Authors: Charlotte Silver
MEMORIES OF A RESTAURANT GIRLHOOD
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Copyright Â© 2012 by Charlotte Silver
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For my mother and M.C.D.
grew up rich. The settingâor stage setâof my childhood was the velvety pink-and-green dining room of my mother's restaurant, Upstairs at the Pudding, located above the Hasty Pudding Club in a redbrick Victorian building at 10 Holyoke Street in Harvard Square. My life was not a child's life of jungle gyms and Velcro sneakers, but of soft lighting, stiff petticoats, rolling pins smothered in flour, and candied violets in wax paper. It was a life of manners, of air kisses, of “How do you dos,” and a life for which I needed six party dresses a year, three every spring and three every winter. We were rich. Everybody knew it.
Yet we were not; we were not rich at all. For as long as I could remember, the restaurant had tottered on the brink of collapse. I always knew we would lose it one day. And we did lose it; we did.
In my memories of my childhood, it is always the nighttime and never the day, and I am always waiting. Waiting for what? I am waiting for one season to end and another to begin and for the menus to changeâfor soft-boiled eggs and fiddlehead ferns in spring; for lobster claws cracked open and bathed in hot lashes of nasturtium butter in summer; for baked apples in thickened pools of heavy cream in fall; and finally for winter, season of prime rib and potatoes gratin, caviar and sweetbreads, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. I am waiting for a waiter to bring me one Shirley Temple, and then another. I am waiting for this waiter to leave, as I know he will someday, and for another to take his place. I am waiting for my mother to brush past me in a haze of Joy perfume and plant a Coco Pink kiss on my cheek. I am waiting for my father who left us to return. I am waiting to go home at the end of the night.
I am waiting to grow up and, one day, leave this world.
y name is Charlotte, and I was named for the dessert charlotte au chocolat, which used to be the signature dessert of the restaurant.
When I was a child, charlottesâFrench desserts made traditionally out of brioche, ladyfingers, or sponge and baked in a charlotte moldâwere everywhere. Charlotte au chocolat wasn't the only variety, though being chocolate, it had the edge on my mother's autumn-season apple charlotte braised with brioche and poached in clarified butter, and even on the magnificent charlotte Malakoff she used to serve in the summer: raspberries, slivered almonds, and Grand Marnier in valleys of vanilla custard.
But it is charlotte au chocolat, being my namesake dessert, that I remember most, for we offered it on the menu all year long. I walked into the pastry station and saw them cooling in their rusted tin molds on the counter. I saw them scooped onto lace doilies and smothered in Chantilly cream, starred with candied violets and sprigs of wet mint. I saw them lit by birthday candles. I saw them arranged, by the dozens, on silver trays for private parties. I saw them on customers' plates, destroyed, the Chantilly cream like a tumbled snowbank streaked with soot from the chocolate. And charlottes smelled delightful: they smelled richer, I thought, than any dessert in the world. The smell made me think of black velvet holiday dresses and grown-up perfumes in crystal flasks. It made me want to collapse and never eat again.
I was also scared of charlottes, scared that someday I might become one. One of the line cooks once said to me, “One of these nights when we run out of charlottes, we're going to plop you on a plate and top you in whipped cream. Oh, the customers won't mind. I hear that little girls taste yummy.”
I believed him. I even believed that I would fit on a plate. In those days, I seemed that small, and the rest of the world that big.
y parents first laid eyes on the dining room of the Hasty Pudding Club when my mother was pregnant with me. Their good friend and future business partner Mary-Catherine Deibel was with them, too, that day. The three of them were shocked to discover that the undergraduates had trashed the beautiful old-world room with the hunter green walls and the domed, forty-foot ceilings that were majestic even by Harvard standards. Cleaning it up before opening for business, not long after I was born, they uncovered soiled toothpicks, bow ties, and garters. A hardened creamy pink substanceâmy father said it must have come from strawberry daiquirisâcrusted the green velvet carpet that always smelled, even after being vacuumed, of a vague Ivy League potpourri of brandy and mothballs and after-dinner cigars.
The Hasty Pudding Club, founded in 1770, is the oldest student society at Harvard. In 1982 when my parents opened their restaurant, which they named Upstairs at the Pudding, the Club still owned the building at 10 Holyoke Street, right across from the gates of Harvard Yard. But they already were having financial problems, a sign of things to come. They agreed to rent space to a tenant because they needed the income, and converting the top floor of the building into a fine restaurant was a genteel solution to their financial woes.
