“I think there’s a historical precedent for meat being masculine [but] I think it’s just another way of belittling and making women feel like we don’t belong.”
Alicia talks to Cara Nicoletti, the host of The Hangover Show, about her family butcher shop in Boston, what inspired her to cut down on meat, and why people should stop calling female butchers “badass.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs and writers about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I’m talking to Cara Nicoletti, butcher, author of Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books, and host of Munchies’ The Hangover Show. Cara seems like an anomaly, a butcher who doesn’t often eat meat, but with her colorful and inventive sausages that are made with kale, beets, and other vegetables, she’s trying to push the idea that meat, if you’re going to eat it, is a luxury. We talked about her family butcher shop in Boston, what inspired her to stop eating meat most of the time, and why people should stop calling female butchers “badass.”
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ALICIA KENNEDY: OK. Hello Cara. Thanks so much for being here.
CARA NICOLETTI: Thank you so much for having me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’ve been a big fan of your Instagram, which is filled with sausages, and even as a vegetarian, like mostly vegan, they’re just so beautiful because they’re so colorful, because you use so many vegetables in them. So what inspired you to start using vegetables in your sausages?
CARA NICOLETTI: Well, I am a fourth generation butcher, so I have grown up doing this, and around this, and there were not a lot of vegetables involved in my upbringing at all. We ate a lot of meat, mostly the dregs of what was leftover at my grandpa’s shopping every week. So not even very good meat, but I sort, it sounds so weird, but I sort of discovered vegetables in my adulthood when I started cooking in restaurants and I moved away from home, and they were almost like exotic and exciting to me. And I also, I don’t really eat very much meat in my adult life, in my cooking life, so I really like to play with different ways of adding more vegetables to people’s meat-heavy diets. I have a lot of customers that I see too often who eat too much meat. So I started trying to kind of sneak vegetables into a product that I was making in the hopes that they would eat less meat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me a bit more about where you grew up and the kinds of food you ate?
CARA NICOLETTI: I grew up outside of Boston. My grandfather is on my mother’s side, they are Jewish, Russian Jews, Holocaust survivors. So they started butchering, I guess, I mean, it goes back to my great, great grandfather who was like a cattle herder and a butcher in Russia, and then they brought it over to the U.S., first in the north end of Boston, my great-grandfather and grandfather and great uncle had a shop there and then they moved it to a suburb called Newton. It’s funny because they were kosher but they worked with pigs, and so they would cut meat all day, but then they couldn’t eat the meat that they were cutting. So we ate a lot of, just because it was free because it was coming from my grandfather’s shop, we ate a lot of what was leftover at the end of the week. Mostly it was like old mutton and like less desirable cuts of steak, ground beef, stuff like that. So my grandpa had this thing that he learned in the army where he would braise mutton in ginger ale. So disgusting. It’s really, really disgusting. But we ate a lot of, like, just not very good meat, and I didn’t know it was not very good until I started eating and working with good meat. Like, you know, 14 years ago when I moved to New York and started working in kitchens.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You were a baker before you were a butcher? How did that happen?
CARA NICOLETTI: I was, yes. It kinda just happened naturally. I mean, I think baking jobs are generally the easiest for like inexperienced, especially women, young girls. It’s the easiest entryway into the kitchen. It’s like sort of the thing that people trust women with. I mean that in a, it’s in like not a nice way. It’s like, “Well you definitely can’t touch the real food, but you can touch the dessert, you know, we’ll trust you to do that.”
I was working in coffee shops and stuff like that, and I just was interested in the kitchen, and I had a chef that took me under her wing and taught me stuff and just started baking, but then butchery had this like renaissance and became cool again, and it was always something I was sort of embarrassed of when I was growing up, that that was like where I would go after school. But then it was cool all of a sudden and all these chefs I was working with didn’t know how to do it, and I was like, “Well, I know how to do it.” So I snuck back in there and was baking and butchering at a certain point and then got hired full time at The Meat Hook and just stuck to butchering from there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How did you learn how to butcher? Was that part of your childhood?
