Words Hannah Cohen
Photos Jim Sullivan

Your Friend, the Butcher: Willy Wonka Sausages Were Just in Her Blood

Jan 03, 2017

Some jobs in the food industry are easy to step into, while others take years of intense training. For as many jobs and specialties as there are in the industry, there are equally as many reasons for people to be attracted to them. Among millennials, it’s become increasingly rare to hear the reason is “legacy”: to carry on a tradition, a trade, or better yet, a craft. But Cara Nicoletti is her family’s legacy. As a fourth generation butcher with a family history that dates back to her great-great-grandfather, a Russian butcher and cattle rancher, the craft is in her blood (pun intended).

When we think of a butcher, we may picture a slightly gruff man in an inevitably blood-stained white apron. Well, that picture is changing—and Cara is the one changing it. She's part of a generation based on bringing back the craft and breaking stereotypes. When it comes to what she’d like to see for present and future butchers—everything from responsible meat sourcing and eating, to educating consumers. “Meat is an emotional thing,” says Cara. “And I think it should be. If meat doesn't freak you out a little bit, you're probably not eating it right.”

Growing up in her grandfather’s butcher shop, Cara watched how he interacted with his customers: always kind and warm. And it's those same qualities she brings to her current position at Foster Sundry in Brooklyn. Butcher shops have often been a place for macho behavior, a place where it’s alright to be a little rude to a clueless customer. Cara rebels against this behavior by instead bringing her own passion for the job to her customers. Education being at the forefront, she wants you to know where your meat came from, how it was raised, and the best ways to prepare it.

Sincere and approachable, Cara is the kind of person you'd want to go have a drink with just to talk about meat, literature, and life. When we met, she came in wearing kitchen clogs, black pants, and a camo t-shirt. A few tattoos peaked out from underneath her sleeves and her gold hoop earrings stood out against her dark hair. Soon enough, she started talking about sausages, which happen to be her specialty. She describes what she wants from the unique sausage flavors she creates “as the gum in Willy Wonka that you eat and you can taste all five courses.”

Cara’s creativity shines through in the meat case that displays rows of perfectly portioned, unusually bright sausage links. Rows of color beckon like a mirage from the end of the long narrow shop, past the coffee bar and deli case. This is where Cara’s propensity for creative thinking is most apparent: she thinks of a dish she likes, breaks it down into its most basic elements, and concentrates them into a sausage. For example, her beef phō sausage tastes, well, exactly like beef phō. You can taste rich melting beef stock, star anise, aromatic basil, cilantro, and chili, just as if you were eating a bowl of hot soup—then you realize you've just bitten into a crackling, seared sausage.

This is recipe development at its finest, a process that can be underestimated when you’re used to following recipes to a tee. Built on experimentation and creativity, two traits not everyone is willing to use, recipe development can be likened to the creative process of writing. Cara is also the author of the book Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, which is simultaneously a cookbook, a memoir, and a look at classic literature. “Killing your darlings” is how she refers to the process of editing, both recipes and words.

If you haven't gotten the idea by now, Cara is real—she’s not perfect red lipstick and a clean pressed apron. She is long hours over stainless steel tables, strong arms from lifting whole beef sides, and stains that came from an animal raised for your dinner. She is tired at the end of the day, and ready for the next delivery in the morning. She is your neighborhood butcher, one who wants to see her craft continue to rise in popularity in a responsible, informed way. To continue her part in this movement, she has recently put word out that she is seeking an apprentice. The response surprised and excited her, especially as eighty percent of the responses were from young women wanting to learn the craft. The fact that she's taken her place as a fourth generation butcher has made it apparent that the past is definitely important, but it’s artisans like Cara who own the future. After all, Cara says, “we’re just trying to feed people and that’s the kindest, warmest thing you can do. Isn't that hospitality, at its root?”