In 'Charlotte,' Decadent Childhood Memories
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Charlotte Silver's childhood was, as she describes it, rich - rich with food, rich with experiences, rich with odd and wonderful people. She grew up in her mother's restaurant, Harvard Square's Upstairs at the Pudding - a somewhat glamorous upbringing, complete with foie gras and its own ghost. She's written a memoir of that childhood. The book is called "Charlotte au Chocolat." And Charlotte Silver joins me from our studio in New York. Thanks for being with us, Charlotte. Welcome to the program.
CHARLOTTE SILVER: Oh, thank you so much, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, I want to start out by having you describe the restaurant. It's called Upstairs at the Pudding. Describe for us what that place looked like, smelled like when you were little.
SILVER: This was indeed a very beautiful building. It was a historic building above the Hasty Pudding Club, which is one of the oldest social clubs at Harvard. It was a building that was not of this era; had a beautiful, crumbly, romantic white staircase. A food critic once described dining at the Pudding as crawling into the third segment of "Brideshead Revisited." So, that I think evoked something of the feel.
MARTIN: Explain what the Pudding meant to the neighborhood, to that part of Cambridge?
SILVER: The Pudding was almost kind of faculty clubhouse on any given night because it was so much part of Harvard. So, you would often have famous professors and public intellectuals dining there. It was also a place where celebrities came. Every year we had the Man and Woman of the Year at Harvard, something called Strawberry Night, and that was terribly excited.
MARTIN: Because movies stars show up.
SILVER: Yes, movie stars would show up. So this was high glamour, happened the middle of February, just the dreariest time of the year in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And everything would become terribly glamorous when, you know, Ella Fitzgerald and Harrison Ford showed up.
SILVER: But it also was a place that people in the community went to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays or just to have a lunch, you know, a cozy lunch and have a bowl of my mother's red pepper soup, which was a very luscious soup. And it was definitely the kind of restaurant where everybody knew your name, as they say very much a communal spirit.
MARTIN: You know, you write about how the restaurant is divided culturally between the back of the house and the front of the house. From a child's perspective, I wonder what did that tell you about how the world operated.
SILVER: My mother has a line in the book where she says that the world is divided into two kinds of people. You're either a front-room person or a kitchen person. And sometimes when I was growing up and she was at all mad at me at any given time, she would say you're just a front-room person, because to her mind she was so much a kitchen person and they were superior.
MARTIN: Because the kitchen people actually did the work in the trenches.
SILVER: Yes. I mean, everyone does the work in the restaurant business and it's a very rigorous business. But kitchen people, I think, prefer to be behind the scenes, and front-of-the-house people prefer the theatricality and the showmanship in the front of the house.
MARTIN: But interesting, your mom saw herself as a back-of-the-house kind of woman but you describe her, she's standing in the kitchen wearing, like, leopard heels. So, she's got her own sense of showmanship and theatrics.
SILVER: Yes. I'm so glad you touched on the leopard pumps. My mother...
MARTIN: How could I not really?
SILVER: ...is referred to as one of the male line cooks as Patton in pumps - Patton, meaning the famous general. But, yes, it is true. My mother very much, I think, straddled both worlds of kitchen and front room. And there was a ways of sense in my childhood of, you know, transitioning into a party dress and being on, and being ready to meet the customers.
MARTIN: I mean, you really were thrust into the role of an adult a lot earlier than a lot of kids are because you were alone a lot. There is this kind of lonely sensibility throughout the story. Your parents split, you see your dad sometimes, and your mom, sometimes this isn't the most flattering portrait. She's preoccupied with her work. She has a steely demeanor and you were left to fend for yourself a lot.
SILVER: It's so interesting because when I look back on my childhood now at the age of 30 - I just turned 30 - I'm struck with a sense of incredible richness and gratitude. And what I mainly think about is not that I was alone or not that I became an adult at an earlier age than I should have; what I think is that was a beautiful, gorgeous glittering world and it's lost now. And I think I had so much fun. I think those grownups were so much fun. The food was so delicious. I miss my party dresses. I miss those candied violets.
MARTIN: Has your mother read this book?
SILVER: She hasn't read it but has been enormously supportive all the way through.
MARTIN: Why do you think she hasn't read it yet?
SILVER: My mother's a very forward-looking person. And there's a wonderful line where she tells me at a very young age that I'm at the age where I ought to be more interested in the future and she's at the age where she ought to be more interested in the past. So, I feel that not reading the book is perhaps emblematic of the kind of Patton in pumps mentality, marching forward and not looking back.
MARTIN: She doesn't spend a lot of time kind of dwelling on that chapter.
SILVER: No, she doesn't.
MARTIN: Charlotte, did you ever consider going into the restaurant business?
SILVER: No, I never have considered going into the restaurant business. Again, I'm a front-room person.
MARTIN: Charlotte Silver joined us from our studios in New York. Her book is called "Charlotte au Chocolat." Charlotte, thanks so much for talking with us.
SILVER: Oh, thank you, Rachel.
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