St. Joseph’s Feast Day, A Sicilian Tradition Alive in Queens

Happy St. Joseph’s Day!!!

My hunch is that you’ve most likely heard of St. Patrick’s Day but St. Joseph’s Day? Not so much.

As the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus, St. Joseph is the patron saint of families and heads of families, workers, and for a peaceful death. We know very little about his life according to the Gospel texts but the small bits of information we do have indicate a life where he had to make some pretty tough decisions. It has been argued that he lived in an age of anxiety, much like we do today.

Popular lore says that Sicilians beseeched St. Joseph for rain during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. In response to answered prayers, they celebrated his feast day on March 19 by attending Mass and preparing a table filled with an abundance of food. This table has come to be known as a St. Joseph’s Altar, full of loaves of bread and baked goods shaped into popular Christian symbols. It also includes wine, fish, and other symbols that typically represent St. Joseph such as lilies, hammers, and nails. Even breadcrumbs may be found on the table representing the sawdust of a carpenter. Meat is absent from the altar because the feast day falls during the season of Lent when Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays. Altars are a physical space used to create a connection between the human and divine worlds. In this case, believers use the St. Joseph altar to place a petition or give thanks for prayers answered.  This tradition arrived in America with the Sicilian immigrants but it has spread to other ethnic groups who are interested in celebrating St. Joseph.  In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the creation of a St. Joseph altar is shared by many members of the Catholic community.

In my household, we celebrate St. Joseph’s Day for several reasons. My Italian-American husband is one-quarter Sicilian and he and many of his ancestors are named Joseph. Today, we eat a traditional dessert called Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s cream puff), a puff pastry filled with either a vanilla custard or ricotta cream (think cannoli) filling.  To buy my pastries, I head to the quintessential Queens neighborhood known for its large Italian-American population, Howard Beach, home to American Idol contestant Pia Toscano and the late John Gotti, former head of the Gambino organized crime family.  Here, I go to Pasticceria La Torre for deliciously fresh and authentic Italian pastries and baked goods.  Their St. Joseph’s cakes are no exception (below left is one filled with vanilla custard and on the right is the one filled with ricotta cream)!

I also cook Pasta con Sarde or in Sicilian, Pasta chi Sardi, a traditional Sicilian pasta dish with sardines and fennel. It is said that wild fennel and sardines are abundant at this time of year all throughout the island. In Palermo, this dish is called Pasta di San Giuseppe in honor of St. Joseph.  The recipe I use is from Micheal Franco‘s blog, Live to Eat.

Buona Festa di San Giuseppe!

Pasticceria La Torre
158-12 Crossbay Boulevard
Howard Beach, NY  11414
(718) 843-2306

Doubles, Mauby, Aloo Pie, Oh My!

The best part about Queens?  Hands down, the food, because the incredible variety of options reflects the rich diversity of the borough’s people.

Out of curiosity, I recently listed all the cuisines I’ve ever had in Queens:  American, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, western China), Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Veitnamese, Thai, Chinese (including the regional flavors of Dongbei, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Cypriot, Bosnian/Balkan, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Irish.

That’s 37 cuisines from around the world, yo!  37!!!  And there’s still so much more to try!

The third week’s challenge charged me to eat in a neighborhood I rarely visit.  After contemplating my options, I decided to not only go to a less familiar neighborhood but to also try a cuisine I’ve never had before: Indo-Caribbean.  I headed to Richmond Hill with a well-established West Indian population particularly from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

I selected Singh’s Roti Shop after doing research online and getting recommendations from friends.  Dishes and drinks I’ve never heard before–doubles, aloo pie, buss up shot, salt fish and bake, mauby, sorrel, sea moss, and peanut punch–I wanted to try.

Upon entering Singh’s, my senses were immediately overloaded.  The huge line extended from the counter to the door, at least 40 feet.  To while away the time, people in line and families seated at tables watched TV transfixed.  It played music videos of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and various West Indian artists while the sound blared from floor speakers.  The television jockey seemed to suffer from ADD because he changed the video every 2 minutes, never completing any one song.  During my 30 minute wait, I observed what seemed like satisfied customers leaving with bags…and trays, MULTIPLE TRAYS, of food.  If impatient New Yorkers are willing to wait long, then the food must be delicious.  I got excited!