CARA NICOLETTI: It was a little bit. Definitely things like sausage making and even just learning about knowing the cuts, because we would work the counter, that was a big part of it, which is actually a huge part of it, knowing the breakdown of the animal and how to cook those muscles. So, but I had, the learning curve was pretty huge for me, when I first started, a lot of it I picked up just by osmosis and sausage making, I had done when I was a kid. The way that people were doing it at places like The Meat Hook was so different than the way my grandpa was doing it anyway that I had to learn from scratch. So I worked there for a year for free while I was baking and line cooking, to brush up and learn new stuff.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you studied English at New York University. Was there stigma in your family about going into the butchery business?
CARA NICOLETTI: Yes, yes, very much so. So it skipped a generation between my mom or my grandpa and me. My grandpa had three daughters. He did not want any of them doing it. I honestly think he wouldn’t have wanted his sons to do it either. It’s just a really, really hard job. So he sold his butcher shop in like 2006 or something, I think with the intent of, because I was kind of just starting to like dabble in it and I think he just wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t take it over and do it. He was like upset when I first started, but now he’ll be 89 in a couple of weeks actually, and I mean we talk all the time. We have an incredibly close relationship. I think it’s gotten a lot closer because of what I do. I think there’s a lot of stories that he didn’t think anyone in the family ever wanted to hear, but now I do want to hear those stories about the meat business and you know, working with his family and stuff like that. So it’s been really cool for our relationship.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you mentioned the butchery renaissance that happened, and it also kind of coincided with a lot of press coverage for, like, “badass female butchers.”
CARA NICOLETTI: Ugh, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what do you think of that narrative, especially as you don’t casually eat meat anymore? Something I talked about a lot is how vegetarianism and vegetables are feminized, and, so how does that play with what you do?
CARA NICOLETTI: I mean, I think there’s a historical precedent for meat being masculine. Especially in cultures, you know, Muslim cultures, Jewish cultures, women are not allowed, still are not allowed to be butchers. So there’s something sort of strange about a woman being a butcher. If you go back to like caveman times when people were first eating meat, I’m pretty sure it was the women, like the men would hunt, but the women would prepare and butcher all the meat. I don’t really know what it is. I think it’s just another way of belittling and making women feel like we don’t belong, and I think the whole craze of like “the woman butcher” and “the woman this and that” is just a way to remind us that there’s only room for one of us. It’s very tokenizing. So coming up in the industry I really didn’t have women to look to, but some of the women that I did have to look too, were not nice, were really super not nice and I don’t fault them for that. I understand where it comes from. It comes from the fact that we’re told that our only value is being the only one, and that if anyone else comes along, they’re going to take your place because there’s only room for one. So the whole thing kind of bugs me. It pisses me off. I try to ignore it, but it’s definitely there.
I get especially frustrated because, like when other male butchers will do it to me, because I have more experience than them, and I have it in my heritage and my blood and a lot of them are like, “I just quit my finance job and I’m going to be a butcher and I’ve been at this for six months and I’m still going to talk down to you.” But I think a lot of people think about butchery as sort of this, you know, masculine, large-scale brute force kind of thing, but there are also a lot of technical, quiet, meditative moments that go into it. I think women are really, really good at it. I think it’s the same reason that women gravitate towards pastry. It’s the same reason that switching over from pastry to butchering full-time was not that big for me, like, that weird. I think the butchers that I’ve worked with women have been among the best. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When did you start to consider the impacts of your meat consumption and what kind of effects has it had on your work?
CARA NICOLETTI: I would say almost immediately when I started working with whole animals. I mean I saw my grandpa, my family was working with whole animals growing up, but I don’t know, there was something, there was like a disconnect for me probably because I wasn’t the one actually cutting them. I think it really started for me when I started visiting the farms where the animals that I was working with were raised, and all the animals that I’ve worked with and the farmers that I’ve worked with are, I have to say, like completely above board, incredible. Tiny farms, mostly in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Fully pastured animals, so lovingly cared for, and still, you feel so sad. I think that if you’re not approaching meat and if you don’t feel a little bit of sadness when you’re eating meat, then you’re probably not doing it right. But I would say going to the farms, visiting the farms, meeting the farmers who raise the animals and you know, sleep out in the fields for like a month while the sheep are being born, and are just, care so deeply. That was when I started thinking about meat a little bit more as a luxury than a necessity. I try to think about it that way. Always. I tried to sell it to customers that way too.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How have they responded to both your putting vegetables and sausages and your perspective on the entirety of meat?
