Cara Nicoletti finds something naturally meditative in her work as a butcher. Pulling apart muscles and ligaments and hacking her way through carcasses, Nicoletti is oddly at peace, even as her apron becomes splattered with blood. She recognizes the mental demands of butchery, saying “there’s something about the combination of using your brain and using your physical strength that I just find to be really calming.” Ever the more tranquil with a knife in her hand, Nicoletti has plied this trade in tandem with another personal passion—writing—to become something of a culinary storyteller: Her first book is called Voracious, and it’s part memoir, part cookbook, and part homage to some of the most vivid food scenes in literary history. It’s a book that Nicoletti, a third-generation butcher from Boston and self-professed book-devouring introvert, labored to write as she sliced her way through a demanding job at the Meat Hook in Williamsburg.
Nicoletti is quick to note that the attention her book has garnered, and the resulting media requests she’s had to field, are a bit more tiresome than grueling shifts in a butcher shop. “This process has been much more exhausting for me than working five days a week as a butcher and writing a book at the same time,” she says, noting the repetitive nature of waxing lyrical about herself for a large audience.
Nicoletti’s tendency to be shy about her exploits is nothing new. As a precursor to her book, Nicoletti started a blog in 2010 called Yummy Books, which like Voracious, brought various literary food scenes to life in actual recipe-form. And although Yummy Books launched off into the stratosphere as far as independent food blogs go, Nicoletti still refuses to monetize it, or even let potential business interests obscure her original intent. “I still don’t make any money on the blog, I refuse to do any advertising on it. I think it looks ugly, and it also puts pressure on me that I’m not really interested in,” she says.
What Nicoletti is interested in is food, and this passion is something for which she gained reverence through her grandfather and great-grandfather, two men who worked as butchers simply to make ends meet for their families. Nicoletti remembers running around the butcher shop floor with her cousins as a kid, and her grandpa Seymour “coming out with a bloody apron and serving snacks to us.” Even though pork shoulders and slabs of read meat were the common images of her childhood, Nicoletti originally had no intention of being a butcher. Her grandpa saw the trade as something unworthy of real career aspirations.
“It was a skill, but I don’t think it was ever what he wanted to do to be honest, I always think he wanted to be a businessman, but it was a time when you didn’t really get to choose, you just kind of followed what your family did,” she says.
But Nicoletti let her intuition guide her. As she pursued butcher apprenticeships after college, she went from experiencing rejection–“I walked around the neighborhood and asked all the old dudes for apprenticeships and they were like ‘fuck you, no’ ”–to finding herself a real, bonafide butcher at the Meat Hook in 2011.
This was at a time when butchery started acquiring a kind of cool and rustic place in culinary circles. It accrued, and still maintains, a sort of chic that would probably seem laughable to Nicoletti’s grandpa, Seymour. Nicoletti notes that “a lot of what’s happening now like at the Meat Hook and different places… is like they’re trying to recapture what my great-grandpa was doing and what my grandpa was trying to get away from.”
All revivalist notions aside, Nicoletti sees butchery as a family tradition, and something that’s completely intrinsic to her being. That sentiment comes across throughout the pages of Voracious, as she takes the reader through the ingredients, smells, and characters which made her the woman she is. For example, Nicoletti glosses over adolescent malaise in her chapter on Catcher in the Rye, citing a crappy afternoon in middle school when a teacher thrusted Salinger’s novel into her hands. The resulting dish of that experience is one of Holden Caulfield’s comfort-food favorites—malted milk—but in ice-cream form.
Nicoletti’s book is a way of marrying life-experience with the escapism of reading, and the pleasures of eating. Voracious speaks to the author’s three main obsessions, and in words indicative of her lifelong love affair with cooking, writing and eating, she says, “It feels really good to have a book that I wrote, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop cooking.”
Nicoletti’s book launch party for Voracious will take place on August 18th at Green Lights Bookstore, 686 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY 11217.
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