FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A Spotlite on CARA NICOLETTI of the YUMMY BOOKS Blog
By Tyler Malone
To maintain a healthy existence, one needs sustenance for the body and sustenance for the mind. Food feeds our physical self, and art–and especially literature–nourishes our mind. Cara Nicoletti has found a lovely way in which to intertwine these modes of pabulum intake. For her blog Yummy Books, she cooks dishes from famous meal scenes in great novels (and perhaps a few less-than-great novels, but who’s to judge?). She’s made the boeuf en daube from Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece To the Lighthouse as well as clam chowder a la Melville’s epic Moby Dick.
Whether she pulls the food item directly from the text or is merely inspired by a scene and takes it in a new direction with some interesting twists (I’m thinking specifically of her Twilight-inspired blood orange panna cotta), the concepts, the food quotes and the recipes are enough to get your mouth watering. These “recipes for literature,” as she calls them, are the “chicken soup for the soul” that Chicken Soup for the Soul wishes it were. (Hey, that gives me a good idea: I oughta tell her she should do Mr. Casaubon’s chicken noodle soup from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.)
If there’s a foodie inside you–and let’s face it who isn’t a bit of a foodie at heart? (or should I say at stomach?)–and you’re also a book lover, Yummy Books is the blog for you. Though she doesn’t update the blog as much as her devoted fanbase (myself included) would like, whenever she does, it is a treat (and sometimes in the form of an actual treat, like Proust’s Swann’s Way madeleines…yummm).
Tyler Malone: When did you get into cooking?
Cara Nicoletti: I grew up surrounded by really good food and great cooks so cooking is something that has always been very present in my life. I’m Italian and Russian Jewish and both cultures place a lot of importance on gathering and eating. My parents are both fantastic cooks and I watched and helped them prepare dinner for my sisters and me every night growing up. I think the first dinner I ever cooked for my family on my own was a giant bowl of plain spaghetti with chunks of boiled potatoes in it. It wasn’t a huge hit.
TM: What are some of your favorite things to cook?
CN: Cooking is a real form of relaxation and meditation for me, so I usually end up cooking the most outside of work when I’m stressed, anxious or sad. The foods I find the most relaxing and soul-nourishing to cook are the simplest—roast chicken, slow-cooked pulled pork, butterscotch pudding, my mom’s chicken soup.
TM: What made you come up with the idea to fuse cooking/eating/writing/reading into this lovely blog of yours: Yummy Books?
CN: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a fascination with food scenes in the books I was reading. They are marked up even in books that I read as a kid, like Little Women, and all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Because I loved reading so much from such a young age and connected so deeply to a lot of the characters I was reading about, eating the food they were eating just seemed like a natural way to be closer to them. A few years back I was in a book club with some friends and whenever we got together to discuss the books I would make a meal from the novel. My friends really loved the idea and urged me to start blogging about it, which is how Yummy Books finally came about.
TM: Do you re-read the novels when you decide to do a post?
CN: I almost always try to re-read before I cook, which is half the reason there is sometimes a huge delay between posts. What usually happens is that I start out with the intention of just re-reading the scenes that lead up to and follow the food scene, but then I get so wrapped up that I end up re-reading the entire novel. A few weeks ago I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in order to extract some Turkish delight passages and only emerged from my C.S. Lewis stupor two hours later because I had a cramp in my leg from standing and reading for so long.
TM: You recently tackled the madeleines of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the boeuf en daube of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse–have you decided what the next literary culinary adventure you’ll embark upon is?
TM: You mentioned in the Swann’s Way and To The Lighthouse posts that there are “about seven literary meal holy grails.” So we’ve seen two of the seven. Can you clue us in on one or two of the others you’ve yet to do?
CN: In the most literal sense The Last Supper in Luke 22 would probably be the holy grail of literary meals. I usually try to go home for Passover every year to celebrate with my grandparents, and since The Last Supper was most likely a Passover meal it would be a great way to involve my family’s cooking in Yummy Books again.
TM: Any plans to attempt Leopold Bloom’s morning kidney cooking in Joyce’s Ulysses? Or the jam tarts from D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers? Or the slapjacks from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?
CN: Yes! All of those are on the docket. You’ve actually chosen three of my favorite literary meals. No matter how many times I have eaten kidneys I can’t seem to like them but I’m determined to make Leo Bloom’s kidneys really delicious.
TM: What is your favorite post you’ve done thus far?
CN: I think the clam chowder from Moby Dick was probably my favorite post to execute. Cooking with my dad is always so much fun, and being able to connect a dish that I grew up eating with a book that I love was really satisfying. My whole family was there to eat the chowder, including my grandparents, which is a lot more fulfilling than eating three-dozen madeleines on your own.
TM: Who are some of your favorite authors?
CN: I am a huge 19th Century nerd. I love Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, George MacDonald, Bram Stoker. I also love Joan Didion, Carson McCullers, James Joyce, John Banville, Toni Morrison, Ken Kesey, Roahl Dahl, Andre Dubus, Salinger, Lydia Davis, I could go on forever.
TM: What do you do besides this food/lit blog?
CN: Right now I am the pastry chef and butcher at a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights called Colonie. I haven’t decided which I love more—pastry or butchery—and thankfully they don’t make me choose. I work with a lot of really talented, wonderful people that make some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.
TM: What’s in the future for you?
CN: In terms of writing I would really love to someday see Yummy Books in print. A lot of the foodies I know are also bookworms and vice versa so I think it would make a great addition to the library of either kind of nerd. Beyond that, I would love to have a butcher shop of my own someday. My Grandfather and his brother (and their father before them) owned a butcher shop in Boston and I was there a lot after school, so I learned about butchering and “good meat” at a really young age. I’d love to have a place as welcoming and warm as my grandfather’s shop, with none of the pretension and snobbery that has somehow found its way into the trade.
Cara Nicoletti interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Cara Nicoletti
Design by Marie Havens
Cara Nicoletti, Photography Courtesy of Cara Nicoletti