Chances are if you're not Italian and you're not Catholic and you're not from New Orleans, you've probably never heard of a St. Joseph's Altar. They are popular in pockets around the country (including the Chicago area), but the tradition thrives in the Italian Catholic community in New Orleans. On my recent trip to New Orleans, I had the wonderful experience of participating in a St. Joseph Altar, and over the next few days I hope to share some of the traditions and recipes with you.
This altar was very special to me. Some wonderful family friends wanted to host this altar and ask St. Joseph to heal my father's cancer. So many people worked for weeks making plans for the altar, baking THOUSANDS of traditional Italian cookies, simmering gallons of tomato sauce, chopping pounds upon pounds of olives for homemade olive salad, stuffing hundreds of favor bags, and asking for donations to feed more than 500 who were expected to come to the altar.
The origin of the altar to St. Joseph is said to have begun in Italy when the people of Sicily prayed to St. Joseph to save them from famine. When the rains finally came and the crops flourished, the people showed their appreciation with their most prized possessions - food.
Today, people host a St. Joseph Altar to ask St. Joseph for a favor or blessing, or in thanksgiving for a favor received. Almost everything on the altar is based in tradition. All items are donated by the hosts or community - upholding the tradition of "begging for donations." All food is given away to those attending. Any money raised from candles or petitions or donations is given to the poor.
In addition to setting up this elaborate display of breads and desserts, the altar also feeds anyone who come to pray to St. Joseph. The food at the altar includes no meat, probably because St. Joseph's day falls during lent or the fact that meat was scarce in Sicily after the famine. Our altar served more than 500 people who enjoyed Pasta Milanese, crawfish pie, stuffed artichokes, olive salad, green bean and artichoke casserole, fresh bread and so much more.
Everyone who visits a St. Joseph Altar wants to take home a fava bean, or lucky bean. History states that during the famine in Sicily, the fava bean thrived while other crops withered and died. Tradition holds that whoever carries the lucky bean will always have money in her pocket or food in her pantry. They also serve as a reminder to pray to St. Joseph. As a child I remember my grandmother having a small collection of fava beans in her wallet and on her nightstand.
A large bowl of fava beans was placed next to the altar with small stacks of prayer cards. By the end of the evening, the bowl was almost empty. Beans were also placed in the "goodie bags" that were available. The bags also had a pieces of blessed bread (which you should throw outside in a storm to calm the skies), several Italian cookies (recipes to come later) and a St. Joseph prayer card.
Blessed bread is a very important part of the altar. Not only are their full loaves of bread, but much of the bread is baked into symbolic shapes, such as crosses and animals.
Over the next few days, I'll be posting some traditional recipes and more photos of the altar. I hope you'll be back!!