It started with prayer. Nina and Mike Mannino’s Prairieville house was full of family, friends and dough, and rain would threaten the whole operation.
“Look, St. Joseph,” Nina Mannino said. “This is your deal. You better take care of the rain.”
And with an overcast but dry Saturday, it looked like he did. A perfect day for making pignolati, or haystacks, a staple of the area’s St. Joseph altars. Pignoalti are pyramids of crispy, fried dough soaked in a sugar sauce. Too much humidity, like on a rainy day, and the sugar won’t set, making the haystacks sticky.
Deborah Mannino, Nina’s niece, said the pignolati are symbolic of the pine cones Jesus was said to play with as a child. While most of the dough will be stacked, some will be left loose and covered in sugar for people visiting the altar to eat.
The crowd at Nina and Mike Mannino’s house churned out pastries for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary, St. Louis King of France Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denham Springs and the Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge.
The dough was first mixed — 7½ cups of flour, 14 eggs, a pinch of salt and a little vanilla — by hand if Nina was doing it, or with a mixer if one of the younger women took a turn. Then, it was rolled out into thin ropes and cut into little balls. When those little balls hit the hot lard in the fryer, they puffed up and became light and crunchy.
“Like Italian popcorn,” quipped Sam Guzzardo, one of several men manning the fryer.
Debbie’s husband, Ron, was busy keeping the dough balls from sticking together in the hot fat. Ron Mannino said he was seeing more young people get interested in the altar and the old traditions. John Lamonica, of Immaculate Conception, also busy keeping dough balls apart, agreed.
“It’s surprising how many people show up (for the altar),” he said. “You see people you’ve never seen before.”
Nina Mannino said that was true even when the altars were held in private homes. She said the annual altar she kept in her home would attract hundreds of people.
“Anybody off the streets can come by,” she said.
The Manninos stopped having the altar at their home when more churches began to participate, but plenty of cooking is still done there. Nina’s house was full of family and friends who stopped by to lend a hand and share stories.
Nina’s daughter, Philomena Martrain, came in from out of town to help. Joe and Margaret Mannino; Nick and Lou Macaluso; Sam and Mary Guzzardo; John and Lota Lamonica; Frank and Mary Genusa; Ron and Deborah Mannino; and Sal and Geraldine Garifola were also helping, either gathered around a table full of dough or outside frying.
The balls were cut, fried then dried before being coated in sugar syrup and stacked, either by hand or in metal molds. Pans flew from inside the house, where the dough was being cut, outside to the garage and the fryer. Full pans came out, empty pans came in for a reload. Tables set up outside held thousands of cooling balls of dough. Stories flew even faster than the pans — tales of past altars, recounting family trees and relations, old recipes and meals past — all frequently punctuated with loud laughter.
“We’re all family here,” Deborah said, rolling out another rope of dough.
“That’s right,” said Philomena, Nina’s daughter. “Just a bunch of loud, crazy Italians.”
And they were dry, thanks to St. Joseph.