The tradition of St. Joseph Day altars and tables began centuries ago in Sicily.
The Sicilians had been suffering from famine because of the country’s poor farming and little if no rainfall. When they could not provide for their families any longer, the Sicilians turned to their faith. They prayed to St. Joseph so they would have a successful crop and end the famine.
The farmers and fishermen gathered together to feed their country in the only way they knew how— by building altars in their homes and sharing their food in honor of St. Joseph.
The tradition is carried on today throughout Sicily and Italy and across America.
New Orleans is very famous for their altars throughout their city. Kansas City too celebrates St. Joseph Day. There are multiple altars built to honor him on his feast day. I was even surprised to find out this week from my friend Kate Emmett-Sweetser in the southeast Kansas town of Scammon celebrates St. Joseph at the St. Bridget's Parish Hall.
The feast of St. Joseph is celebrated by the Sicilians on March 19.
Preparations are made weeks in advance for the table including flowers, centerpieces of baked bread, seafood, cookies and cakes signifying St. Joseph.
Food that is presented on the altars involve a great deal of work. You will find works of art on these altars. All the food is obtained by begging and donations. The altars do not incur any expense.
Many customs are honored for the celebration and most altars give out a piece of bread known as Pane de San Giuseppe. Also many altars give out the blessed fava beans because everyone wants a lucky bean. The fava became a life-saving crop in Sicily and still treasured today as a way to honor St. Joseph.
The altar was one large table at first but then three steps were added to represent the Holy Trinity. As years past, the altars became larger and more dishes and traditions were added.
The breads on the table are shaped like a beard, a hammer, ladders, a staff, sandals and nails. Many of the breads are layered with figs, baked and designed by the ladies of the parish. A fresh green branch is placed over the doorway into the room of the altar which indicates that the public is invited to be involved in the ceremony and share the food.
Pignolati, fried cookies in the shape of pine cones, represent the toys Jesus played with as a child. Twelve whole fishes are placed on the table to represent the 12 apostles and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Grapes on the table represent vineyards. Olive oil and olive salad representing olive orchards and figs represent the fig trees in Sicily.
You will see lambs, Bibles, palms, wreaths, crosses, doves, hearts and chalices all representing the Catholic faith.
All of the tables/altars, including the food, candles and holy cards along with the fava beans are blessed the evening before by a priest.
Another very important part of the table is the pasta that is served. It is called Pasta alla Milanese or Pasta con Sarde and contains tomatoes, fresh fennel, currents, sardines and spices. Breadcrumbs (Modica) are served on top to represent the sawdust of St Joseph, the carpenter.
Cannolis are served along with fresh-baked Italian cookies but the most important dessert is called The San Giuseppe Zeppole, a cream puff like pastry filled with sweet Italian pastry cream and top with a cherry and dusted with powdered sugar.
I will visit Sicily this week with my nephew, celebrating the Feast of San Giuseppe, visiting altars in my family's hometowns of Gibellina and Corleone along with churches in Palermo and Menfi. Follow me onFacebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram
for updates and pictures.
Please note the list of tables around Kansas City and enjoy my Nana’s recipe for Zeppole. Buon San Giuseppe my friends!Nana Mirabile’s San Giuseppe Zeppole Makes 6 Zeppole 1 cup of water 1 cup of flour 1 tablespoon of Crisco or 1/2 cup butter Pinch salt 3 eggs
Bring water, Crisco and salt to boil in a small pot. Remove from heat. Add flour. Mix thoroughly. Add eggs, one at a time. Mixture will separate after adding each egg but do not worry. It will form back together.
Place mix in pastry bag and form a 3-inch puff onto a prepared baking sheet. Bake shells in a 400-degree oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown. Important that the puffs are golden/crisp or they may collapse. Remove from oven and cool completely and fill with Italian pastry cream. Top with a Maraschino Cherry. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.Italian Pastry Cream 3 egg yolks 1 tablespoon of butter 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract 2/3 cup of sugar 1/2 tablespoon of cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon of salt 1 tablespoon of flour 3 cups of milk
Mix flour and cornstarch and sugar in a 2-quart pot. Add milk until all mixed and bring to a boil. Whisk egg yolks in a bowl. Take 1/2 cup of hot milk and mix with eggs and then add them back to all of milk mixture. Add vanilla. Pastry cream will thicken. Remove from heat and pour in bowl.
Top with film so a crust does not form. Cool before refrigerating. Chill for three hours before filling Zeppole.
Several area Catholic churches are celebrating with St. Joseph Tables. For a complete listing of events, seethe story on The Catholic Key’s website
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.