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

Viva Sicilia!

When I hear “Sicily”, two synonymous things automatically spring to my mind:  “The Godfather” and the mafia.  But Sicily is far more than the clichéd images the media has permanently impressed in my head.

As I flew into the airport* in Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, I was struck by the view outside my window:  an island with a mountainous landscape with cities tucked in between its valleys.  The land was green and fertile.  The Sicily I had in my mind would soon be displaced by the Sicily I would come to know.

View outside the airplane near Palermo

View from the plane flying into Palermo

When I first started dating my light-eyed, blond-haired Italian-American husband, I used to marvel at the red hair that would emerge when his beard grew out.  He did not look like the “typical” Italian-Americans I was used to growing up with in New York City.

“Are you sure you don’t have some Irish in you?” I used to ask him.

“As far as I can tell, all of my family comes from Italy.”

“What kind of Italian are you?!  I’ve never met a fair-skinned, light-eyed Sicilian in my life!” I exclaimed.

“Sicily was invaded and conquered by so many people,” he patiently explained and then eventually mused, “Maybe I have some Viking blood in me…”

“Vikings?!  In Sicily?!  You can’t be serious.”  Suddenly, an image of an overdressed Viking in his fur vest and helmet sweating in the Mediterranean sun popped into my head.

It all makes sense if you stop to think about it.  Examine a map and you’ll see that Sicily is at the epicenter of the Mediterranean Sea, which was a major conduit for exchange and trade between various people, tribes, and empires.  And here I thought globalization was a contemporary phenomenon!!  The one who controls the sea, controls the economy.  And the one who controls the economy has access to power.  Get my drift?  Control Sicily, control a strategic location within a busy superhighway of trading routes in the Mediterranean.

The indigenous people of the island, known as Sicels, were eventually greeted by the Greeks in the 8th century BC followed by the Pheonicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Lombards (these last three were Germanic tribes), the Arabs, the Normans of northern France (here’s where the Vikings entered the scene since the Normans were apparently descended from the Vikings as well as the Franks, Romans, and Celts), the Hohenstaufen (German kings), the Spanish, and the Bourbons.  All of these groups ruled Sicily before the unification of the Italian states in the middle of the 19th century.

Present-day Sicily and its people represent hundreds of years of intermingled cultures.  This mixing is most palpable in the island’s art and architecture, language, religion, and food.  It is not uncommon to visit a former theater built by the Greeks that was later converted into an amphitheater by the Romans or a church that was previously a mosque.

Greek theater in Taormina

So if you happen to meet a red-haired Sicilian one day, don’t question it.  Just think Norman…or better yet, think Viking.

* Alright, fine.  The airport in Palermo is called Falcone-Borsellino in memory of two prominent anti-mafia judges who were murdered by the mafia in 1992.  ::sigh::  Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in…

Palermo’s Old Gate, which marked the entrance to the formerly fortified city

Detail of Palermo’s Old Gate