A Butcher, a Baker, a Really Good Book-Maker: A Conversation with Cara Nicoletti

[This is the fourth conversation in a series. For the others, click here.]
In Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books, Cara Nicoletti guides us through her reading life. Each chapter discusses a different book she read at a specific point in her life—from her childhood to present day. And while she uses food as a vehicle throughout these discussions (each chapter ends with a recipe inspired by the book in question), Voracious doesn’t feel limited by or overly bound to this structure. Much like the books she is highlighting, Voracious is a world unto itself. Sometimes we learn about a book’s cultural and/or historical context and sometimes about the authors themselves. All the while, we’re also picking up the story of Nicoletti’s life: her New England upbringing, her sisters, parents, boyfriends, butchering, baking, and that time she fed a mouse a cookie.

After reading it, I was left inspired both to cook (see below) and to read (Eugenides’ Middlesex). But possibly more than anything, I was inspired to instill in Teddy and Isaac the love for reading that Nicoletti has. More than once, she writes about times in her young life where she would come home from school, troubled by one thing or another, and find a book waiting for her on her bed, placed there by a parent or relative, and how usually that book hit upon something she needed to hear and/or feel at the time.

The other day at my local public library, after I’d checked out a couple of books for myself, I wandered over to the children’s section. Thanks to loving grandparents, Teddy and Isaac have an overflowing collection of books, so I rarely if ever check anything out for them, but that day I scoured the shelves for ones I thought Teddy would like. I grabbed two, drove home, and placed them on his bed—the firsts of a new tradition, I hope.

[After reading her book, I emailed a bunch of questions to Cara and she kindly emailed me back her answers.]


Amelia Morris: The more I read about your family in Voracious, the more I liked them. The chapter about how your dad (who you call “Noodle”) makes a pound of garlicky pasta to accompany every single meal, no matter the meal, is such an amazing, telling detail of a person. (Also, as I read, I completely aligned myself with your mother because I was imagining Matt busting into my kitchen fifteen minutes before dinner was ready to make his daily pasta.) I’m curious about your family’s background. You guys are Italian and Jewish? (But there was also mention of going to church in the book?)

Cara Nicoletti: My dad is Italian and my mom is Jewish, so we were raised with a blend of the two. My dad doesn’t have much family, no immediate, so we grew up surrounded by my mom’s family, which makes me feel closer to my Jewish heritage than any other. My parents took us to church every Sunday, though. I think it was important to my dad that we have some of the structure that he grew up with. We sang in the choir and got confirmed and pretended to be sheep in the nativity play but we were surrounded by Jews the rest of the time. Jews and Italians are really incredibly similar—both are loud and hungry and tough and warm—I mean, if we’re going to make sweeping generalizations here.

AM: I never read any of the Nancy Drew books, yet I’ve always thought of Nancy as a symbol for strong independent young women. Your description, however, left me with a much different impression. As you explain, Nancy is written to appear perfect in every way, which apparently includes a restrained appetite and also some body-shaming of her “slightly plump” friend, Bess. In this way, she reminds me of a Regina George-type. Why do you think “perfection” in a woman is so often tangled up in being thin? 

CN: I think on a really basic level it has to do with femininity being wrapped up in the ideas of fragility. From an evolutionary standpoint, women are supposed to be delicate so that they inspire feelings of protectiveness in their men, which will ensure that their babies survive. As archaic as this sounds, those pressures and expectations were still very much expected in the time the Nancy Drew books were popular. That kind of old-fashioned femininity is also wrapped up in the idea of restraint. Food is a bodily pleasure, just like sex. A woman who isn’t thin is too readily open to pleasure, and that’s not lady-like. These kinds of pressures are still very much present today—even for us women in the food industry, who obviously like to eat. Male chefs are allowed and even expected to be heavy, but female chefs are expected to somehow remain miraculously lithe despite making a living on cooking and eating.
All eyes on Queen Victoria?
AM: I also love the Charlotte’s Web chapter. It’s a simple reminder of that amazing thing fiction often does, which is tackle two opposing viewpoints with nuance (the practical farmer vs. Fern who has developed an emotional attachment to Wilbur). You also discuss E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig,” which, you write, “demonstrates that eating and loving animals are not mutually exclusive, or at the very least that it’s okay to be unsure about the answers to these enormous questions.” I totally agree! Why do you think the world is seemingly more comfortable with binary systems, e.g. this or that, for or against, male or female, gay or straight, democrat or republican, etc.?

