Cara Nicoletti comes from a long line of butchers. Her grandfather was a butcher, like his father, and his father before that. Despite her grandfather’s wishes, Cara also became a butcher. She worked at The Meat Hook, a butcher shop in Brooklyn that specializes in humanely-raised, local animals. But she started to notice the same people were coming in every day to buy meat, which was just unsustainable — from an environmental perspective, and given how much work it takes to raise one animal humanely and locally. One way to solve the sustainability problem: sausage. Sausage allows butchers to use every part of the animal, therefore stretching the meat further.
Plus, sausage contains non-meat fillers. “Fillers are a dirty word in the meat industry.... How do you turn that on [its] head so that it's not a negative thing?” says Cara. Adding some sort of filler would not only make this precious meat go further, it would also make the sausage more affordable. And one guaranteed good filler: vegetables. Cara started adding beets, broccoli, and potatoes to her sausages. But the process isn’t as easy as you think. And to get her sausage empire off the ground, she had to convince an old boys’ club of sausage co-packers to change their ways. Now, Seemore Meats & Veggies, named after Cara’s grandfather Seymour, are in grocery stores across the country.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
"Stacks" by Afrokeys
"Gravel And Dirt" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
"Shake and Bake" by Hayley Briasco
"Get in the Back" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
"Cracker Jack" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
"New Old" by JT Bates
Photo courtesy of Seemore Meats and Veggies.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about your earliest meat-related memory.
Cara Nicoletti: Oh man. There are....I have a lot of very early meat memories. I sometimes think like if someone were to crack my brain open and look at them, it would just be like, what the hell is going on here?
Dan Pashman: This is Cara Nicoletti. She’s a butcher by trade. So was her grandfather, and his father, and his father. She grew up going to her grandfather’s butcher shop all the time.
Cara Nicoletti: He used to always make us a snack of chicken liver spread on Ritz crackers. And I remember him coming out from the cutting room in like a bloody apron, with a platter of those crackers and like bringing them behind. We used to sit behind the cash register. The smell of his...he wore Calvin Klein Obsession. He still does. And mixed with meat smells.
Dan Pashman: I’m not sure that’s how the people who developed Calvin Klein Obsession expected it to be used...
Cara Nicoletti: I know, I know. It worked. He always smelled delicious.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. As I said, Cara Nicoletti is a butcher, who comes from a long line of butchers. But as you’ll hear when we share her story today, she’s doing something with sausages that none of her ancestors could have imagined.
Dan Pashman: Cara’s great-great-grandfather was a butcher in Odessa, which is now in Ukraine. He had a son who also became a butcher, immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He continued working as a butcher and had a son of his own, named Seymour. That’s Cara’s grandfather.
Cara Nicoletti: Seymour. Yeah. He's incredible. He'll be 91 in August. He started butchering with his dad and his brother when he was like 13. It was sort of like a rite of passage. He worked into his eighties and he's just like the most positive, most generous person of all time.
Dan Pashman: Grandpa Seymour had his own butcher shop in the North End of Boston, a Jewish butcher in a sea of Italian butchers. He and his wife had three daughters and even though he was running the family business, he didn’t want his kids to take it over. That was partly because women butchers weren’t very common at the time. But it was also because being a butcher is a very difficult job. It’s physically demanding. A lot of butchers end up with repetitive muscle strains. Plus the hours are long and the pay isn’t great. So for Seymour, it was a classic immigrant family story. He worked hard so his kids and grandkids wouldn’t have to.
Dan Pashman: And that plan worked with Seymour’s daughters, including Cara’s mom. Even though no one from that generation went into butchering, Seymour’s shop was still a big part of the family when Cara was growing up. Hanging out there gave her a perspective on meat that most kids in suburban Massachusetts don’t get.
Cara Nicoletti: I know it sounds very stupid but I knew that meat was dead animals, which I think in a weird way was like something that my friends didn't know or didn't think about.
Dan Pashman: And how, how did that affect the way you thought about meat?
