Tables Set for a Saint

March 18, 2011

March 19 is no ordinary day in Sicily. It is the traditional feast day of Saint Joseph, Father of the Holy Family; patron of carpenters and pastry chefs; and protector of the poor and the dying. On that day towns and villages prepare what is known as le tavole di San Giuseppe (the tables of Saint Joseph), a gastronomic display of  more than a hundred dishes in his honor.

Why all the fuss? Because Saint Joseph is credited with delivering Sicily from famine during the Middle Ages. In gratitude for being spared, families of farmers and fishermen built altars in their homes and opened their doors to friends and strangers to share what abundance they had.

Salemi, Sicily, a small town in the Belice Valley, celebrates in a big way. Weeks before the feast the women of the town begin food preparations, and because the feast day usually occurs during Lent, only meatless dishes are permitted. Bread is the most important component. One specialty is a type of sourdough left to rise for hours before being shaped into intricately sculpted designs of Saint Joseph’s beard, his sandals, carpenter tools, and staff.

Letters of the alphabet, stars, birds, flowers, and crosses are carved  from the dough using ordinary implements like a pasta wheel, hair combs, sewing needles and thimbles. The entire town is covered in these bread ornaments along with oranges  and lemons, and foliage strung over elaborate outdoor altars, lamp posts, doorways, and in shop windows.

Bus loads of worshippers arrive on the day to partake in the blessing of the tables and to view the altars set up in private homes where Saint Joseph is the guest of honor. In front of him a groaning board of all sorts of foods ranging from pasta with bread crumbs – to symbolize the wood shavings of a carpenter – to fava beans, fried cardoons, fish dishes of every description, arancini (rice balls), and bigne (filled cream puffs). Fava beans are of great significance because during Sicily’s most severe famine, this crop thrived while others failed. That is why it is often referred to as a lucky bean.

Before anyone can eat, a member of the clergy comes to offer prayers and bless the tables. Then the Holy Family (called virgineddi), represented by children are the first to eat, and they must taste each of the multitude of dishes with a pause in between each one as a drumbeat sounds and the crowd roars, “Viva San Giuseppe!” By tradition, the Holy Family cuts into a large loaf of bread and gives out pieces to all assembled. Eating this bread will ensure good luck in the coming year.

When waves of Sicilian immigrants arrived in America, many continued the tradition of le tavole, preparing them in thanksgiving for favors received through prayers to Saint Joseph. In New Orleans, the tradition is especially strong since many Sicilian immigrants settled there, as well as in Buffalo, New York, where  my maternal Grandmother prepared elaborate dishes for the le tavole after Saint Joseph granted her wish of having my grandfather cured of a serious illness.

One of her recipes was zeppole, or cream puffs, which are made all over Italy and here in honor of St. Joseph. Viva San Guiseppe!

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