CN: The world is a fucking mess of gray area and we’re all trying to navigate it and figure out where we fit into it. Binary systems give us a really easy way to exist and claim space and feel ordered and protected. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of gray space within those binaries, so basically 

Maybe it’s because I live in the small weird bubble of New York City (more specifically, in the smaller and weirder bubble that is Brooklyn), but it feels like people are starting to push against those binaries in a big way. This election was a huge wake-up call that our two-party system is majorly flawed. It’s the first time I’ve been aware of there being such a wide spectrum of different kinds of republicans and different kinds of democrats—it always kind of felt, up until this point, that you were one thing or the other, but now not so much.

AM: We share two very important things in common. One, I’ve also publicly declared Pride and Prejudice to be my favorite book of all time and two, we both have food memoir-ish books that mention city chicken (which as we both know is actually pork, not chicken, on a stick). Here’s my question: which movie adaptation of P and P do you like better, the 6-hour BBC mini-series or the Keira Knightly one?

CN: If you counted every movie I have ever watched in my entire lifetime, that number probably wouldn’t come close to the number of times I have watched that BBC miniseries. I fell asleep to it almost every single night throughout high school and most of college. I played it so many times the DVD got melty and started skipping. The point is, there has never been a more perfect Elizabeth Bennet than Jennifer Ehle and probably there never will be. I went to see the Keira version in theaters when it came out and actually left the theater because I was so annoyed by it. Overtime I’ve come to accept it—it’s really beautifully shot and the music is great, but nothing will ever come close to the miniseries.

AM: In your chapter on Mrs. Dalloway, you write, “Woolf’s attitude toward food is Victorian, focusing on the grotesqueness of the flesh and the marrying of moral character with eating.” According to Google, the Victorian era lasted from 1837 to 1901 (when Queen Victoria died and her reign ended). And yet, this Victorian vibe, if you will, continues to persist! Example: The horrible YouTube comments you got on the Vice video where you mention your period. Periods = life, quite literally. Do you agree with my example or in general that this Victorian way of thinking is still hanging around?
CN: Oh man, the Victorian era still very much persists, in my opinion. We’ve obviously made massive strides, but there is still a very real fear of women’s bodies. With the overturning of the Affordable Care Act, pregnancy, or the possibility of pregnancy (aka having a vagina) will once again become a preexisting condition, which means it will be harder for women, including pregnant women, to get healthcare. But at the same time, they want to defund Planned Parenthood and make access to abortion more difficult. So basically, we have to have the babies but we can’t get the health insurance to have the babies. It’s a real head-scratcher!

Beyond that, the entire advertising industry is built around telling women that our bodies are gross and problematic, that we need to shave and pluck and douche and wax and never let anyone know that we bleed or poop. I work with men all day long and I make it my dang business to tell them all about my period. If it makes them uncomfortable I don’t care. It’s pretty uncomfortable to carry a cow in on my back when I’m cramping like hell, but I can still do it better than most of them.   

AM: Talking about a main character in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, you write, “Merry hates, detests America, but she actively consumes it in the most literal way through the foods she chooses to eat—cheeseburgers, processed-cheese sandwiches on white bread, milkshakes, BLTs, pizza, onion rings, root beer floats, and French fries.” Indeed, these foods feel intensely American. In your opinion, what does this say about America?

CN: America has such a weird food identity in that we don’t really have one. There are only a handful of foods that really feel like they are ours and not just a bastardized version of a dish from another place. I’m sure processed-cheese sandwiches and BLTs and cheeseburgers are, at their very root, bastardized from somewhere else, but they’ve morphed into something distinctly American. These foods are obviously all fattening and unhealthy, but what strikes me the most about them is that they’re fast. One of the reasons we’ve struggled to find a food identity in America is that we prize quickness and convenience over most other things when it comes to food. As a culture we don’t really like to gather and linger over our meals—we’re far too busy and important—so most of our foods are quick and dirty.

AM: This is simply a practical question. But you have a few recipes for donuts in the book. I never make these at home because I never know what to do with the used frying oil. You can’t pour it down the drain, right?

CN: I very rarely fry stuff at home because it makes the house smell so weird and also I don’t crave fried food very often (humble brag). You’re right, you can’t pour the oil down the drain—it’s bad for the earth and your pipes—which is another reason it’s a lot easier to buy donuts at the store. If you’ve reused the oil as many times as you can and it’s time to toss it, just pour it into a sealable container and throw it away. Obviously, make sure the oil is fully cooled before you put it in the container. You can also search for places to recycle your cooking oil using this website.

