuck to the bottom of the pot. Everyone will encourage you to attack it with the prongs of your fondue fork. They’ll cheer when you peel it away, and applaud when you place it in your mouth. You’ll chew and chew and chew. You’ll pretend it tastes nothing like burnt plastic.
FIGUGEGL? My friends and family know I neither prepare nor consume melted cheese (one exception: grilled cheese sandwiches). If someone invites me to a fondue dinner, I decline, because Switzerland is a free country; a federal republic with twenty-six member states, each with the right to local self-government; a direct democracy in which citizens of any sex or gender aged eighteen and older may vote in elections and referendums; where people like my husband and our two children choose to eat fondue and enjoy it—while I prefer not to.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.