By Trent Friedel
Normally, the St. Joseph feast day and its proximity to Saint Patrick’s Day bring festive traditions to south Louisiana. Saint Patrick’s Day has parties and parades in the Irish channel and green beer flows freely from the taps at iconic locations such as Parasol’s and Tracey’s. After that, St. Joseph day is celebrated Feb. 19. Saint Joseph is the patriarch of the holy family. The traditions on his feast day take the form of Italian American and Irish-Italian parades in New Orleans and Metairie. Many of these traditions are carry overs from Sicily, the origin of many immigrants to New Orleans and surrounding areas in the late 19th century. Sicilians regard St. Joseph as their patron Saint and as such pay him much homage during his feast day.
Giving food to the needy is one of the customs of the feast day. That food takes the form of decorative altars that are made up of delicious items prepared in the days leading up to his feast day. They are then distributed to the community after being assembled, visited by the community and blessed. Pasta Milanese is the main dish served to the parishioners and visitors alike on St. Joseph’s Day. The altars feature a central figure of Saint Joseph and then are separated into three sections representing the trinity of God; the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Decoration on the altar includes a wide variety of items, some with specific meaning and folklore. Figurines, medals, flowers, wine and votive candles are included but the food items are central. These items include fish, cakes, elaborate breads fashioned as crucifixes, limes, lemons and several types of cookies.
Two of the main cookies are Cuccidati and Zeppole. The Cuccidati are fig filled cookies that are then covered with a colored sugar topping. The Zeppole di San Giuseppe are a slightly sweetened pastries filled and topped with a pastry cream and then dusted with powdered sugar. My mouth waters just writing about them. Other items on the altars have unique meaning and legendary stories attached. One item often served is the aforementioned Pasta Milanese with bread and breadcrumbs.
The breadcrumbs are said to represent sawdust since Saint Joseph was a carpenter. The lucky bean, or fava bean, is something many Italians carry in a pocket or purse. Sicilian legend holds that Saint Joseph interceded for the Islanders during a famine in the middle ages. The people prayed to St. Joseph for relief and rain fell upon the land growing fava beans that fed the people. Since that time, the people of Sicily have prepared large altars annually to honor their patron for his deliverance from the drought. Pupa cu l’ova is another item you might see, bread baked with dyed eggs symbolizing the coming of Easter.
Many citruses adorn the altar and word is if you steal a lemon you will find a husband or wife, but you cannot get caught! With the lore, tradition and food, Saint Joseph’s day is a reverent time of prayer, generosity and spiritual connection. Make a trip next year to see these wonderful altars. I am sure you will not be disappointed.