By Rachel Carter
here’s nothing quite like a fondue dinner: dipping chunks of artisan bread in a vat of bubbling cheese, dunking fresh fruit in a pot of simmering chocolate — or plunging a steak-laden pitchfork into a cauldron of boiling oil.
North Dakota offers a meal experience that groups would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere: pitchfork steak fondue.
Fondue is a Swiss, French and Italian dish; the earliest fondue recipe dates back to 1699. Diners dip food items — traditionally bread — into a pot of melted cheese. But “fondue bourguignonne” is a play off the cheese-based fondue that cooks pieces of meat in a pot of hot oil. Swiss restaurateur Konrad Egli is credited with introducing fondue bourguignonne in 1956 at his Manhattan restaurant Chalet Suisse.
A North Dakota Variation
New York may have created the meat method, but North Dakota brought the pitchforks.
“North Dakota — we kind of started it,” Rita Horner, group services manager for the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said of the pitchfork fondue experience. “It’s a whole cowboy type of setting, and you can feed a lot of people. Somebody came up with the idea, and it’s really taken off.”
Groups can experience a pitchfork steak fondue dinner when they visit the capital city of Bismarck and its sister city, Mandan, just across the Missouri River.
Cowboy chefs spear the steaks — up to 20 per pitchfork — and dip the meat-lined tines in a vat of 400-degree boiling oil. Don’t worry. The pitchforks are used only for steaks and no other ranch-related activities. The cauldron usually sits on an open fire, unless some kind of restriction calls for a propane flame.
Sometimes the cooks will also load a wire basket with potatoes and “fondue” those in the oil, and the steaks are served with other classic barbecue sides such as baked beans and corn on the cob.
“It’s great for groups to watch how their meals are being prepared for them,” Horner said.
The Best Western Plus Seven Seas Hotel in Mandan arranges and caters the pitchfork fondue meals for groups and special events. The meals are usually held at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park next to the Missouri River, although groups have enjoyed the pitchfork fondue dinners at other locations, including a rodeo, Horner said.
The park’s scenic views and historic sites, including the reconstructed home of Lt. Col. George Custer and a re-created earth lodge Indian village, give it an 1800s frontier vibe, which fits perfectly with a dinner where guests can watch their steaks boiled over an open fire, Horner said.