Nina is the first real writer I ever knew. I met her when I was just finishing high school, her little brother was my boyfriend, a boy who would become my first real grown-up love (and a man who remains one of the most important people in my life to this day). I was enamored of Nina, of her entire family—how they sat on their porch and drank beer after beer late into the night and still managed to talk so intelligently, to tell stories about books and love, to challenge each other. I remember going to Nina’s apartment in Cambridge and looking surreptitiously around her room, touching beaded necklaces and smelling books and perfumes, thinking, this is the stuff of a writer.
After many years writing my favorite blog on the entire Internet, Nina’s first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter came out last week from W.W. Norton. At its simplest, Hammer Head is a memoir about Nina’s decision to leave her job at a newspaper and try her hand at becoming a carpenter. But, of course, it’s so much more than that. It’s a book about fucking up and trying again, about turning your entire life on its head and losing your mind in order to find peace. It’s about what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated trade, and what it means to be a woman, period. It’s about patience and anger and love and the terror and excitement of hoping that your life could be different—fuller—than you ever imagined.
It has always struck me as interesting that despite the difference in the paths we took, Nina and I ended up in roughly the same position—as writers whose day job involves working in traditionally male fields. On the most basic level our jobs are actually completely opposite. Her job is to build up, and mine is to break down. She starts with nothingness and ends up with somethingness. I start with a thing that is massive, whole, and end up with smaller parts that are themselves an entirely new thing. In the end, though, the goal is the same—we are both of us just the means to an end. Building a bookcase means envisioning someone plucking her favorite book from that very shelf and curling up, to build the frame of a house means picturing an entire life. For me, taking the entirety of an animal and breaking it into smaller parts—deboning and frenching and tying into roasts—always means imagining someone, or a family, eating. In one of my favorite passages, Nina talks about this metamorphosis, saying:
I put my palm down on a sanded-smooth plank of black walnut and I feel like vibration there, I see the galaxy-swirl grain, and I think of the tree that stood there to make this board, its roots veining deep into the soil, dark and warm, its long branches, its feather-shaped leaves in the wind, at sway and still. And here it is now, beneath my hand, joined, glued, clamped, turning into a table. A thing becoming other than it was.
“What was is now no more,” writes Ovid, “And what was not has come to be. Renewal is the lot of time.” We are all unfinished after all.
One of the great powers of reading is the way that books seem to find you at precisely the right time, and that is certainly true of this book. In the past couple of months, while undergoing a transformation of my own, I’ve read the book several times, and have been rereading certain passages in my darkest moments. This one in particular:
The jobs change. We go in and out of other people’s homes. A room becomes a different room, altered, with some of its essence intact. Loose tiles become a floor. Boards become shelves. Wood becomes a wall. Places change. Homes change. Weather changes. We change.
How do we decide what’s right for our own lives? The question never gets any easier to answer. If we’re lucky and we pay attention, pieces here and there will start to fit together. Parts shift into place, feel flush underneath the skin of the fingertip. For a moment, the bubble dips and shifts to show you level, at home with what you are, what you have become, and what you are becoming.
It seems fitting to me that in a book that has barely any food, sausages are mentioned several times in Hammer Head. Nina’s boss, Mary brings Tupperwares of sausages and white beans in tomato sauce to work, one of the electricians Nina works with raises pigs for slaughter and talks of the one-pound bags of sausage overtaking his house. And, after building him a bookcase, Nina’s father makes a big batch of thick sausage and white bean soup, warming the bowls with hot water before serving it to her. It feels fitting because sausage-making is one of the things I love most about working as a butcher—it’s the thing I gravitated to immediately when I started this work five years ago. Unlike the brute force, the ripping and tearing and popping that comes with most of whole-animal butchery, there is a finesse to sausage-making, a careful quietness that always brings me peace. And there is, too, the miracle of something becoming another thing entirely—of a pig becoming a pork shoulder becoming a sausage becoming a meal.
Roasted Garlic and Swiss Chard Sausage
Makes 2 pounds, or 5-6 links
4 large garlic cloves
5 large leaves Swiss Chard
2 pounds ground pork shoulder (should be about 70% lean to 30% fat), chilled
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
zest of ½ lemon
¼ cup white wine, chilled
1 hog casing, rinsed (optional)
Place garlic cloves in a very small pot and cover with just enough olive oil to submerge them. Cut a circle of parchment paper the size of the pot opening and cut an x in the middle of it. Place the parchment paper flush to the garlic cloves in the pot. Cook over medium-low heat until the cloves are deeply golden brown and fragrant—keep peeking under that paper, you don’t want them to burn! Strain the oil out (save it, it’s delicious for marinating meat or using in a salad dressing or just dipping bread in). Set the roasted garlic cloves aside to cool.
Separate the center stem from your chard leaves and mince both the stem and the leaves as finely as you can. Now take your cooled roasted garlic and mince that as finely as you can too (it should form almost a paste).
Place your chilled ground pork in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and add the salt, pepper, lemon zest, minced chard and roasted garlic. Mix for exactly 1 minute.
Add the chilled white wine and mix for exactly 1 more minute.
At this point, if you have a stuffer and you want to stuff and link the sausage, go for it! I’ve got some tips in this post and a video here to help you along. This sausage is really beautiful un-cased though, so don’t fret if you don’t have a stuffer. You can patty the sausage and eat it as a savory breakfast sausage with eggs, or crumble it into your pasta, or use it to make sausage and tomato and white beans like Mary or white bean soup like Nina’s dad.
Tonight is Nina’s book launch party at Housing Works Bookstore. She will be reading selections from the book, and I will be reading, along with Rosie Schaap (Drinking with Men), and Kate Bolick (Spinster). It’s free and the drinks are free and it will be a really, really fun time.