The restaurant, then, was that rare place where the exclusive Harvard “final clubs” and the public met. The magnificent space still retained the private air of a club, but the door to the building was open to all; anybody could walk upstairs and dine there. From the beginning, the restaurant was a favorite with Harvard professors and presidents. It was the kind of restaurant where undergraduates, used to eating at The Tasty and Pinocchio's, could count on their parents taking them for steak dinners. It did a fabulous business for Harvardâas well as MITâgraduation. Boston was still a baked-beans-and-broiled-scrod kind of town then, and fashionable restaurants offering the kind of imaginative, artisanal cuisine we take for granted today were few and far between. In an article in
The Boston Globe
years later, a regular customer of the Pudding's described it as “the Ritz of Cambridge”âa phrase befitting its festive place in the community.
The building consisted of three stately floors: on the first, the Members' Lounge and the Hasty Pudding Theatre; on the second, the Club Bar; and on the third, the dining room and kitchen of the restaurant. As in an English country house, the layout contained an elaborate social choreography, an “upstairs-downstairs” feeling, though in this case the people
had all the power.
A review in
The Boston Globe
once described the experience of dining at the Pudding as “stepping into the third installment of
.” The comment was not far off, and indeed, the Halloween I was nine years old I went trick-or-treating as Sebastian's youngest sister, Cordelia Flyte, in a rust-colored taffeta party dress and with stiff black velvet bows wound round my pigtails. This was not at all that different from the way I dressed the rest of the year.
The Pudding, in any event, was of another era and in the shabby high-prep style. Hanging on the wall above the sofa outside the Club Bar was a dusty gold plaque reading
FROM THE PUDDING TO THE PRESIDENCY
, and below that were photographs of all the U.S. presidents who had belonged to the Club: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Some of the framed theatrical posters of old Hasty Pudding shows dated back to the eighteenth century. The all-male Harvard a cappella group the Krokodiloes practiced in the Members' Lounge, and at any hour of the day the sounds of young male voices chirping the lyrics to show tunes could be heard soaring to those magical domed ceilings.
hen you live in a college town, everybody knows that September is the true beginning of the new year. Come fall, I used to watch with sadness as the undergraduates bounded back into the building and made it their own again. The Hasty Pudding kids smashed our wine-glasses and downed our liquor and, at the members' luncheons my parents cooked for, wolfed down helpings of fettuccine Alfredo without saying thank you. When cooking for the Hasty Pudding kids, my parents restricted the menu to simple things, like fettuccine Alfredo or maybe lamb chops, because, as my father muttered, “WASPs. They have no taste buds.” I could picture the boys as they would be in middle age, dull and purplish from too much drinking. The girls had that rawboned, ash-blond look one sees so much of in New England. But on Strawberry Nightâthe night of the annual drag show for which the club was famousâfurs came out of musty closets and diamonds sparkled on skin that was magically tanned from midwinter jaunts to Bermuda or Belize. One year, Rita Hayworth's step-granddaughter, Princess Zahra Aga Khan, was the president of the Club. My mother once got a check from her, signed simply
. We marveled at the high glamour of that.
According to legend, the building was also populated with the ghosts of Hasty Pudding Club members past: some spoke of several young men who had drowned on the
swooping through the long muslin-curtained windows to haunt the dining room. I sometimes felt just a hint of them while watching the antique-yellow candlesticks softening down, to one day vanish.
For a long time, I assumed that bow tiesânot regular tiesâwere the usual thing for men to wear. Only when I was a teenager did I realize that I had it wrong, for in Harvard Square, home of J.Press and the Andover Shop, bow ties
the usual thing.
Blame it on the Krokodiloes, who every Sunday brunch appeared in the dining room to entertain the guests with a medley of songs. The Krokodiloes specialized in pop music from the twenties to the fifties. Their bow ties came in bright colorsâcanary yellow or billiard greenâand were tied perkily underneath their starched collars. Other identifiable characteristics of this tribe were freshly shined penny loafers, no facial hair, and a general shortness. They also shared mannerisms: the cock of the head, as if to catch an admiring glance; the merry patter of their feet against the brick sidewalks; the legs that seemed, tucked into belted khakis, not to stroll but to flounce.
In my earliest childhood, I saw “the Kroks,” as everyone referred to them, all around the building. I saw them lounging on the steps in black tie. I heard them singing, their high-pitched, prissy voices carrying from the Members' Lounge to the dining room. Later in my life, when the Pudding opened for Sunday brunch, the Kroks became a weekly fixture as my mother asked them to perform in the dining room as a novelty. The Harvard alumni who dined at the Pudding loved the Krokodiloes because they reminded them of their college days.
