For a butcher, Cara Nicoletti cleans up real nice. When we meet to discuss her new book, Voracious, Nicoletti shows up at Brooklyn’s Blind Barber looking incredibly poised in a bright red sleeveless jumpsuit, with hoop earrings framed by her dark brown waist-length hair. Not a speck of blood anywhere. First, she politely asks for an iced tea. But when this interviewer orders a pint of beer, her face betrays what she really wants. She wisely makes the switch. “I need it! All these interviews,” says Nicoletti.
It’s stressful being a first-time author, planning and promoting a book tour. Plus, it’s a big change from Nicoletti’s usual vocation, breaking down 200-pound beef shoulders and that sort of thing. Prior to entering book-tour mode, the former cleaver-carrying member of Brooklyn’s acclaimed butcher shop, the Meat Hook, spent several weeks learning some new techniques from the staff at the Butchery Ltd in London.
Writing, though, has long been a passion for Nicoletti, who graduated with a degree in English literature from New York University in 2008. And though her deft knife skills helped to pay the bills — at least before she landed her book deal, anyway — that job alone does not entirely define her, or her book for that matter. She’s also an accomplished baker and blogger, and her breezy 304-page book, which comes out in hardcover this week, deals with all these themes, uniquely exploring the intersection of good food and great literature.
Even before meeting Nicoletti, I tried out her breakfast sausage recipe, presented in the first chapter of Voracious amid a discussion of the childhood classic Little House in the Woods. In her book, Nicoletti recounts how, after reading that novel at a young age, she reenacted a scene in which Pa Wilder carries a pig over his shoulder. Her girlfriends laughed at such an old-fashioned act. But Nicoletti herself was confused. Because in her family, it wasn’t old-fashioned — it was their livelihood. Both her maternal grandfather and his father before him had run a butcher shop called Salette’s in Boston’s North End. She learned then that butchery wasn’t cool — only to find, in an ironic twist two decades later, that butchery had become a very cool profession. Yet not an easy one. This tightly knit relationship between baking, cooking, butchering, and writing forms the backbone of Voracious, a book that moves elegantly between genres. The book is organized chronologically, so that the reader grows up with Nicoletti, from the fairy tales of her youth to the more sophisticated novels of adult life. Each chapter includes a recipe.
The notion that Nicoletti would grow up to one day create some of the best chocolate chip cookies in Brooklyn (see the chapter on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie) might not surprise anyone. Pastry is a department with a long history of strong female chefs. But butchery? Not so much. These days, it’s a much more fashionable vocation than it used to be, but the word itself still conjures images of big, burly guys wearing blood-stained coats. In this particular culinary field, the men who’ve made their mark — guys like Pat LaFrieda, Jake Dickson and Tom Mylan in New York; Olivier Cordier in San Francisco; Meat Bible authors Stanley Lobel and Evan Lobel — are just that: all men.
When she was growing up, Nicoletti, her sister and their female cousins all worked at the family butcher shop — helping customers, not butchering. “He wanted something better for us,” she says, referring to her grandfather, who is now in his 80s. “The more we talk about it over the years, I realize it didn’t have to do with us being women; it was just that he didn’t want his kids to become butchers. He always said he wanted us to ‘sit at a desk and have clean hands.’”
Years ago, Nicoletti wanted a desk job, too. Between finishing her literature degree and publishing a book, however, she traversed a long road of food and service industry jobs. It’s a story familiar to just about anyone who graduated from college in or around 2008, when the financial crisis struck Wall Street. Full-time office jobs were scarce, even for the most educated graduates. Nicoletti had waited tables and worked in coffee shops throughout her undergraduate career, and suddenly she felt lucky to have those jobs. “Before, people asked what you wanted to do with your life,” she recalls. But during the recession, “they stopped asking that,” she says. Nicoletti had pictured herself applying for Ph.D. programs in Victorian literature but became increasingly engrossed in food-service work. The hands-on nature of these jobs appealed to her, beginning with a kitchen stint at the Brooklyn institution Pies and Thighs, which serves, per the name, baked goods and fried chicken, and where Nicoletti first learned to break down animals. Her interest in cooking deepened through a job as the full-time pastry chef at the small farm-to-table restaurant Colonie in Brooklyn Heights.
