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.
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.
Silver recounts her post-divorce visits to her father’s seedy downtown Boston studio and their Friday night trips to a local butcher’s shop. Like so much of her treasured past – including her favorite chefs and waitstaff – the butcher shop eventually vanished. She rues the changes, big and small, including shifts in food culture and the replacement of small local businesses with soulless chain stores. Just mentioned in passing but surely underlying all this wistful nostalgia is the loss of her father, who died of a heart attack when his daughter was in her 20s.
Silver’s story ends 10 years ago – a full third of her life – with a description of the last night at the Pudding, June 16, 2001, that underscores both the book’s elegiac tone and its limitations. Missing is greater perspective – even a nod to Stewart O’Nan’s “Last Night at the Lobster” or a recognition of the significance of the date, James Joyce’s Bloomsday, would have been welcome. So, too, would a few photographs. The absence most acutely felt, however, is the recipe for her mother’s frequently mentioned, famous roasted red pepper soup. A brief search online turned up a labor-intensive project rich in heavy cream and butter. It eloquently corroborates Silver’s admiring portrait of her mother’s hard work and uncompromising quality.
Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.
Roasted Sweet Red Pepper Soup
20 extra large red peppers
½ lb. butter
2 Anaheim peppers
2 Scotch Bonnet peppers
½ cup balsamic vinegar
6 sprigs rosemary
1 qt. best quality heavy cream
4 large white kitchen onions
1 head of garlic, chopped
Kosher salt to taste
1. Roast 20 extra large red peppers over an open flame. Do not let skins turn ashen and gray. After roasting, immediately blanch and peel blistered peppers. Roasted peppers are not enhanced by sitting in water. Drain and coarsely chop peppers.
2. Melt ¼ lb. butter in one very large or two large heavy-bottomed sauté pans. Add ½ cup balsamic vinegar, 2 coarsely chopped Anaheim peppers, 2 coarsely chopped Scotch Bonnet peppers and 2 rosemary sprigs. Simmer briefly, and then add chopped peppers. Cook for about two hours over very low heat. This process naturally caramelizes the peppers and melds the flavors together.
3. In a heavy-bottomed pot, reduce by half 1 qt. heavy cream. Remove from heat.
4. When peppers have softened considerably (about two hours) remove from heat. Cool slightly. Divide peppers into several batches and lightly puree in a blender, using the on/off switch. Do not overly homogenize.
5. Place the pepper puree in large enamel-coated cast iron soup pot and add cream. Cook slowly to combine flavors - approximately 20 minutes. Do not cover or allow to boil.
6. In a separate pot, combine 4 chopped onions, ¼ lb. butter, 4 large rosemary sprigs and 1 chopped head of garlic. Cook over low heat until wilted and softened, approximately 30 minutes. Puree when cooked and add to soup pot. Season to taste.
Serves approximately 6 to 8 people.
(Deborah Hughes, UpStairs at the Pudding, Copyright 1992.
Deborah Hughes, UpStairs on the Square, Copyright 2002.)