Louisiana Culture: Sicilian Tradition of St. Joseph's Altar

Viva San Giuseppe!

This is a lesson from hundreds of years ago, still celebrated today, of what it is to give to others even when you are in your time of need. The act of gratitude has been with us for generations.  9 recipes.

Come Spring around the third week of March, the volunteers are busy creating what they call the St. Joseph’s Altar to honor the foster father of Jesus Christ. When they emigrated from Sicily to Louisiana they continued this tradition to honor Joseph. His exact feast day is March 19th, though often the feast is celebrated on the closest weekend so the public may participate easily.

St. Joseph, his son Jesus and symbol of Holy Spirit

From HolyCards.com
From HolyCards.com
From HolyCards.com
From HolyCards.com

Patron saint of Sicily

Over the years many believe they have received favors of help and intercession from St. Joseph so they created this feast day in his honor. After all, St. Joseph is not only the father of Jesus but also the patron saint of all of Sicily. He is also known for watching over other carpenters and those in need and desiring family unity. Considering how much the Godfather movies have infiltrated the American mindset in the past few decades we can understand how important family unity is to their culture.

Legend from the Middle Ages

From HolyCards.com
From HolyCards.com

How the feast day began

According to legend the custom began in the Middle Ages when a terrible drought and famine came to Sicily.  The people turned to St. Joseph for his help.  When crop-saving rains came the people decided to show their gratitude by making offerings of food and also sharing that food with the poor.  They were already poor but decided to share with folks even more poor than themselves, quite the commitment!

The food altar of gratitude

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Grandsons of Italy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Today here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana this feast day is sponsored by the Grandsons of Italy and their Ladies Auxiliary. Once the food altar is built they share their food with the public for free. They spend months getting ready for their special day of gratitude and generosity of sharing with others. Samuel’s Restaurant, breakfast and lunch simple eatery, is where they gather and make preparations as the owner opens up his restaurant every year to the group free of charge.  He also is of Sicilian descent.

The St. Joseph’s Altar is decorated with tiers. The three tiers represent the Holy Trinity. It contains specialty Italian breads and pastries, stuffed vegetables, fresh fruit and vegetables, cakes and cookies, fish that represent the 12 apostles, wine, greenery like palm leaves and symbols of St. Joseph. Because this celebration falls during Lent there is no meat included on the food altar. Another consideration is that when the custom began the Sicilians were very poor and rarely could afford to include meat anyway.

Locally, these guys go all out as they have been celebrating this feast day here for the past 31 years. There is a late afternoon church service, Mass, then they proceed to the gym where the food altar is blessed. Wine and cookies are served afterward. There is a public viewing of the food altar from mid-evening the night before the feast day until mid-morning of the feast day. These guys really know how to prolong the celebration by setting the stage!

Quite the spread!

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Free food to the public

They create a little Holy Family tableau where there is a ceremonial breaking of the bread with members representing Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the Innkeepers. After the tableau they move on to a meatless meal resplendent with many casseroles, meatless spaghetti and gravy (sauce for the non-Italians) with hard-cooked eggs. Hard-cooked eggs are prominent in many European cultures, woven into many dishes and casseroles. Cakes and cookies will round out the simple meal for the public.

No admission fee, no reservations necessary and, locally, all this is done by only a few dozen people, amazing!

Try out some of their recipes next time you need to cook for a large group. You could freeze the cookies before frosting as the group does a few weeks before the event.

Vast array of food offerings for everyone to enjoy!

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com
From Italiansrus.com
From Italiansrus.com

Recipes from Grandsons of Italy

Eggplant Casserole

From: Grandsons of Italy

Yield: Serves 18 - 20

Ingredients:

2 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped celery
Olive oil
6 large eggplants, peeled, cut in chunks (8 cups) and parboiled
1 pound small (about 40-50 count), peeled shrimp
1 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
2 cups plain bread crumbs
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 Tablespoons dried parsley
1 Tablespoon dried, crumbled oregano
2 Tablespoons garlic powder
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
Nonstick cooking spray

Directions:

1. Sauté onions and celery in oil until clear and soft. Mix with remaining ingredients.

2. Put mixture in two (9x12-inch) casseroles sprayed with cooking spray. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes.

