On my first St. Joseph’s Day in south Louisiana, a friend tried to explain it to me.
“They want you to come in their homes,” she told me.
The altars, she said, are a Sicilian tradition commemorating the end of a drought-caused famine in Sicily during the Middle Ages. The faithful attributed this blessing to prayers to St. Joseph, Sicily’s patron saint, and prepared a feast from the resulting harvest. St. Joseph's Day is March 19, but most altars are open during the weekends before or after his feast day.
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At the first home altar I visited, the front yard was crowded with tents and tables where they were serving up red gravy to all visitors. The altars, held during Lent, are always meatless.
We also went to a very large altar set up in a metal building in an industrial area. Then, there was the mind-blowing one, occupying half a basketball court in the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gretna.
A palm branch over a doorway means an altar is inside. Although they used to be common in homes, most altars are now assembled in school and church halls. Every object, every placement, every tier of the altar is symbolic.
I am not Catholic, but St. Joseph's Altars, which are scattered throughout Sicilian-influenced south Louisiana, fascinate me.
I was blessed to once sit with the late Mary Grace Christina in her New Orleans kitchen, crowded with friends and relatives making hundreds of seed cakes. She introduced me to frosias, small omelets made with cardoon (artichoke thistle) and other vegetables.
From the culinary historian Sandra Scalise Juneau, who has devoted herself to keeping the tradition alive by teaching, I learned about the artistry of the cuccidata, the elaborate fig cakes decorating altars. Her grandmother’s fig filling includes black pepper, a reminder of the Moorish influence in Italy. The filling in fig cakes is also used to fill cuccidata.
One of the most unusual offerings at altars is St. Lucy’s eye pie, a cuccidata variation honoring the blind saint. Lamb cakes symbolize the coming of Easter, and other cakes may remember relatives.
Today’s recipes for shrimp-stuffed eggplant and a frittata with cauliflower are suitable for the dinner table as well as an altar.
If you’ve never been to an altar, check Catholic publications or the Advocate community news sections.
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