As an Irish/Italian growing up in northern New Jersey, I considered March the month of the dueling saints: Patrick and Joseph. As a Sunday-sauce family, we only tolerated corned beef and cabbage once a year; Sicilian food was on our table much more often.
Many people in the world know St. Joseph as the humble carpenter who was the father of Christ on earth. In Sicily he is the patron saint, to whom is attributed the victory over famine during the drought of the Middle Ages, by bringing rain and making the land fertile again. Out of gratitude for the answered prayers, the people promised to honor him every year with a generous feast.
Sicilian observers celebrated food altars in their homes, as well as in churches, schools and public places. Each sentence has a symbolic meaning. The bread ovens are shaped like crowns, hearts, crosses and even carpenter’s tools. Piles of dried beans – remembered as the first harvest that returned after Joseph brought the rain – abundance, resilience and hope. Products such as artichokes, chickpeas, fennel, citrus fruits, figs, tomatoes and carrots reflect the richness of Sicily. And there’s always lots of pastries – zeppole, cannoli, cookies and cakes. (Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of confectioners).
It’s a wonderful festival where people come together, cook, laugh and eat.
Another important part of the day is feeding the hungry by delivering food and volunteering at churches, homes, nursing homes and soup kitchens. At home the feast consists of altar food, pasta and fish (never meat, because it’s hunger season).
Nowhere in the United States is this holiday celebrated with such fervor in New Orleans, the center of Sicilian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The century. My own interest in the holiday was rekindled after a visit to Avo’s Uptown Restaurant, where I was treated to a carefully constructed altar and an elaborate St. Joseph’s meal prepared by one of the city’s most talented chefs.
Avo’s chef-owner, Nick Lama, is a third-generation Sicilian-American and began hosting parties at the restaurant in 2016, a year after it opened. Her mother, Lisa Saya, takes care of the altar every year. I’ve been celebrating my whole life, she said. It’s a wonderful festival where people come together, cook, laugh and eat. But there is also the tradition of feeding the hungry and caring for the community.
Every year on March 19, Mr. Lama opens the restaurant early so neighbors can visit the alley and enjoy a buffet of salads, stuffed artichokes, macaroons, cookies and sweets. In the evening, a festive menu is offered featuring Sicilian ingredients in dishes such as snapper with broad beans, chickpeas, wild mushrooms and olive tapenade. The menu changes from year to year, but one item is sacred: Pasta Milano, despite its name, is Sicilian through and through. Saint Joseph’s specialty is also called pasta con le sarde and consists of bucatini stuffed with sardines or anchovies and a sauce of tomato, onion and fennel, all sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs that symbolize the sawdust from Saint Joseph’s workshop.
In the past, more than 200 people visited Avo’s Altar during the day, and in the evening the restaurant was completely full. This year, Mr. Lama will host an intimate group at the altar and serve a limited number of dinners due to Covid-19 restrictions.
And for those who want to celebrate at home, there’s a handy new guide just in time for the holidays: Celebrate with the altars of St. Peter. Joseph. The history, recipes and symbols of the New Orleans tradition by Sandra Scalise Juneau (March 10, LSU Press). The book contains 60 recipes for traditional holiday dishes. Ms. Juneau, who has long lectured on the subject, is perhaps the most important curator at St. Joseph’s. She has organized exhibitions everywhere from the Hallmark Gallery in New York to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans to the permanent collection of the Southern Food and Drink Museum in New Orleans.
While researching for her book, Juneau noticed a renewed interest in St. Joseph’s Day in the United States. When people left after Katrina, they took their food traditions with them and spread them beyond our borders, she said.
A faithful appeal to St. Joseph for intercession, even during the plague. A celebration and a prayer certainly won’t hurt. People have no sense of community and personal connection because they are so isolated today, Lama said. An event like the celebration of St Joseph’s is a breath of fresh air and a reminder for people to work together for the common good.
I love this pasta because all the ingredients speak Sicilian, says Nick Lama, chef at Avo restaurant in New Orleans. Red peppers are spicy, while sweet tomatoes, fragrant fennel and salty anchovies harmonize. The breadcrumbs provide a delicious crunch.
CHELSEA KYLE FOR STREET MAGAZINE, FOOD STYLING BY PEARLS, ACCESSORIES BY VANESSA VAZQUEZ
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 Sardine fillets, chopped
- 1 gelbe Zwiebel, finely grained
- 1 Piebald Fenchel, finely grained
- 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 Teelöffel rostetete, geschrotete Fenchelsamen
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup white wine
- 1 can (28 oz) whole San Marzano tomatoes, peeled
- 1 Pfund Bucatini or Spaghetti
- 1 cup toasted breadcrumbs
- Sea salt
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the anchovies and cook until golden brown, 1 minute.
- Add the onion, fennel and garlic and sweat until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
- Add the fennel seeds, black pepper, red pepper flakes and a few pinches of salt. Cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
- Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom and cooking until the liquid has reduced to a third, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Crush the tomatoes by hand or run them through a food mill and add them to the pan. Let the sauce simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened (45 minutes). Taste and add salt if necessary.
- When the sauce is ready, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package until al dente. Drain the pasta and mix it with the sauce. Sprinkle the pasta with toasted Italian breadcrumbs and serve.
-Educated by Nick Lama, of Avo, New Orleans. -Educated by Nick Lama, of Avo, New Orleans.
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