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St. Joseph's Feast

Posted by Kathleen D'Ambra on February 27, 2017 at 5:10 PM

The Tradition of the Saint Joseph’s Day Table

 

Kevin Di Camillo

 

Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19th is, in Italy, also Father’s Day—which isn’t at all surprising as St. Joseph was, of course, the foster father of Jesus. This feast and festival—which always falls in the midst of Lent—is especially commemorated and celebrated in Italy in general and Sicily in particular.

 

 

The tradition of the “St. Joseph Table” of food (“la tavala di San Giuseppe”;) has its origins in Sicily. Legends from the Middle Ages attributed the end of a devastating drought to a prayer-devotion that the Sicilian people made to St. Joseph. This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to Saint Joseph. It is a shared celebration with the entire community where the riches of food are given as alms to the poor: Traditional etiquette is that no one can be turned away from this table. As it is a living tradition, it has many interpreters and many food entries have been added and deleted along the way but two constants remain: no meat and sesame-coated breads in symbolic shapes.

 

 

A St. Joseph’s Day “Table” or “Altar” is a makeshift shrine-cum-dinner-festival held in one’s home, or more recently a church hall or club hall. The host family or group creates what amounts to a kinetic work of art. This table is rife with symbolism, particularly the decorative breads. It was this part of the meal that brought my own family’s bakery in Niagara Falls to be a participant in hundreds of these celebrations. Sicilian bakers sprinkle copious amounts of sesame seeds—which resemble and symbolize teardrops—on the many different types of St. Joseph’s Day breads which our family bakery has been producing for 96 years.

 

The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the penitential season of Lent, and meat is forbidden on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”;), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardinia”, another Italian island), are served on Foccaccia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (a twice-baked Italian toast-bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, Egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils.

 

 

Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers, those who cannot host their own Table either due to poverty or a particularly bad harvest in their family or having run out of food over the wintertime. Stunning to behold and delicious to partake in, a Saint Joseph’s Day Table is a tradition which is still carried on to this day.

 

The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the penitential season of Lent, and meat is forbidden on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”;), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardinia”, another Italian island), are served on Foccaccia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (a twice-baked Italian toast-bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, Egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils.

 

 

Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers, those who cannot host their own Table either due to poverty or a particularly bad harvest in their family or having run out of food over the wintertime. Stunning to behold and delicious to partake in, a Saint Joseph’s Day Table is a tradition which is still carried on to this day.

 

The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the penitential season of Lent, and meat is forbidden on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”;), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardinia”, another Italian island), are served on Foccaccia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (a twice-baked Italian toast-bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, Egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils.

 

 

Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers, those who cannot host their own Table either due to poverty or a particularly bad harvest in their family or having run out of food over the wintertime. Stunning to behold and delicious to partake in, a Saint Joseph’s Day Table is a tradition which is still carried on to this day.

 

For those that still have room left, there is always dessert and St. Joseph's Day means the famous Zeppole di San Giuseppe. Zeppole are basically "Italian doughnuts" simply dusted with sugar, cinnamon and honey or (as usually found on the East Coast) filled with yellow cream and covered with whipped cream. Zeppole are delicious but where I grew up it seems that Pignolatta is more popular. Pignolatta (pronounced bin-u-lath-a in the dialect still heard in my town) is a pyramid of little fried pastry balls covered in honey, nuts and chocolate bits symbolic of a pine cone. Those of Neapolitan descent or other parts of Italy will know this dessert as Struffoli. Also served are equally filling fried ravioli filled with sweetened ricotta or chickpeas, but for those who want something lighter a citrus salad of oranges and lemons is found in many households.

 

 

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