Fondue Day? Do We Have to Buy Someone a Present?

Forget Mardi Gras already. St. Patrick's Day? Hah. A minor blip in the holiday calendar. If you're really looking for a party, brace yourself for the Big Kahuna of festivals, that annual bacchanal known far and wide as National Cheese Fondue Day.

Hey, why the blank look? You know...Fondue Day. It's April 11. Right after National Cinnamon Crescent Day and just before National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day. (Seriously.)

Surely you have your costume lined up by now.

OK. Maybe not. Nevertheless, The Melting Pot chain of fondue restaurants is celebrating the day by giving away free cheese fondue from April 11-14 -- provided you have a reservation and remember quantities are limited. (The communal heated pot of melted cheeses, served with long forks and bread for dipping, is regularly $14.)

Which led City of Ate to believe we knew just who was responsible for declaring a day commemorating a dish created -- according to one version of the story -- by Swiss peasants to make hard cheese and stale bread more palatable during long Swiss winters, according to this site.

"We didn't make it up," says Sandy D'Elosua, director of communications for The Melting Pot. "I'm telling you, it's an actual day."

OK. Probably some sort of Swiss cheesemongers plot then. Or maybe a holdover from the '70s, when the fondue craze was at its peak in the States -- not that fondue has ever exactly gone the way of disco music and leisure suits, to hear D'Elosua tell it.

Fondue -- a style that goes beyond cheese and bread to include desserts of melted chocolate and entrees of meats and vegetables cooked in pots at diners' tables -- has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, boosting The Melting Pot's growth. The chain includes 142 restaurants -- all in the United States except for one each in Canada and Mexico, D'Elousa says. The company has plans to bring the number of units to seven each in Canada and Mexico and is still expanding nationally, she adds.

And the people eating there are not who we expected, i.e. old folks reliving fond memories of '70s-era key parties. The chain's demographic base is age 18-39 and 85 percent female, D'Elosua says, and has grown younger as the chain has expanded since the first Melting Pot opened in Florida in 1975. The communal aspect of a shared pot makes the chain a popular celebration destination.

"Valentine's Day is huge," D'Elosua says. An executive with the chain told her that around 500,000 marriage engagements have taken place at Melting Pot units, which include a handy lovers lane of secluded booth.

And that makes sense in a way, we figure: Propose to your love one, then go home a celebrate by rubbing each others burns down with a little aloe. Nice.

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