CARA NICOLETTI: Well, I try not to push my agenda on people too openly, because people, I think, have a tendency to push back whatever you tell them to do. It makes them want to do the opposite thing. So the way that I think about my impact on meat people will say like, “You don’t eat meat, you have all these feelings about meat. How can you do this job?” And for me, I think that I have more impact from the inside than say someone like my little sister who’s a vegan, who is very militant, saying to all my family members, like, “You shouldn’t be doing this and you shouldn’t be doing that,” and then it just makes them want to eat a steak. But if your butcher is saying to you, “You need to eat less meat. I’ve seen you here five days this week. I made you a veggie burger, please eat it.” They’ll do it. They’ll listen to you because you’re, I don’t know, I don’t know what it is really. They just trust you with, that you’re not trying to push something on them for no reason.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What do you put in your veggie burger?
CARA NICOLETTI: I do beets, bulgur wheat, cashews, what else? Some oats, mushrooms. Onions. It’s like a, I need to work on the texture a little bit. I do add, what’s it called to make it stick together more? It’s a chemical. It’s like a vegetarian chemical, a binder.
ALICIA KENNEDY: A lot of people use starches, but not…
CARA NICOLETTI: No, I’ll think of it, I’ll think of it. But I need to figure out how to make it like grillable.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
CARA NICOLETTI: Because it’s very loose I think because of the beets, but it tastes really good and it looks red like rare meat, which I think people like. People are so gross.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, what do you think about like the Impossible Burger? Beyond Meat burgers?
CARA NICOLETTI: I think they’re amazing. I think they’re amazing. I think, gosh, I mean I have a lot of opinions in general about just anything becoming cool. Anything becoming trendy because the issue always is doing something on a large mass-produced scale, and that includes anything vegetarian, and with Beyond Burger and all of those lab-created meats using heme and stuff, I just don’t know what that’s doing environmentally in terms of like how much equipment they’re using and what that’s putting out. I mean it’s just, when you really start about the impact of everything, you know, the impact of quinoa on quinoa farmers and avocados, avocado farmers and it’s like, can anyone do anything right? I don’t know.
I do think Impossible Burgers is amazing and I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I think they taste really good. They also, it should be said that Tyson sits on their board. So there’s just a lot of sneaky stuff that happens in meat in general, and the meat industry is shady as hell, and they have their hands in pretty much everything.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Have you ever met a farmer who does, kind of, the slaughter and has this same relationship to meat? Do you think it’s common? Is it common?
CARA NICOLETTI: I think it’s really common. I think I learned it from the farmers that I was working with. I think that there’s this idea that livestock farmers are kind of just like, you know, don’t love their animals. They don’t connect with their animals, just as a survival mechanism, and I think that there is that to a certain degree, but not in what I’ve seen. I mean, the farmers that I’ve worked with care really, really deeply about how the animals that they’re raising live, how they die, and how they’re treated after they die.
And I remember I think one of the moments early on that I was like, “Oh my god, this is so intense,” was there’s this woman Laura, she works at a farm in upstate New York, a cattle farm that I go visit a lot, and she’s like, she’s a cow whisper. Like she’s incredible. She always knows when the animal is sick and she, she’s just really connected to them, and we got an animal from her shop or from her farm, and we were cutting it in the shop, and something was happening that we call dark cutting, which is basically like bunches of burst blood vessels all over. And generally, that means that the animal was distressed when it died. We don’t see it very often, but when we do, we always let the farmer know because it means that something went wrong in the process. I like casually mentioned it to her. Like, “You know, the cow, the cow we got last week was dark cutting,” and she burst into tears and was like, “Oh my god, that was such a good cow, I loved that cow,” and you know, in her mind, she was thinking like, did it get stressed somewhere in the slaughterhouse? Like did someone treat it badly somewhere in the slaughterhouse?
