St. Joseph's Day: A Sampling of Foodways
The St. Joseph's Day Table is a primarily Italian American tradition that honors the saint on his feast day, March 19. It recalls the answer to prayers for rain from drought-stricken faithful in Sicily in the Middle Ages, and their subsequent offering of a meal for travelers, strangers, the poor and the entire community in thanksgiving. This video takes you to a Table hosted by Bernice Hotchkiss in 2019, where she describes the foods and recalls how she began learning the recipes from older women in her community. The accompanying notes give more details on the traditional foods, their symbolism and current practice in western New York.
In the Roman Catholic Church, March 19 marks the feast day of St. Joseph, husband to Mary, foster father to Jesus, and the patron saint of carpenters, the poor, travelers, and of Palermo, Sicily. Traditionally, Sicilians and their Italian American descendants observe the day by creating a devotional altar and grand meal, known as a St. Joseph’s Table. It may be offered by an individual, family, or a church community.
As the story goes, the Table originated in the Middle Ages, Sicily experienced a severe drought near the end of the 13 th century. No crops could grow, and people were dying of famine and disease. The people prayed to God and asked St. Joseph, one of their patron saints, to intercede on their behalf and send rain. Miraculously rain did come, crops were planted and grew. At the harvest time the people prepared an outdoor feast from their bounty in thanksgiving for answered prayers, which gained the name “Tavola de San Giuseppe.” The meal was open to all people with a special welcome to travelers and strangers, to extend God’s compassion that had been shown to the hosts of the tavola.
The tradition traveled to America with Italian immigrants, especially those coming from Sicily. In western New York, St. Joseph’s Tables have been celebrated for decades in cities such as Buffalo, Rochester and Batavia, and also in smaller towns like Mt. Morris, Elba and LeRoy. In addition to honoring the saint, one might also pray for other needs or “favors” and sponsor a St. Joseph’s Table to show thanks when the requests were granted. The petition, however, could not be for personal gain or benefit. Common requests were (and are) for a safe return of a loved one from war, or cure and recovery from serious illness or accident.
The foods prepared for guests on a St. Joseph’s Table carry layers of meaning and symbolism that have evolved through time and across oceans. They primarily represent the common food of the peasants who prepared the first Table or, as Bernice Falsone Hotchkiss of Mt. Morris, learned it, “anything of the land and the sea.”
We do not know when the first Tables were held, but when March 19 was established as St. Joseph’s Day, this put the feast squarely in Lent. For traditional Catholics, this means no meat may be eaten; thus fish, snails, and other seafood take their place along with hard-cooked eggs and frittatas.
The vegetables in our region’s St. Joseph’s Tables combine traditional Italian verdure and American additions: Swiss chard, cardune, fava beans, peas, asparagus, mustard greens, spinach, broccoli, peppers and tomato sauce help round out the list.
Fennel is said to be one of the first crops ready for the drought-stricken people to eat in the first tavola. It may be cooked as part of the meal, but also appear on the Table in its fresh form to remind one of the blessed rains. Similarly a dried fava bean might be placed nearby as a remembrance of the legume’s role in saving the people from starvation during the drought. Perhaps the easiest symbols to recognize are in the breads formed into shapes relating to the saint. They include his staff, his beard, a crown, a ladder, carpenter’s tools, the baby Jesus, a cross, a heart, and St. Lucy’s eyes. Unlike a simple bread, these are made with more eggs, sugar and anise flavoring, all which help sustain travelers on their way.
The sweets are a favorite part of the Table. Pignolata, sfingi and scocchi are three characteristic kinds of fried dough in different shapes & sizes. The first are small balls stuck together with honey, the second often made with ricotta, and the third a strip tied in a bow and dusted with powdered sugar. A dessert appears on western New York St. Joseph’s Tables, that is not as common elsewhere: the lamb cake. One reason may be that the feast falls close to Easter, in which the lamb symbolizes resurrection, as well as the new life of springtime. Our region also has longtime Polish American communities, who increasingly share parish spaces as formerly “Italian,” “Polish” and “Irish” Catholic churches are being consolidated. A stick of butter, molded into the shape of a lamb, is a staple of a Polish Easter meal.
A St. Joseph’s Table would not be complete without a devotional altar which pays homage to the saint. A statue or portrait of St. Joseph, fresh fruits and vegetables, lilies (referring to the Virgin Mary) or other flowers, candles, samples of all the foods, and the special breads will all have their place. Family photographs or keepsakes may also appear, in reference to the particular petitions that have been answered.
It is equally important that the food be blessed by a priest, who will offer a litany or set of prayers in honor of St. Joseph, the “Light of patriarchs,” “Foster father of the son of God,”
“Model of workers,” “Guardian of virgins,” and “Patron of the dying.” Attendees will often share a cup of wine following the prayers.
In the past at home celebrations, and currently at some church sponsored Tables, people may represent the Holy Family—Joseph, Mary and Jesus—and often the twelve Apostles, typically by school-age children. The “actors” receive a place of honor, dressing the part and proceeding into the hall to be seated and served first. Elders remember that, since the food is blessed, they had to at least taste all that was offered, tolerating the less palatable fishes and vegetables to get to the coveted sweets. Of course, it was all delicious, they realize now.