Charlotte au Chocolat is a memoir—part foodie journal/part chronicle of a childhood spent in a well-known restaurant in Harvard Square. Charlotte Silver was named for the dessert and her parents served several versions of it in Upstairs at the Pudding, the third-floor dining establishment at the Hasty Pudding Club. But the chocolate recipe was so popular that it was always on the menu. So were other favorites—all unapologetically rich, hand-crafted dishes that made the elaborate restaurant avant-garde in a wasteland of Boston baked beans and student fast-food specials.
Charlotte recounts a menu of memories, incidents laced with marbled beef, roasted pheasant, Chantilly cream and the ubiquitous Shirley Temples, served with a flourish to a little girl ordering her nightly meal at the staff table in the corner. She was taught to greet customers and staff by name and dressed every night in an appropriately fancy costume—dress-up for the glittery dining room and its upscale guests. She wore black patent leather Mary Janes instead of sneakers and took naps under the linen covered bar until she got too big for the crawl space.
It was an elevated life for a not-at-all-wealthy family—nightly fine dining in the midst of affluent Bostonians and Harvard visitors, serenades at Sunday brunch by the Krokodiloes—a campy Harvard singing group, brioche stuffed with fried oysters, never macaroni and cheese. Julia Child lived in the neighborhood and stopped in occasionally. Celebrated actors and actresses were feted at the annual Woman and Man of the Year Awards. It was pure theater, a magical world for a child. And a lonely one. But the fairytale setting and access to an intense adult business compensated for the odd upbringing.
Charlotte au Chocolat is interesting—light as a meringue in most spots, serious as Beef Wellington here and there. It reminded me occasionally of Collette’s memoir of her mother, although these memories are far less complex and vividly drawn. Charlotte’s mother was a force to be reckoned with, a woman perfectly attuned to elegance and stage settings who worked like a stevedore in the kitchen and always dabbed a little Joy in her cleavage before the evening seatings. “Never cry in the restaurant,” was one of her strict rules and she didn’t, not even on the night that the Pudding served its last meal and closed, a victim of the greedy real estate gobble that transfigured Harvard Square and peopled it with chain stores and big box emporiums.
Charlotte Silver didn’t take her finely calibrated tastes to Harvard. She studied writing at Bennington in Vermont, on scholarship—the restaurant never made much money and the fridge in the family’s rented apartments was usually untended and mostly empty. Her mother went on to open another, less ambitious restaurant while Charlotte followed somewhat in her father’s footsteps. After a divorce, he gave up working as head chef and began a new career as an art photographer, happy to be out of the kitchen for good. But the Pudding imprinted itself so strongly on a child who grew up there that her mother’s world is the one that defines her. Pink is the predominant color and recollections of elaborate meals, transient staff friendships, endless Shirley Temples and desserts worthy of a court table flavor Silver’s tea party of a book.
Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood Charlotte Silver | Riverhead Books 2012