And like, it was just this moment where it was like, this is so intense for her. She’s not disconnected from this at all, and I shouldn’t be there. And I also have, I have slaughtered animals just because I feel like I have to do it in order to practice what I’m preaching and I’ll tell you, it fucking sucks. It’s the worst. I cried the whole time. It’s really intense and it’s a really sad reality that animals die for our consumption. I wish it wasn’t true.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I was saying before how I’m from Long Island and I eat oysters even though I’m a vegetarian. I know that you’re so deeply connected to butchery, and to me, through your heritage, but do you ever think that you’ll stop eating meat or butchering entirely?
CARA NICOLETTI: I’d like to say yes, but I don’t see that happening for me, also just because I want to travel to a lot of places, and I don’t want to say no to the things that, like, I’m going to go to Vietnam for two weeks in November and like, I don’t want to say no to the things that people want to offer me, even if I don’t really want to eat them, because I want to have an experience that they want to give me. I also, you know, I think a lot has to be done for sort of the economic divide of who’s able to be vegetarian and vegan and who isn’t. And I don’t know how that will happen, but yeah, I mean I see myself always working in meat in some way. I’d really like to develop a fully vegetarian sausage. But, you know, it is my craft. It’s my skill. It’s what I’m good at, it’s what connects me to my heritage, so I think I’ll probably always be involved in it in some way or another, and I’ll probably always refrain from it, from eating too much of it, but I’ll always eat a little bit of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Are there any misconceptions that vegans have about butchery or raising animals for farming that you think you could, you know, clear up for them?
CARA NICOLETTI: Yeah, I mean, I think a really big misconception is that people who eat meat don’t love or care about animals, and I fully understand how they think that. I think it’s incredibly selfish to eat meat, but, you know, I love animals deeply and it’s one of the reasons that I got into this in the first place is that I wanted to try to figure it out from the inside a way to do it better, and to do it less and to do it more consciously.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and because it is kind of an economic and cultural backbone for people, what do you say to people who tell you that “meat is murder,” blanket statement.
CARA NICOLETTI: I mean, I would say it’s so lucky for you that you’re able to feel that way and think that way and act that way because most of the world is not able to afford to get their, the amount of nutrients that they need from vegetables and greens, they’re just not. Meat is a quick and dirty protein. It allows you to feed your family for not so much money. And yeah, it’s like until we figure out how to get around that, I think being a vegetarian and a vegan is a privilege, as is eating good meat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And what tips you have for someone who wants to eat only good meat?
CARA NICOLETTI: Well, I would say make sure you go to a butcher and not a supermarket. Even Whole Foods, don’t do it. Whole Foods, you have to read the fine print really, really carefully, and they’re also, for the most part, not getting whole animals, which means that, you know, if you see 50 hanger steaks in their case that means that’s 50 cows because there’s only one hanger steak per animal. So where are all those, those are not coming from 50 cows, those are coming from boxes, from somewhere, and no matter what sticker gets put on it, it’s not that good. So I would say try to find a butcher, a local butcher that you trust. If you can’t, there’s a really good resource online called eatwild.com, and you can search state by state, small farms and places that you can get things from.
But the main thing I would say is just treat meat as the side dish. I think in America we’re really trained to make meat the thing and vegetables are the side dish, or grains are the side dish, but if you start making those two things the main thing, and treating meat as just, it’s in there or cooking with stock, it makes it a lot easier to eat meat more consciously. It doesn’t have to be like, “I do this or I don’t do this.” It’s just like train yourself to not feel like it’s a necessity.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. So as a woman butcher, and as someone who kind of purposely and mindfully pushes a more sustainable model of meat consumption, do you think that what you do, and that cooking, in general, can be a political act?
CARA NICOLETTI: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, god, meat is so political, and it’s political even down to the fact that like, so many people in politics have their hands in the meat industry, whether it’s they own big cattle conglomerates and are involved in the USDA. I mean it’s at every level, but it is also political in the fact that it’s not affordable for most people to eat vegan or vegetarian. And also that we exploit other countries for their resources and then they’re left with no resources of, you know, their own to eat. I mean, it’s political on every level, I think, cooking and eating. But meat, in particular, is, it’s definitely political.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Cara, for being here.
CARA NICOLETTI: Thank you for having me. I’m so glad I didn’t get yelled at.
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