In 2010, as whole-animal butchery became a full-fledged trend in New York and other cities, Nicoletti set out to find an apprenticeship where she could learn the craft herself. The traditional, mostly Italian butchers dotting Williamsburg’s streets looked at her like she was crazy and turned her away, but one place took her on. That was the Meat Hook, which Tom Mylan opened in 2009 to manifest a culture of whole-animal butchery in Brooklyn. It was there that Nicoletti fully shed her childhood shame at being part of a family of butchers and learned that she was really good at making sausages.
Nicoletti, along with two other women, joined the first class of apprentices at the Meat Hook. “I feel like I worked four times as hard as any guy,” she says. “I never wanted to seem weak or ask for help.” Soon after starting the apprenticeship, a new chef came on board at Colonie, and he wanted whole-animal butchery. So Nicoletti started doing that, along with her pastry work there. “I was doing 16-hour days,” she recalls. “It was crazy.” Nicoletti’s efforts were not unnoticed, especially at the Meat Hook. “She worked her ass off for free to learn the trade,” says co-owner Ben Turley, who eventually lured her away from Colonie to work at the Meat Hook full-time. “Cara is incredibly gifted with food,” Turley says. “She created some of the top recipes we still have with us — the sausages, and the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had in my life.” (A similar cookie recipe appears in Voracious.)
To her family, Nicoletti’s path away from the white-collar world was disheartening at first. But they came around, especially her grandfather, the ex-butcher. “He thinks it’s funny that I’m a butcher, and now it’s all we talk about when we see each other,” she says.
“The bacon craze really drives me crazy. People making careful, artisanal bacon — and that’s the douchiest sentence I’ve ever said — it started because people were trying to be respectful. Now, bacon is in your coffee, in your vodka. I’d like to see people getting into this because they care about their food system, and not because they think it’s cool.”
Nicoletti first explored the intersection of literature and food on her personal blog, Yummy Books, which she launched with the expectation that “only my grandparents would be reading it.” Instead, the blog slowly gained traction and eventually attracted the interest of agents and publishers. It was a post about the timeless Lord of the Flies and a pig’s-head terrine that earned Yummy Books the attention of a website called Very Short List in 2013. Operators of the site reached out, asking Nicoletti to create a stream-of-thought series of links, based on that original pig’s-head terrine post, which then went out to the site’s e-mail list. “The day it went out, I got e-mails from a bunch of agents,” says Nicoletti. After settling on an agent, Nicoletti pitched the book around and wound up with publisher Little, Brown and Company. “They’ve given me so much freedom in terms of the editing,” she says. A friend of hers, Marion Bolognesi, did the full-color illustrations that accompany each chapter. Nicoletti says she’s happy to have a book that really feels like her own and reflects her strong voice, not to mention her prowess in the kitchen.
For example, take the chapter on The Bell Jar, which comes about halfway through the book, in the “Adolescence” section. As Nicoletti recounts Sylvia Plath’s dark story of young womanhood in mid-century New York City, we are taken into the unforgettable scene when the novel’s main character, Esther, attends a dinner party where crab-stuffed avocados are served. An eternally thin waif who can somehow devour food without gaining weight, Esther wolfs down several of these mayonnaise-laden delights, only to fall ill with food poisoning, along with several of her roommates at the women’s dormitory where they live. In The Bell Jar, their vomiting is symbolic of Esther’s disgust with highbrow urban culture and its pretenses. Nicoletti saves us from repeating the offensive post-dinner scene by offering an updated recipe for crab-stuffed avocados, “bright and fresh, loaded with herbs and fresh lemon juice—and no mayonnaise in sight,” as she writes.
Make no mistake, though. Voracious neither features food-porny photographs, nor is it entirely a cookbook. “The recipes are good, and I’m proud of that, but I do want people to read,” Nicoletti tells me as we’re nearing the end of our pints. “That’s the point — it’s about books.”
While Nicoletti’s literary passions are strong, she is also poised to make her mark on the world of butchery, which she hopes to do by opening her own place. By then, she hopes the ethics surrounding whole-animal butchery will catch up to America’s enduring meat obsession.
“One of the things that scares me a little bit is how whole-animal butchery has risen so meteorically, in terms of being cool, that it’s gone from something like, OK, let’s be careful about it, to, like, I love marrow bones! And bacon! And no, that’s not the point— that’s not why people started doing this,” Nicoletti says. “The bacon craze really drives me crazy. People making careful, artisanal bacon — and that’s the douchiest sentence I’ve ever said — it started because people were trying to be respectful. Now, bacon is in your coffee, in your vodka. I’d like to see people getting into this because they care about their food system, and not because they think it’s cool.”