Cara Nicoletti: I think that in some ways it made me more sensitive about meat, but then in some ways it also made me have this wall. I love animals but there’s this wall of separation that comes up when it comes to processing them and eating them. I’m less sensitive to seeing an animal on a cutting table than someone who doesn’t see it every day. So sometimes I have to sort of like, check myself and like tap into that sensitivity again if I feel like I'm losing it.
Dan Pashman: Sometimes Cara would help out in her grandfather’s shop. She even learned how to make sausage. She says that’s the least dangerous thing that happens at a butcher shop because it doesn’t involve gigantic knives. So it’s perfect for a kid. Even though she liked spending time at Seymour’s shop, Cara didn’t always plan to be a butcher. In fact, when she decided to go into food professionally, she started off as a baker.
Cara Nicoletti: Logistically, it was the easiest job to get for like a girl with no formal kitchen experience is sort of the… I couldn’t walk into a restaurant and be like, I want to be your protein chef. But for whatever reason, people were more willing to be like, sure we’ll train you. Like whatever, I don’t know if it’s something they think girls can just naturally do.
Dan Pashman: There is a perception that baking is somehow feminine or for women and that dealing with meat and fire is for men.
Cara Nicoletti: Totally.
Dan Pashman: Where do you think that comes from?
Cara Nicoletti: I think it comes from people thinking that baking is like, sort of smaller, more like precise, less body strength type stuff. And actually bakers are incredibly strong. You have to be able to lift enormous bags of flour and knead breads all day and it takes a tremendous amount of strength.
Dan Pashman: Cara being Cara, she also took on some light butchering for the restaurants she was baking in. Eventually, she realized that butchering was her real passion. But Seymour was concerned.
Cara Nicoletti: I think he sort of pictured me toiling behind someone else’s shop counter for the rest of my life. I know it wasn’t necessarily what he wanted to do. As a first-generation American I think it was just, if your family has a business, you do what your family business is. So and he didn’t feel that he really had a choice. So he wanted us to feel like we had a choice. And I definitely did have a choice and I still chose this.
Dan Pashman: The first step, Cara would need to apprentice with a butcher. But as she later told Brooklyn Magazine, “I walked around the neighborhood and asked all the old dudes for apprenticeships and they were like ‘F you, no.’” Cara was starting to see why Seymour had been worried. But after a lot of rejections, Cara snagged an apprenticeship at a shop called The Meat Hook. She loved it.
Cara Nicoletti: Because a lot of it is sort of doing the same movements and things over and over again, it was very meditative and calming to me. And you are using your brain. Breaking beef, especially, is very technical. You have to know muscle groups. You have to know the muscle of the entire animal's body. And sausage making is very scientific and technical.
Dan Pashman: The Meat Hook is a whole-animal butcher shop that only sells grass-fed animals raised in New York State. They don’t use factory farmed animals and they use the whole animal. Bottom line, if you’re gonna buy meat, this is as humane, environmentally friendly, and sustainable as it gets.
Cara Nicoletti: Well originally, I was so dedicated to selling people this beautiful humanely raised meat. And you know, visiting the farms and seeing how much it took for those farmers to raise literally like one good animal. And then I would have customers coming every single night of the week to get meat. And I was just thinking like, this is not sustainable. You can't eat meat every single night, if you want to eat it sustainably. I think maybe someday if we're able to catch up and make regenerative farming the thing across the board. But for now you can't eat meat every night, if you want to eat it well. So I was trying to figure out ways to like stretch our meat further and make it last longer. And fillers are like a dirty word in the meat industry, in the sausage industry, specifically, but sort of thinking about like how do you turn that on your head so that it's not a negative thing, so we can stretch this meat and make it go further.
Dan Pashman: Adding some sort of filler would not only make this precious meat go further, it would also make it more affordable. So, Cara’s idea for a good filler? Vegetables. And sausages seemed perfect. You can’t make a steak that’s one quarter veggies. At least not yet. But with sausages you’re already blending a bunch of stuff together. What if you could just throw in some veggies, make it healthier, and use less meat in the process?