So every Sunday brunch, they appeared without warning. Between twelve thirty and one o'clock, when the dining room was full of customers and the kitchen was turning out dozens of orders of shirred eggs and oysters Rockefeller, no one was safe. Popping out from underneath empty tables or from behind the waiters' station, they sprinted across the dining room, weaving between tables and winking at customers. They pranced and pranced, their penny loafers pointed in the air, until they formed, one by one, a semicircle in front of the bar. Every year, without fail, they recruited one member who was taller and gangly to stand in the center of the front row and introduce the group to the audience.
“Hello, I'm Chip,” he would say, and point to the boy on his left, who bowed accordingly. “And this is Preston. And we are the Harvard Krokodiloes!”
Then the tall Krok would step back, and the short ones all spread out to make room for him. A reverent silence followed, and suddenly they would snap their fingers.
“The house, the house,”
they'd begin in their falsettos,
“the house of blue lights.”
Between songs, they talked to the audience. “Now Johnny is a young man fromâYale,” the tall one would say, prefacing the song “Johnny O'Connor,” while the rest of them would all cover their mouths and cough at the mention of Yale. In between “Johnny O'Connor” and “Danny Boy,” he would say, “Now the Harvard Krokodiloes would like to take this opportunity to introduce themselves,” which meant that they all shook their neighbors' hands as the customers guffawed.
The Kroks' three most common varieties of music were 1930s show tunes, 1950s doo-wop numbers, and old Irish songs. “Danny Boy” belonged to the latter category, and it called for a solo. One of the short Kroks replaced the tall one up front as the others hummed soulfully in the background. When he bowed, tears sparkled on his lashesâwhether from his immersion in the song or his delight in his soprano, no one could tell.
“Runaway,” one of the doo-wop tunes, always closed the show. “The Harvard Krokodiloes would like to perform a dance duo in the famed style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” the tall one would say. “We hope you find it delightful, and yet somehow artsy and pretentious.” Two Krokodiloes, usually the tall one and another short one, acted out the lyrics, in which a jilted lover wonders where his baby has gone. The short one played the love object. He batted his eyelashes and sashayed around the dining room as if his khakis had turned into a hoopskirt. In the background, the other Krokodiloes timed their finger snaps to their jumps while the two stars waltzed together. Finally, the tall one lifted the short one in the air, and applause swelled to the ceiling.
es,” the staff called the Krokodiloes, as in, “Fuck, the Krokodildoes are coming! The Krokodildoes are coming!” They ruined service for the rest of the afternoon, because they always blocked the waiters' station and, in the midst of their antics, no one could safely cross the dining room. Dishes stacked up on the butcher block and behind the bar and got confused with other ones.
Meanwhile, the customersâmany of whom, as Harvard alumni, had enjoyed the performanceâleft poor tips, because their entrees had arrived late. One bartender got back at the Krokodiloes the only way he knew how: he tossed champagne corks at them in the middle of their performances, and it was a wonder, he assured me, that he had never thrown knives instead.
My older brother, Benjamin, and I both showed a healthy distrust of the Harvard Krokodiloes from an early age. But Mary-Catherine was rather fond of them and had the poor judgment to ask them to sing “Happy Birthday” to me one year. Some of the chefs came out of the kitchen to watch this most extraordinary performance, in which I actually had to sit, under extreme duress, on one of the Kroks' khaki-covered knees in the middle of the dining room.
During the summer the Krokodiloes went on world tours, and in the fall they returned, never taller, never older, and, no matter where they had traveled, never tanned. On went the bow ties and the navy blazers, as if they had never known any place except Cambridge in the autumn. When I walked through Harvard Yard, I saw signs for auditions posted on the bulletin boards, and on what always seemed like the first cold night of September I sat at a table in the dining room, doing my homework, and heard male voices float up from the Club Bar. They sang “The Way We Were” or “You're the Top” or “That's Entertainment.” On my way to the bathroom, I passed the boys on the sofa, where, sipping their ginger ales, they all looked fresh out of prep school. The new Krokodiloes were recruited, but come Sunday brunch I could never tell the new faces from the old.
he grand event of every winter was meeting the movie stars. Every January, the Hasty Pudding Club elected the Man and Woman of the Year, and in February the two movie stars came to Cambridge to accept the awards. It was, for Harvard, a recent tradition: Woman of the Year dated back to 1951, and Man of the Year started in 1967. Downstairs, on the wall outside the doors to the theatre, the Hasty Pudding Club had mounted two wooden plaques with the names of all the winners in gold cursive, and they looked nearly as old as the
FROM THE PUDDING TO THE PRESIDENCY
plaque above the sofa. Only when you read the names of twentieth-century celebrities did you discover the truth.