San Giuseppe’s Day, When Sicilian Eyes Are Smiling

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The Catholic calendar is chock-a-block with saints' days, though some are observed with more gusto than others. A few become crossover holidays (pun not intended) celebrated even by people who don't know their "Hail Mary" from their "Our Father." For instance, yesterday, March 17, was St. Gertrude's Day, and people really whooped it up for the patron saint of cats. All those people wearing green must have been celebrating her association with gardening, right?

Tomorrow is another big saint's day, this time for San Giuseppe, a.k.a. St. Joseph—as in "Jesus, Mary and...." Although it's also celebrated elsewhere, the day has special significance for Sicilians, who attribute help from St. Joseph for saving them from a serious drought in the Middle Ages. People set up "St. Joseph's tables," altars laden with special foods, flowers and devotional objects to give thanks for the help the saint gave during the drought and for individual prayers the celebrants believe he has answered, such as bringing a loved one home from war. Because the day falls during Lent, the dishes are all meatless (at least by the Catholic definition, which doesn't count fish as meat). They vary from place to place, but often include fava beans, which were one of the few crops that flourished during the drought, breadcrumbs to represent sawdust (Joseph taught Jesus the carpenter's trade), and various breads and pastas.

In Italy Online gives an account of one Italian-American family's celebration. Individuals are chosen to portray Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and they are the first to have a taste of each of the dishes. Afterward guests are also invited to eat. In this case the foods are all what might have been served in the village of the host's ancestors, including vegetable dishes like fennel, stuffed eggplant and artichokes, fruits and cannoli and other pastries.

In New Orleans, possibly the parade float capital of the world (though New York is a strong contender), a St. Joseph's Day parade follows right on the heels of the Mardi Gras season and the St. Gert—I mean, St. Patrick's—Day parade. In San Juan Capistrano, home of one of my favorites of the California missions (although I wrote my 4th grade report on Mission San Gabriel), St. Joseph's Day is when the swallows return from their winter migration.

If there's one food St. Joseph's Day deserves to be as famous as its Irish counterpart for, it's zeppole, sometimes spelled zeppoli or called sfinge di San Giuseppe. These small doughnuts are usually dusted with sugar and can be filled with jelly, custard or ricotta cream like the kind in cannoli. If you're lucky you have an Italian bakery in your area that makes them, or you can attempt them yourself—Giada De Laurentiis gives a recipe for a simple, unstuffed version like the kind I've eaten at Italian street fairs in New York City. Personally, I'd take zeppole over corned beef and cabbage any day.

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