Dan Pashman: There was a greenmarket next door to The Meat Hook, so Cara asked the owner if she could have whatever wilted, leftover, but still perfectly edible produce she had lying around at the end of the week. The owner agreed.
Cara Nicoletti: Once it was free, it was like, I could play around with it. So it was sort of like a puzzle. I'd put it out in front of me, like, you know, wilted dill and like soggy carrots and bruised onions and matzah ball soup. I like to think about sausages as like the gum in Willy Wonka, that's like four courses. Like, how do you make this like a little complete meal?
Dan Pashman: I like that. I like that a lot.
Dan Pashman: Cara started selling some of her experiments, like a chicken gumbo sausage with bell peppers, garlic, and lots of herbs. Or the chicken fun-guy, which had lots of mushrooms. Cara’s customers responded well. She had a feeling she’d hit on something, but she kept that to herself. She wanted to keep improving the product.
Dan Pashman: In the end, Cara spent nearly ten years developing her meat and veggie sausages. Sure, she was working on other things during that decade. She was a full-time butcher, She helped open another butcher shop called Foster Sundry, she wrote a book, she hosted a web series for Vice. But also, it turns out that making a great sausage that combines meat and veggies isn’t as simple as grinding everything up together and throwing it in a casing. It’s actually very complicated. Because when you cook vegetables, they release water.
Cara Nicoletti: The very basic principle is that water is sort of the enemy of sausage binding or protein extraction and vegetables are water. So there are two major proteins in every muscle in an animal's body. They're called myosin and actin. When they're in the presence of salt and under any kind of stress, like mixing or grinding or tumbling, they release a sticky substance called exudate, which is like meat glue. It's like the thing that makes a sausage bind together.
Dan Pashman: Anyone, who's ever made burger patties by hand, you kind of notice the meat starts to stick to your hands. It gets a little but sticky.
Cara Nicoletti: Exactly and you can take that too far and over bind something. And it can be...it has sort of a sandy crumbly texture. You can break that binding just by overworking it. But water really interrupts those two proteins from creating exudate. So trying to find ways around that is the way that you're gonna make a textural correct sausage.
Dan Pashman: So what are some of the ways around it?
Cara Nicoletti: I can't really tell you.
Dan Pashman: Oh, top secret. Okay, fair enough. So I would imagine that some of the things you had to think about were like how big or small to cut the veggies. Because the more surface area you have exposed, the more water is going to be released.
Cara Nicoletti: Mm-hmm. Yes. Some of it we're trying to get patented because it's starting to become a category now. They're calling them "blended meats", but you can tell people who are jumping into it, who've never made a sausage before and don't really understand the basic principles because the sausage smears or like it crumbles. Because the water has interrupted that protein extraction.
Dan Pashman: Cara’s gotten to the point where her sausages are up to 35% veggies, but she wants to push it even further. So as she says of sausages...
Cara Nicoletti: They are sort of the original, sustainable meat, because you can use all the scraps. They are the thing that made my family's business run. That and ground beef.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting that you say that sausage is the original sustainable food, but then there's also this perception that in that throwing a bunch of stuff in and grinding it altogether, that something gross ends up in there. So how do you combat that?
Cara Nicoletti: That is a big thing and I think a lot of it is just education of customers and also transparency about everything. I think my mind really shifted when I was butchering whole animals myself, where it was like, "Oh, the entire animal really is edible." There aren't parts that are good or bad. It’s not gonna hurt you, it’s still meat.
Dan Pashman: And also, it's so funny to me, the way that we have this sort of hierarchy of body parts.
Cara Nicoletti: Yeah, it's very strange.
Dan Pashman: So it's weird if there's chicken feet ground up into your food, but it's not weird that you'll pick up an actual chicken's leg and bite into it.
Cara Nicoletti: Yes, I know.
Dan Pashman: I mean, those things are weird when you think too much about them.
Cara Nicoletti: Meat is weird in general, and it's like when you even just—the knowledge that meat is muscle. People don't like that, when you say that.