AM: How did you find the process of publishing a book?

CN: I wrote the book in about eight months, and the entire time I was working in a butcher shop full-time. I would wake up at 4:30 a.m., write until I had to work at nine, get home at six and write until after midnight, then I’d do it all again the next day. My apartment doesn’t have heat in the winter so I spent most of the time I was writing holed up in my office under 30 layers and wrapped in blankets with a space heater blowing directly in my face. It was a physically and mentally grueling time, but I look back on it with real fondness, which I never would have expected when I was in the thick of it. For someone who loves books as much as I do, getting to be a part of that process from start to finish was completely exhilarating. It was eye-opening, too. Publishing a book takes an insanely long time—much longer than I was anticipating—and a massive number of people to make it happen. It was exhausting and really really scary, but probably the thing I’m the most proud of in my life.

AM: What’s your reading and writing life like now? Read anything good lately? Any designs on writing another book?

CN: After the publication of Voracious, I took a giant step back from writing for other people. I stopped blogging completely, which is something I feel an almost-daily twinge of guilt about, but it felt like a chapter that had ended for me in a very real way. I still try to write every day, even if it’s just a quick notebook entry about my day, but I’m a lot choosier about what I put out into the public realm.

When I was blogging, it was always a pleasant surprise to me when people read my stuff—I really was just doing it for myself and my own sanity, and the fact that people were responding to it was just a bonus. When the book got published there came a point when I had to make myself stop reading the weekly emails from my publisher detailing how many books sold and how that translated into money, because I started getting obsessed, and it started feeling bad and stressful. Writing for myself and my own pleasure again feels really good and freeing. I’d love to write another book in the future, I think about it almost every day, but the exact shape of what it would be hasn’t come yet. I’ve been working on a screenplay for some months (I’m rolling my eyes at how gross that sounds), but I have a feeling it will stay in my notebook forever, and that’s totally okay. Right now I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and it’s brilliant and excruciating so I’m also reading a Nora Roberts book called The Liar so that I can actually sleep at night.


Another thing Voracious inspired me to do was make these condensed-milk sandwiches. They come up in The English Patient, which (as I mentioned in my last post) I just read and loved. I knew they would be good, but they really surprised me by how good—they're like French toast but sandwich-ier. Here's a loose recipe to follow if you're interested.  

Condensed-Milk Sandwiches adapted from Michael Ondaatje
regular white sandwich bread or thinly-sliced sourdough
sweetened condensed milk

Butter the bread on at least one side or possibly both. Heat up a cast-iron griddle. Add a tablespoon of butter to the griddle. As soon as it starts to foam, add a piece of bread, butter-side down. Drizzle about two tablespoons of the condensed milk on top of the bread. Sprinkle with salt. Top with another piece of bread, butter-side up. Sprinkle with some more salt. Cook until the underneath is crisp and browned. Flip and cook until the other side is crisp and browned. Eat while it's hot.


Matthew said...

I love Cara's answers. I also want to watch more fleabag and eat more sweetened condensed milk sandwiches -- those were wunderbar. xoxo

Sara said...

This is the best conversation yet! And I love Fleabag so much.

Carmen said...

i really enjoyed reading this. had started following cara on instagram after "meeting her" through your connection. i loved getting to hear her thoughts and comments and match them in my mind to her beautiful rainbow sausages
awesome interview/good questions

Carol Adams said...

Love that you asked Cara about the oil; you ask the best questions. Wish I had thought to mention my period when I was a wine maker, surrounded by men. Clip from Fleabag was the best. Think it's time to rewatch the series.

Jessica said...

Love this series. Thanks, Amelia!

Kara said...

I love this interview and Cara's writing! The structure of Voracious sounds fascinating and I am 100% gonna check out her book.

Unknown said...

This is a unique approach to sharing stories. I was not able to put it down as I got enveloped in these great stories.
I happened to grow up in Brooklyn and all the various commentary was like going back home. I lived in a 4 story
walk up in Flatbush and we bought all our meats at the Trunz Pork Store. We enjoyed all forms of pork products
because it was most economical; my mom would buy bacon ends for next to nothing.

I thoroughly enjoyed your descriptions of the foods in the many wonderful novels. You are a marvelous author
who is able to make your reader really feel caught up in the words, the smells, and execution of the recipes.

Thanks for allowing me a temporary departure from my time on dialysis machine. I have mention your book
to my dialysis nurse and my sister. Thank you for gift.