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Charlotte au Chocolat

Her parents' restaurant was celebrated, but Charlotte Silver's childhood as a rich little poor girl was less glamorous than it looked.

By Heller McAlpin / February 22, 2012

Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood By Charlotte Silver Riverhead 259 pp.

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Charlotte Silver’s favorite foods as a little girl included smoked pheasant with Roquefort flan, squab with black lentils and bacon, and candied violets served on a lace doily.  Clad in a fancy party dress, she would order these delicacies, along with Shirley Temples adorned with five maraschino cherries and a fanfare of citrus twists, while seated at her regular corner table at her parents’ Harvard Square restaurant, Upstairs at the Pudding.  Sometimes she would top it all off with the fancy French dessert for which she was named – charlotte au chocolat.

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Is it any wonder that her memoir of the same name is rosy-tinged with nostalgia, channeling some of the tickled pink childlike sensibility – minus the mischief – of Kay Thompson’s “Eloise at the Plaza”? Unlike Patricia Volk’s “Stuffed” – one of my favorite culinary-themed memoirs, generously packed with relatives and recipes – Charlotte au Chocolat is a sweet but limited book about the author’s solitary, seemingly glamorous childhood as a rich little poor girl.  Her dominant memory of her youth is waiting – either to get back to the restaurant that was the center of her life, or for her mother to finish work and take her home (and presumably give her some attention).

Silver’s memoir is an elegy to the lavish, velvety, grownup world in which she grew up at a time when “Boston was still a baked-beans-and-broiled-scrod kind of town,” before fashionable restaurants and career-oriented star chefs became ubiquitous. Upstairs at the Pudding, which her parents opened in 1982, the year after her birth, was above Harvard’s oldest student society, the Hasty Pudding Club. Although it became a go-to place for special celebrations, Silver emphasizes that it was never a lucrative operation, and was forced to close in 2001 when her mother, Deborah Hughes, and her longtime business partner, Mary-Catherine Deibel, lost their lease. (They opened their current, nearby restaurant, Upstairs on the Square, soon after.)

“Charlotte au Chocolat” is also a paean to the force behind the Pudding – Silver’s stylish, unapologetic, hard-working mother. Wasp-waisted Hughes emerges as a wonderfully vivid, flamboyant character, a “Patton in Pumps” armored with Joy perfume, Coco Pink lipstick, trademark oversized lavender sunglasses day and night, and figure-hugging cashmere sweaters and black taffeta circle skirts. Among her mother’s memorable maxims are: “Leopard is my favorite neutral” and “Never buy anything that ends in 99 cents.”

Her mother also sharply divided the world into “front room people and kitchen people.” Silver, a non-cook, identifies herself as emphatically front room. (Her description of her namesake dessert as “baked in a charlotte mold” underscores this; actually, the preparation involves no baking: the special charlotte mold is lined with ladyfingers, sponge cake, or brioche, filled with mousse or pudding, and then chilled before unmolding.) 

Despite her sophisticated diet, life was not just a jar of maraschino cherries for little Charlotte. Until she was about six, her father was the restaurant’s head chef.  Her mother spent the day at home in their ramshackle but charming rented old farmhouse in nearby Bedford, Massachusetts, preparing the desserts, which she and Charlotte would drive into town before dinner service began. When her father left to pursue his passion for photography and the bohemian life, her mother took over running the kitchen. Charlotte and her older brother (oddly, mostly absent from this narrative, perhaps by choice) moved with their mother into a series of characterless Cambridge rental apartments – always missing the old farmhouse.

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