NEW YORK — “From the time I was young, I was totally fixated on literary food scenes,” says Cara Nicoletti, 29, who has a blog, is writing a book, creates recipes, and photographs the results.
That’s more than enough to keep many people busy, but Nicoletti, a Wellesley native, is also a butcher at The Meat Hook in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, widely considered one of the top butcher shops in the city.
One could say butchering is in Nicoletti’s blood. Her grandfather, Seymour Salett, owned Salett’s Inc., a wholesale and retail meat business in Newton, with his brother, Bobby. Salett closed the business, which the brothers inherited from their father, in 2002. Though Nicoletti describes her grandfather’s store as “a really fun place to grow up,” neither she nor anyone in the family ever imagined that she would follow in the elder butcher’s footsteps.
But she also didn’t imagine graduating from New York University in 2008 into the worst recession since the Depression. She had a degree in English and Latin and couldn’t find a writing job. So Nicoletti, like most of her classmates, “made the best of a tough situation,” she says. “We did what we had to do.” Sitting in a gastropub near the apartment she has lived in since 2007, when none of her friends would venture outside Manhattan to visit her because Brooklyn had yet to earn its current cachet, Nicoletti explains how she built a career from her passions, talents, and part-time college jobs.
As an undergraduate, Nicoletti worked as a server in a number of coffee shops. Gradually, she worked her way from the front to the back of the house. “I was lucky people let me get in the kitchen without training,” she says. By 2010, she was a baker at Pies ’n’ Thighs in Brooklyn. When baking demands eased, she did what she calls “really basic, light butchering stuff — breaking down chickens and pork shoulders.” Laid off at the end of the year when business slowed, she walked her neighborhood, asking old-time butchers to take her on as an apprentice. Most of them “thought it was hysterical,” she recalls, and turned her down. Only The Meat Hook welcomed this baker-butcher’s granddaughter.
Just as Nicoletti began her apprenticeship, she got a job as a baker at Colonie, which had just opened. Four months later, a new chef arrived with new ideas: He wanted to butcher whole animals in-house. Nicoletti says, “He let me show the all-male kitchen staff how to break down a pig, and after that I was in charge of butchering and pastry.”
She immediately called her grandfather for help. At first, she says, “I think he thought I was messing around. But as soon as we first sat down to talk about [butchering], it all changed.” Now, she adds, the rest of the family rolls their eyes when the two get together and talk shop.
A year later, The Meat Hook offered Nicoletti a full-time position. Though her job now includes carrying large animals on her back and, she says, is “hugely tiring physically,” the trade-off in more regular hours (eight-hour shifts versus 15-hour days) and job satisfaction is worth it. And to her, it’s not such a dramatic shift. In a parallel many may find surprising, Nicoletti notes the similarities between butchering and pastry making. “Both are meditative, focused, and precise,” she says.
Meanwhile, she was also taking off virtually. About a year after graduation, Nicoletti had started a literary supper club, creating menus from books she enjoyed, posting them online, and serving paying guests in her apartment, while also working as a barista at a Greenwich Village coffee shop.
“It became more than I could handle,” she admits.
The supper club morphed into her blog, Yummy Books (www.yummy-books.com). Like its creator, who is warm, articulate, and funny, the blog draws readers into its embrace. Essays include a discussion of feminism that opens with current news items, leads to Margaret Atwood’s “The Edible Woman,” and culminates in a lemon cake recipe inspired by the book. There is also a poignant entry built around “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, tying together themes from the novel with international conflicts and Nicoletti’s experience of being spat on in a New York subway for wearing a Hebrew name necklace, ending with a recipe for peaches in cardamom syrup that was inspired by the book. The recipes include Nicoletti’s step-by-step photographs.
In 2012, after she posted an entry about “Lord of the Flies,” with a recipe for pig’s head terrine, publishers started contacting Nicoletti about writing a book, a childhood dream that, she says, “I honestly never imagined would happen.” With no experience in the industry, she hired an agent to help her choose a publisher.
“Voracious,” which will be published by Little, Brown and Co. in August, contains 50 essays and recipes, almost all created for the book rather than recycled from the blog, and is illustrated by Marion Bolognesi, Nicoletti’s friend and fellow Massachusetts native.
Nicoletti is still blogging and butchering and says right now she can’t choose between them. “The thing about butchering is, there is an expiration date,” she says, noting the frequency of injuries — usually minor — among her colleagues.
But she can keep reading, writing, and eating indefinitely.
THE MEAT HOOK 100 Frost St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 718-349-5033, the-meathook.comAndrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.