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The Fondue Fad Was A Scam, And We Ate It Up In The Cheesy '70s

Culture | June 28, 2020

Left: A fondue party in full swing, from a vintage Mazola margarine advertisement. Right: Fondue set packaging for sale on Etsy. Sources: Pinterest, Etsy

There's a fondue set, '60s or '70s vintage, in a frayed cardboard box, collecting dust in many an American attic or basement. And there's a reason for that. Fondue, fondue recipes, fondue parties, and fondue accessories made up a global trend engineered by a cheese cartel with some seriously canny marketing. Americans who wanted a taste of the Alps in their modest suburban kitchens were completely seduced by images of attractive European mountain folk dipping bread in molten cheese. Was fondue popular in Switzerland? Sort of, in a "our government says it's popular" way. Was it popular in the U.S.? Well, a hell of a lot of people bought fondue sets, and most used them at least once.

The dark side of Swiss Cheese. (thinkgrowth)

New inventions can come from strange places. However, few backstories can match the strangeness of how fondue gained international prominence, thanks to a swiss cheese cartel. That’s right. The communal pot of liquid dairy goodness made its way into your groovy era shag carpet living room or linoleum kitchen thanks to a devious swiss cheese conglomerate. When you really think about it, it actually makes sense.

How could simple old melted cheese and stale bread turn into a multi-million dollar money-making bonanza? The answer: a Swiss cheese cartel named Schweizer Kaseunion. The Swiss people would rather not talk about it “because they are the survivors of this Swiss Cheese Union, more or less.”

A Cautionary Tale On The Abuse Of Power And Fondue

The fondue fad's dark secret. (holyshitthatsinteresting)

Our story of power and cheese starts just after the end of World War I. Europe lays in shambles but neutral Switzerland remains relatively unscathed. They have cows, lots of cows, in fact, too many cows and far too much cheese. So all the cheesemakers in Switzerland come together and create a cheese version of OPEC.

They formed a cheese cartel that agreed not to compete with each other. For decades they set milk prices, limited production, and even narrowed the number of types of cheese allowed to be made from thousands to seven.

Power Corrupts, Absolute Cheese Power Corrupts Absolutely

The cheese cartel wanted people to consume cheese by the bucket. They settled for a pot.(hgm.sstrumello)

As if their powerful cheese cartel wasn’t enough, Cheese OPEC decided they needed to find a way to boost cheese demand. The economics of Europe were crushed by WWI and cheese exports plummeted. So the cheese cartel needed to find a way to sell more cheese to the Swiss people.

They literally asked, “How can we get people to eat cheese by the bucket?” So the cheese cartel got together and recalled a dish that a few small towns in Switzerland used to eat and the seeds for the fondue fad were born. 

Fondue was designated a national dish, and served at the Swiss pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Americans, interested in foreign festivities they could duplicate in their suburban setting -- like luaus, tiki torches and shish kebab -- embraced the idea of having the Johnsons over for an Alpine fest.

A Cheese Historian

Nothing sold cheese like the Swiss lifestyle of skiing, beautiful backgrounds and beautiful girls. (timeout)

The man who exposed the cheese cartel to the world, Dominik Flammer described the cheese cartel’s fondue marketing plan with NPR host Robert Smith. “We could sell it with a traditional story behind it to show that cheese was a very healthy food from the Alps. It was fondue. And the Swiss Cheese Union sold it hard back in the 1970s - big ad campaigns of good-looking Swiss people in ski sweaters partying it up over pots of cheese.

If you have a dusty red fondue pot somewhere in your kitchen, it is a testament to this age of peak fondue. It was also the peak of the cheese cartel. America, a market not afraid to add cheese to anything, ate up the fondue fad like liquid catnip.

The Crumbling Of The Cheese Cartel

Did the Swiss cartel push you into owning one of these ubiquitous fondu pots? (frenchly)

Eventually, as the world moves on from the pair of World Wars and Switzerland continues to develop into a diverse economy, the people of Switzerland begin to take notice of all the money going into cheese. According to Flammer, “In the '60s and '70s, the cheesemaking in Switzerland, milk producing in Switzerland, cost the Swiss state more than the whole cost for the army of Switzerland.”

That’s right, in the groovy era, Switzerland spent more on cheese than they did on their entire military. Obviously, the Swiss military isn’t very large but the fact of the matter remained, agricultural subsidies were through the roof. Then, surprise, a number of cheese-related scandals occurred and people went to jail on corruption charges. 

A Cheese Rebel To Some, A Cheese Hero To Others

Today, Swiss varieties of cheese are numerous again. (thealternativedaily)

During this cheese monopoly, many small farmers were shut out of making cheese. One man, Sepp Barmettler, applied for a cheese license for eight years before being denied on the account of being too small. Barmettler decided to make his favorite type of cheese, Sbrinz against the cartel’s wishes. He sold them in small amounts under the table. When the cartel fell, he and many farmers like him came out of the shadows and created a cheese revolution. Suddenly Switzerland went from selling seven types of cheese back to thousands.

The man who helped uncover this sordid cheese history to the world, Dominik Flammer took a lot of heat for sharing the cheese cartel story. “They said I'm not patriotic enough to write about Swiss cheese and that I would not be allowed to tell this story because I would not help the Swiss cheese makers. But in the end, it's accepted today that I wrote the truth and nothing but the truth.” Here’s to uncovering the truth, even if it’s cheesy. 

Tags: Fondue | Remember This?...

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!