When I reached the counter, I saw at least 10 Singh employees taking orders and dishing out food.  I asked my server a question but the high glass counter filled with numerous to-go containers prevented eye contact and the loud blaring music made it really hard to hear each other.  I asked for clarification on the menu and I got a “hold on”.  She suddenly disappeared to the kitchen, returned minutes later, and proceeded to take another customer!  I tried to get her attention. Heck, I tried to get anyone’s attention but all were busy.  After another 7 minute wait, my server yelled “next” and I went back to her and asked why she didn’t serve me.    She came up with this crazy line about how long the line was and that I had to wait.

And then, I LOST IT.

I got all New York on her, ActionJoJo-style!  Despite my yelling still sounding like a whisper thanks to the loud music, she begrudgingly took my order….which she eventually got wrong.

Clockwise from center left: aloo pie, doubles, sorrel and mauby (drinks), chicken roti.

I got doubles, an aloo pie, a roti chicken and to drink I decided to try sorrel and mauby. The roti chicken reminded me of its Malaysian cousin, chicken roti canai sans the coconut milk in the curry. The West-Indian roti is far thicker and bigger, which makes it heartier to absorb the delicious sauce.  Without coconut milk in the curry, it was less creamy but still full of flavor.  Shaped like a tapered submarine sandwich with a slit on its side, the aloo pie surprised me.  I did not expect the consistency of the fried dough to remind me of an Italian zeppola filled with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes instead of ricotta cheese.  My favorite by far was the doubles, a chickpea curry filling between two pieces of baras bread.  The juxtaposition of the hearty and spicy creaminess of the chickpeas between the thin soft pieces of baras made the dish delicious partly because of taste and mostly because of texture.  I came to understand how it is a popular snack food in Trinidad:  light enough to not make you feel full but heavy enough to tide you over until your next real meal.  The sorrel was essentially a fruit punch but the mauby was more complex:  earthy and herby, akin to a non-carbonated homemade root beer that started semi-sweet and ended with a bitter aftertaste.

Flags of countries from the region

Now that I’ve sampled West Indian cuisine, I would definitely eat it again.  Much of the population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago descended from Africans and Indians who arrived as slaves or indentured workers.  Even the Chinese ended up in these countries, which is why you’ll see lo mein, chow mein, and fried rice on the menu.  I tried to sample the “Singh’s Special Fried Rice” for comparison but they were out.

I would not suggest going to Singh’s if you are a first timer like me unless you are accompanied by someone who knows how to order.  I would’ve been better suited going to a sit-down restaurant serviced by wait staff who could answer my questions and explain the menu.  If you have any suggestions of places like these, leave them in the comments!  I’ll wait to go back to Singh’s until I’m far more familiar with the menu.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar
131-14 Liberty Avenue
South Richmond Hill, NY  11419
(718) 323-599

A train to Lefferts Boulevard
M-Thu 6am-12am; Fri 6am-2am;
Sat 5:30am-2am; Sun 5:30am-12am

Thesis FINALLY Emailed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OMG. I can’t believe it. I just emailed it to my two readers. It’s late and I’m giving them precious few days to review it. I sure hope that they just pass me. Ugh.

OK, so I know it’s a bit premature but I don’t care. I’m celebrating. First, a happy dance. Then some wine. Then bed. I’m so exhausted that I can’t see straight…but not too exhausted to shake my booty for 3 minutes!!

I’ve had George Michael’s “Freedom” runnin’ through my head these last two weeks as I’ve tried to intellectualize Filipino balikbayans and balikbayan boxes. It’s been a living hell, lemme tell you. I would NOT recommend working full-time and pursuing part-time graduate study if you can somehow help it. These last 3 weeks SUCKED!! Actually, these last 2.5 years have been pretty rough. Be prepared to say goodbye to your life.

Hopefully, in two weeks, I’ll get to say hello to my life again!! YEAH! FREEEEEDOM!!!