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In her debut book, Voracious, writer and butcher Cara Nicoletti writes about the role her favorite books have played in her life—and shares recipes they inspired.
It's not uncommon to encounter cooks who remember their favorite culinary scenes from beloved books, but for new author Cara Nicoletti, literary eating scenes are an obsession. Since 2009, she's been developing recipes inspired by her favorite prose on her blog, Yummy Books: a plate of sardines on toast Mr. Tumnus ate in C.S. Lewis's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe; a blood orange panna cotta that's a cheeky ode to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Recipe developing is second nature for Nicoletti, an NYU literature grad who's worked as a pastry chef at Brooklyn restaurants Pies'n'Thighs and Colonie, and who until recently was a full-time butcher at The Meat Hook. Now she's written a book, Voracious (Little, Brown), inspired by the blog, and it combines alternately hilarious and heartwrenching essays about the role some of her favorite books have played in her life—plus, a series of recipes they've inspired. Food & Wine sat down with Nicoletti to talk about the book, and about how one goes about choosing a recipe inspired by Sylvia Plath.
Voracious is organized by books you read in different phases of your life, from childhood to adulthood. Do a lot of people approach you to talk about their own nostalgia for the childhood classics like Nancy Drew and The Boxcar Children (both of which are in Voracious)?
I’m shocked by how many people say, "I read the exact same books," and were also influenced by the food imagery. I wonder if younger generations are going to have these deep food connections with these books—I really hope so. But maybe now those kids are out there looking at food porn hashtags? That would be sad. There’s only one person who said to me, “I never noticed the food in these books, it’s so crazy that you latched onto this.” And I was like no, it’s not. Everyone has memories of Bruce Bogtrotters chocolate cake from Matilda. Everybody remembers that!
I think even if you were to look at children’s literature now, there’s still a lot of food in it. There’s something very tactile and simple about eating that kids understand—it’s a big part of the way they see and understand the world. Even if you think about modern young adult novels like The Hunger Games, there’s tons of food. That’s for an older audience, but it is definitely a way for authors to either ground things in reality or make them really wild and fantastical.
How did you decide which books to include?
It was easier once I decided to split the book into three sections [Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood]. That's when I started thinking about what books were most important to me during those times. Marion Bolognesi, who did the beautiful illustrations for the book, needed a set list of what she was going to paint, so I had to decide on the books really early on. That locked me in, which was kind of terrifying at first, but which ended up being good—because even if an essay or a book wasn’t working for me, I just had to figure out a way.
Someone said something about my taste in books being middle or lowbrow. And I was like, The Aeneid is in it, c’mon! I think including Gone Girl and In the Woods threw a lot of people off. But I personally don’t have any judgment about books. I read those books, and I liked them, and I know other people did too, so why not include them? When I was younger I didn’t want to admit that I love crime thrillers, and I don’t care anymore. Different books serve different purposes. I also wanted my book to feel accessible.
Your book is really a memoir of your relationship with food and literature. Was it intimidating to share so many really personal memories?
It's really intimate for you to have someone look at your bookshelves, or peek at what’s in your grocery cart, or look in your fridge. I’m writing all about what I'm reading and what I'm eating, so it was naturally going to be pretty revealing. I tend to turn to books and to food mostly when I’m having difficult moments. I cook to clear my head. So because of that it also makes sense that the book is really intimate. Because of Yummy Books, people always want to know what I’m reading. I like to read something heavy and something light at the same time. So I’ll read something dark, and then right before I go to sleep I’ll read literally three pages of a Nora Roberts novel and just clock out. I do still feel embarrassed to read junky books on the subway, because I know I’m looking.
You write a lot about how your grandfather is an old-school butcher, and you grew up going to his shop in Massachusetts. What was it like becoming a part of this new wave of butchery at The Meat Hook?
When I was growing up, my sisters and I worked at the butcher shop behind the counter, but we were never allowed to cut. It was not an option. It’s my maternal grandfather’s shop, and he had three daughters, and he didn’t pass it on to them. He didn’t want any of them to do it. And I think even if he’d had sons, he wouldn’t have wanted them to do it. It’s a hard business.
When I began working in restaurants, I started out in pastry, which I gravitated towards because it’s the opposite of butchery; it’s not bloody at all. I was working at Pies'n'Thighs as a baker, and one of the owners suggested I do some really basic breaking down of chickens. It was then that I started thinking more about learning about butchery. It was 2010, and I went into The Meat Hook and asked for an apprenticeship. They eventually offered me a full-time position. My grandpa wasn’t happy at first. He used to always say, “I worked my whole life so that you could work at a desk and have clean hands.” Which is so sweet. But he wanted us to have the choice, and I had the choice, and this is what I chose. It took him a long time to come around to it, but now we talk about it all the time. It’s all he wants to talk to me about. It’s really interesting to bounce ideas off of him. But I don’t think he wants to see me cutting meat as an 80-year-old woman.
How do you choose which recipes to cook from each book?
Most of what's in the book is different from what's on the blog, but I knew I had to include The Lord of the Flies, because that was one of my most successful posts ever. I did a post about it with a recipe for pig face porchetta, and images of me in my kitchen butchering a pig's head. My mom called me immediately and was like, "You need to take this down. People really care about pigs, and they’re going to be upset about this." I decided I wasn't going to take it down, because creating that post was a lot of hard work. But I was biting my nails worrying that I was going to get a lot of hate for it. But that post ended up being the one that got publishers interested in the idea of doing a book with me. I was like, "Told you, mom!" So many of the recipes were inspired by food descriptions that had stuck with me for years, like the currant buns from The Secret Garden and the creamy New England clam chowder from the beginning of Moby-Dick [recipes for both are included in Voracious].
Was there anything you wanted to include but couldn't?
I was lucky, because Little, Brown let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. I think other publishers probably would have said no to writing about Silence of the Lambs with a recipe for chicken liver and fava bean mousse. For the essay about The Bell Jar, I did make sure I didn’t include anything that involved an oven. I was like, we’ll just make a cold crab salad, no oven use involved. Which is too bad, because Sylvia Plath’s favorite thing to bake was a lemon meringue pie. But I decided, let’s keep the oven out if it.
My gut reaction was also to make bacon for Charlotte’s Web, and they did say “maybe let’s steer away from that…” So I ended up making a pea soup with optional bacon. I think that some people might still turn their nose up at the optional bacon and think it’s in bad taste. But listen, that’s what happens to pigs.
You also write in Voracious about visiting the farm where The Meat Hook's animals are raised and reconciling your passion for animals with your job as a butcher.
Some people are always going to eat meat. That’s just reality. It's frustrating when people get angry at me for being a butcher. You’re fighting the wrong person. I’m trying to get people who eat meat to eat it more responsibly and to eat less of it. Animals die for consumption, which sucks, but it’s a reality. [As a population] we’re not going to stop, ever. A chunk of our clientele at The Meat Hook were ex-vegans whose doctors told them they had to start eating meat again. It was interesting, I would see them come back week after week and see even their hair looking better, and they would say “I feel so much better.” Too much meat is not good for anyone, but women especially really need the protein and the iron.
We promised not to ask you about being a female butcher.
It's funny when people say things like "Women don’t usually butcher because it’s so bloody.” Women know how to deal with blood better than men. I’m fine. Are YOU okay?