It doesn't happen often that a memoir reminds me of one of the masterpieces of the personal essay, Joan Didion's love letter to New York, the classic "Goodbye to All That." Despite its frilly cover, Charlotte Silver's Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood is a rightful heir to Didion's piece. And yes, author Silver was named after the dessert of the same name by her famous-in-Cambridge restauranteur-mother, co-owner of Upstairs on the Square né Upstairs at the Pudding, where Harvard professors, presidents, parents -- and even Julia Child -- have dined since it opened in 1982.
Upstairs at the Pudding, the exotic backdrop of Silver's memoir, was in a rickety Victorian in Harvard Square, one flight above Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club, established in 1770. Vivid in her memories of the Hasty Puding are Teddy Roosevelt's stuffed crocodile over the bar and a dusty gold plaque that reads FROM THE PUDDING TO THE PRESIDENCY, followed by the names of club members John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and JFK. This is no ordinary restaurant, no ordinary childhood.
Silver spent what sounds like every night there, often napping under the bar or dining alone with her signature Shirley Temple, getting to know the eccentric wait staff, and growing up, in a heavenly sort of way, long before her time. Called "the Ritz of Cambridge" by a regular customer, the restaurant was an oasis of elegance and haute cuisine in this place better known for haute Puritanism. And how lucky we are to have this elegant, wry account of life in the front room vs. the kitchen, of skinned pears and dead ducks, of Charlotte's Bohemian cook-father, who shopped for clothes at a warehouse called Dollar a Pound, and her stylish, eccentric mother: blend vigorously Auntie Mame, Holly Golightly, Julia Child, and Anna Wintour.
"My life was not a child's life of jungle gyms and Velcro sneakers," Silver writes, "but of soft lights, stiff petticoats, rolling pins smothered in flour, and candied violets in wax paper."
It was also a life of waiting:
In my memories of my childhood, it is always the nighttime and never the day, and I am always waiting.... waiting for one season to end and another to begin and for the menus to change, for soft boiled eggs and fiddle-head ferns in spring; for lobster claws cracked open and bathed in hot lashes of nasturtium in summer; for the baked apples in thickened pools of heavy cream in fall... waiting for a waiter to bring me one Shirley Temple, then another ... waiting for my mother to brush past me in a haze of Joy perfume... and waiting for my father who left us to return. I am waiting to go home at the end of the night.
This slender memoir -- not in richness but size -- is also about food, love, loss, the Harvard-heavy social structure of Cambridge; about growing up alone in a crowded room; and about the lessons that pass from mother to daughter. From her mother, Charlotte learned how to dress, to dine in high style, and to carry on with the show -- serving dinner as both business and performance art -- even when you are crushed with grief.
During the last dinner at the Pudding, after they'd lost the lease and Upstairs at the Square was not yet in the offing, Silver, then twenty and home from college, is devastated and rushes to the bathroom crying. Her mother follows her, furious:
"Do you see me crying? Have you ever seen me crying? ... There's no crying in the dining room..." It took me years, years after that night, to understand her attitude. And later, to even admire it. The style; the verve; the queenly exit strategy; nothing apologetic; nothing wistful; nothing weak...
This is cross-posted from Head Butler.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost, and editor of the acclaimed anthology, just out in paperback, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.