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Cara Nicoletti: I think there's also the perception of like, where that part of the animal's body was. Was it on the ground? Was it sniffing the ground? And I understand that I really do. Our meat is just meat. But I guess I would just ask consumers, like if you ate a hot dog and it was delicious and you were into the whole thing from start to finish, and then you found out there was some ground-up snout or ears in it. Why does that matter?
Dan Pashman: What do you want a hot dog that's only got filet mignon in it. I mean, like come on.
Cara Nicoletti: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: So after years of development, Cara has her meat and veggie sausages. She plans to leave The Meat Hook and open her very own shop to sell them. But that’s not what happens. Coming up, one meeting sets Cara on a very different course. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you haven’t already, check out our last episode, about Plantation Rum’s decision to change its name. You may recall that Plantation Rum is the product that inspired our episode about the word plantation in food branding. Food writer Osayi Endolyn was in that one, and she returns to co-host this new one. We explore why it’s so hard for companies, and a lot of white people in general to acknowledge the realities of history.
CLIP (OSAYI ENDOLYN): And really there are two truths. You know, I think we can find ways of claiming both. This terrible thing happened. And there are terrible, terrible ongoing results of this big thing called slavery and its impact on people of African descent. And in this conversation, also, some really incredible things emerged too, like rum. How do we hold both of those truths at the same time?
Dan Pashman: Osayi and I also talk to rum expert Shannon Mustipher, who shares her thoughts on the name change, along with some cocktail recipes. That one’s up now. Check it out. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Now back to Cara Nicoletti. When Cara first thought about starting her own sausage company, she envisioned a little shop of her own. As she started seeking investments, she met Erin Patinkin, who had co-founded a bakery chain in New York called Ovenly. Cara shared her sausage shop dreams and Erin told her something she hadn’t heard before: You’re not thinking big enough. Erin said, "Forget a little sausage shop. You should be selling to supermarkets across the country. You should launch a national brand."
Cara Nicoletti: Oh my god, it was revolutionary because for years I'd sort of been told to be quiet and stay in my lane and pay my dues. And there's a lot of that in kitchens and in food. And it was completely revolutionary. First of all, to have someone say to me, you aren't thinking big enough. And second of all, for it to be a woman, because I had like no women role models. A lot of really amazing men, but no women role models.
Dan Pashman: Cara and Erin decided to join forces. Another partner, Ariel Hauptman, also signed on to work with them. For their company to be a national brand, Cara would need to find co-packers, basically, meat processing plants that would make her product for her. That proved to be difficult. It’s an old industry, with companies run by older people, mostly men. They knew how to process meat, but veggies? That was a new wrinkle. All those complications we discussed earlier about putting vegetables in a sausage, the way water affects meat --- Cara had solved all that in her test kitchen. But working on a mass scale is very different. A lot of the companies didn’t want to deal with it.
Dan Pashman: On one hand, you're coming to them with a new idea that requires a lot of extra work to make it happen. And I'm sure that's one obstacle. How much do you think it was also in their heads that they were like, “What? A lady butcher? What? Now I’ve seen it all!”
Cara Nicoletti: It's funny because we're all—like my two partners, too. We're all women because they were the best people to partner with. They were the smartest people and I think still, when we go into these meetings, a lot of times people, the guys will like sort of laugh at us at first and sort of be like, "Okay, whatever little girls." But then we start talking and they kinda like to test you and start throwing questions your way. And once you can answer them all, they respect you maybe even more.
Dan Pashman: In the end, Cara approached a hundred co-packers before she found one in Missouri that would give her a shot. Things were starting to fall into place. As Cara got into branding and marketing for this new company, she began to see that being a woman might actually be an advantage.
Cara Nicoletti: We do associate meat with men so much, and if you look in the meat aisle and you look at all the branding in the meat aisle, it is all so masculine. And the buying power in grocery stores is women. It absolutely is moms and it's women. If you look at our packages on the shelves, they stand out a lot which was pretty easy to do because I early on did a very deep market dive on like the branding in that aisle. And it's like, there were four colors that people are using. It's like hunter green, a dark red, black, and white.
