Monday, June 25, 2012

Charlotte russe


[Nancy, May 22, 1944.]

Aunt Fritzi just announced some surprise visitors: Nancy’s friends Charlotte and Ruth. Nancy’s disappointment is understandable.

Charlotte russe is a delightful food of the dowdy world, or at least the New York City version of the dowdy world. I consumed charlotte russes in my Brooklyn childhood, buying them through the window of a candy store at the northeast corner of 44th Street and 13th Avenue. The charlotte russe was a simple and satisfying food: yellow cake, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry, held in a white cardboard cylinder. Pushing the cylinder’s cardboard bottom upward allowed easier access to the cake as the cream disappeared. I cannot recall whether a utensil came into play.

Dictionaries seem largely in the dark about the New York charlotte russe:

The American Heritage Dictionary: “a cold dessert of Bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfingers.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a charlotte made with sponge cake or ladyfingers and a whipped-cream or custard-gelatin filling.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary: “a dessert consisting of custard enclosed in sponge cake or a casing of ladyfingers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary: “a dish composed of custard enclosed in a kind of sponge-cake.”

Er, no. But the Random House Dictionary has charlotte russes both fancy and plain: “a dessert made by lining a mold with sponge cake or ladyfingers and filling it with Bavarian cream” and “a simpler version of this, consisting of a small piece of sponge cake topped with whipped cream and a candied cherry.” I remember cake-cake, not spongecake. I’ve never been a big fan of spongecake.

The charlotte russe makes an appearance in at least two great stories of life in New York. From Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943):

There was a bakery store to one side of it [a pawnshop] which sold beautiful charlotte russes with with red candied cherries on their whipped cream tops for those who were rich enough to buy.
And from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction (1959), narrator Buddy Glass writing about his sister Boo Boo:
Boo Boo went through a stage — admirably short, in her case, I must say — when she “died” at least twice daily over the gaffes, the faux pas, of adults in general. At the height of this period, a favorite history teacher who came into class after lunch with a dot of charlotte russe on her cheek was quite sufficient cause for Boo Boo to wither and die at her desk.
For more on the past and present of New York’s charlotte russe, I recommend Leah Koenig’s Lost Foods of New York City: Charlotte Russe.

[The Nancy panel appears in Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). Do you remember when candystores and newsstands did streetside business through a window?]

comments: 5

Richard Henderson said...

You may find this interesting:

http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/SH

Check out the uppermost archived show (June 23).

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Richard. I’m looking forward to the Fantagraphics book version of his “How to Read Nancy.”

Elaine said...

Instead of a dictionary, I would have gone to a cookbook--perhaps _Joy of Cooking_-- for a definition. But I'm pretty sure ladyfingers are involved in a charlotte russe.

Shoot. Now I'm hungry.

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, yes, that’s the fancy (or traditional) charlotte russe.

Jazzbumpa said...

Is it better than puto pao?

Cheers!
JzB