Dan Pashman: And I picture like all the lettering and all the packages are like big, thick block letters with screws in the corners of the letters as if they'd been bolted onto the package by some heavy machinery.
Cara Nicoletti: Totally and a hundred percent. And there's always a picture of a man's face somewhere on there.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Cara Nicoletti: And sort of like this illusion that it came from a farm, even though it probably came from Tyson. Right off the bat, we're like, it's going to be easy to stand out just making it more colorful. Making it colors that you don’t see in that aisle.
Dan Pashman: And given, I think, the packaging has not only a lot of colors that you don't typically see, but just sort of like a fun kind of silly vibe, as opposed to this, look at this meat kind of vibe.
Cara Nicoletti: Exactly and I don't want to shame people. And I think there's sort of like these two camps. I think there's the farm to table camp, which is that sort of sanctimonious, save the world. And then there's the, who cares about the world. I just want to eat meat. So we're trying to sort of fall in the middle of that, where it's like, just do your best. And it's a really delicious way to do your best.
Dan Pashman: So Cara had her sausages, a company to make them for her, and a vision for the packaging. To sell her product in the supermarket, she just needed one more thing: A name for the company. She decided to call it Seemore Meats and Veggies. She spells it, S-E-E-M-O-R-E, as in, "You can see more." It was a nod to her grandpa Seymour, and to the idea of letting customers “see more” of what’s in the sausages.
Dan Pashman: Seemore officially launched in February of this year. They’re available online and in more than 200 stores around the country, including a bunch of Whole Foods. Cara sent me some sausages to try, and the day before we talked, I had a feast. They were so good. I feel like, if I hadn’t been paying attention I might not have even noticed they were one third veggies. The subtle differences? Some of the sausages had little crunchy bits of vegetables. And you know when you bite into a regular sausage there’s lots of juice, which is basically liquid fat. But when you bite into these, some of the juice that comes out is water, which I really liked. I mean, these sausages are plenty meaty but they're just a little lighter. As I told Cara...
Dan Pashman: Look. I love sausage, but I also feel like when you get a sausage that’s just full of fat, like a couple of bites is really good but by the time you get to the end of the sausage, you gotta take a nap.
Cara Nicoletti: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I feel like garbage, you know? The sausage is just like absolutely scratched a meaty hearty, delicious itch, but also in a way that I felt great afterwards.
Cara Nicoletti: Awesome, I love to hear that.
Dan Pashman: The one that especially blew my mind was the beet one.
Cara Nicoletti: Yes. It's really...that's the one that we knew going into it that it would be the probably the slowest seller because it's such a shocking color.
Dan Pashman: Right. It's flat out purple. It is a bright purple, beet colored sausage.
Cara Nicoletti: It's purple.
Dan Pashman: And I like beets. I don't love beets, but like, so what's it—tell folks what's in that sausage.
Cara Nicoletti: It's based on a sweet Italian sausage. Fresh beets, pork fennel, garlic, that's it pretty much. The thing that people don't understand and don't believe is that you don't have to like beets to like the sausage. My dad literally would not go near a beet ever and he eats those all the time.
Dan Pashman: I decided to grill them. I was opening them up and my daughter, my nine-year-old daughter—of course that one catches her eye because it's so bright.
Cara Nicoletti: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: She goes, "What is that?" And she loves meat and she loves a lot of foods. And I said, "It's a sausage with beets in it." And she goes, "Why would someone do that to a sausage?"
Cara Nicoletti: I totally understand.
Dan Pashman: I know. And I was skeptical too but it's funny, like, yes, sweet Italian sausage. The vibe that I got from it was like breakfast, sausage.
Cara Nicoletti: Yeah, it has a sweetness to it.
Dan Pashman: And in the same way that like a breakfast sausage would often have brown sugar added.
Cara Nicoletti: Exactly. And sweet Italian sausage, most of the time, has sugar added to them too. So replacing beet with that sugar just did something really magical.
Dan Pashman: There's also the broccoli melt. That one's got pork broccolini, spicy pepperoncini, garlic and Monterey Jack cheese. And I love that I actually hadn't quite put it together until I read it on your website, but this is your take on a Philly roast pork sandwich.
Cara Nicoletti: Yes. So which would be broccoli rabe, long hots, provolone, and roasted pork.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Cara Nicoletti: I kind of like muted those flavors a little bit to make them appeal to more people. But that one is my favorite and I think it's a surprise favorite.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. So Cara, this may be the most important question of all. What's the best way to eat one of your sausages?
Cara Nicoletti: Oh man. So I really like to cook with the sausages. Like, I mean, I love them just on a Martin's potato roll with chips and mustard and cheese on them, but, I like to cook with them and I really love, really love all of them in pasta. The broccoli melt and the beet, especially. I like to take them out of their casing and crumble them and brown them. I have a recipe on the website for broccoli melt orecchiette that's like...it's so good. It's so good. I think a lot of times people look at these and they're like, what do I do with this? And the answer is just do whatever you would do with a normal sausage with these.
Dan Pashman: When you take the sausage out of its casing and what happens to the casing?
Cara Nicoletti: You throw the casing away.
Dan Pashman: Well, that feels a bit like a tragedy, Cara.
Cara Nicoletti: I totally understand. So the chicken ones—it should be said, do not have a casing on them because we didn't want to do any pork in the chicken sausage. If you take it out of the casing and toss the casing that's—you're right. That's hard. You could crisp the casing up in the pan and just eat it?
Dan Pashman: Look. There's more than one way to eat a sausage. But to me, if you pierce the casing with anything, but your teeth, you are depriving yourself of one of the really—like that bite. When you bite through a natural casing, you know?
Cara Nicoletti: Yes.
Dan Pashman: When your teeth first started to come down and it's kind of like, it's bending, it's bending, it's...you know, you're sinking your...and then snap. When you snap.
Cara Nicoletti: I'm so with you.
Dan Pashman: And it pops and the juices and the flavors come pouring out.
Cara Nicoletti: Very primal.
Dan Pashman: That is an absolute hall of fame bite right there. Like....
Cara Nicoletti: Yeah. A hundred percent. Yes.
Dan Pashman: What's the Holy grail. Like what's the....
Cara Nicoletti: My thing that I'm like, I want so badly is I want to be able to put cabbage in but when it cooks it kind of like releases—because it has lactic acid in it, which makes the meat mushy.
Dan Pashman: Why cabbage? Why do you want that one so badly?
Cara Nicoletti: It was part of a recipe that I really loved. And I just...I can make it work without it but it also was really beautiful. It was purple. And I just was very, very set on it but we made me and our, one of our co-packers, made like so many rounds of it and it was just like, "Yeah, we gotta just give this one up." I don't know, maybe someday.
Dan Pashman: In the beginning, Grandpa Seymour was really worried about Cara becoming a butcher but now that Seemore Sausages are on shelves across the country?
Cara Nicoletti: He really loves them. Yeah. It took him some time to understand. Like I remember years ago bringing him sausages that I was making that were like chicken potsticker sausages. And he was like, "What the hell is this?" But you eat it and then you get it. And it's...yeah. He's a big fan. And very, very emotional about the name. He wanted me to call it Cara's Kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Why is he emotional about the name?
Cara Nicoletti: He just doesn't understand why I named it after him. He thinks that I should have been calling my own name out, but he is my greatest role model.
Dan Pashman: That’s Cara Nicoletti, founder and chief creative officer of Seemore Meats and Veggies. By the way, I think we should all aspire to have the title of chief creative officer at a sausage company. You can follow Seemore on Instagram, @eatseemore.
Dan Pashman: Please follow our podcast in Spotify. Or if you listen in Apple Podcasts, subscribe. Go ahead you can do it right now, while you’re listening. That way you’ll never miss an episode. An episode like our last one, about Plantation Rum’s decision to change its name. That one’s up now, check it out. Thanks.