***

Italian Cookies

From:
Grandsons of Italy

Yield: Makes about 200 cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 pounds (6 sticks) butter
3 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder

Directions:

1. In mixing bowl, cream sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla. Add flour and baking powder and mix well and let rest.

2. Roll in balls, about 1 inch in diameter. Bake at 350 degrees until bottoms are medium brown, about 10 minutes.

***

Rock Cookies

From: Grandsons of Italy

Yield: Makes 150 cookies

Ingredients:

1 cup Crisco butter-flavored shortening
4 eggs
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
4-1/2 cups flour
5 teaspoons baking powder
Evaporated milk, if needed
Frosting
Candy sprinkles

Directions:

1. With hand mixer, beat shortening, eggs, sugar, nuts, if using, and flavoring until creamy.

2. Then, add flour and baking powder and mix by hand until dough is very smooth. Add small amount of milk to moisten dough if dough feels dry.

3. Roll dough into small, tight balls (about 1 inch in diameter), place on greased cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Cookies are done if they are medium brown on the bottom.

4. Cool and then coat each cookie with colored frosting. Add small amount of sprinkles to tops of cookies while the frosting is still moist.

To make frosting: Combine 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring, food coloring of choice and enough evaporated milk to reach desired frosting consistency.

Flavor variations: Basic recipe can be used to make the following cookies:

Chocolate cookies: Add 3-1/2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder and a little evaporated milk if the dough is too dry.

Anise cookies: Add 1 Tablespoon of anise extract. Bake the anise-flavored cookies for 11 minutes at 325 degrees. Add anise extract to icing, also.

Almond cookies: Add 1-1/2 Tablespoons of almond extract and 1 Tablespoon vanilla to dough. Flavor icing with almond extract.

A Virtual St. Joseph’s Altar from New Orleans

 For an interesting unusual page to visit, see the virtual St. Joseph’s Altar from New Orleans where they explain the significance of the foods chosen, offer prayers, offer virtual foods, read a blog and get recipes.

Following are recipes from the virtual St. Joseph’s Altar page used throughout the New Orleans area.

Biscotti

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Biscotti Recipe

Ingredients:

5 lbs. flour
3 cups sugar
3/4 lbs. Crisco
3/4 lbs. oleo
2 cups milk

9 eggs
1 oz. flavoring
5 tablespoons baking powder

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and mix till dough is smooth. Roll dough into walnut-size balls or make into ring cookies or any shape desired. Bake at 375 for 12-15 minutes.

This is a basic biscottie recipe. You may vary the flavoring as you desire; i.e., vanilla, lemon, strawberry, pineapple, mint, almond, anise, etc. If anise oil is used, use only a teaspoonful - not an ounce. A few drops of food coloring may be added to the dough to correspond with the flavoring; i.e., red for strawberry, yellow for lemon, green for mint or anise, etc.

Almond Squares

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Almond Squares Recipe

Ingredients:

2 cups Bisquick
1 box light brown sugar
4 eggs (beaten)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cups chopped pecans

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and place in greased 13" X 9" X 2" baking pan. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut into squares.

Almond Cookies

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Almond Cookies Recipe

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 cups chopped almonds

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients with the shortening until mixed well. Then add eggs, milk and flavorings. Knead well and add nuts. Roll into long loaves about one inch thick and place on cookie sheet. Bake at 350° until almost brown. Remove from oven, slice into pieces one inch long and place flat on tray. Return to 250° oven and bake until dry and crispy. Yields about 36 squares.

Antipasto

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Antipasto Recipe

Ingredients:

2 cups black olives
2 cups green olives
2 cups diced celery
4 cloves crushed garlic
1 onion sliced
1/2 cup capers
1 tablespoon parsley chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 tespoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 cup olive oil
6 tablespoons wine vinegar

Directions:

Remove seed and crush olives. Mix all ingredients in a container, cover and refrigerate for 2 or 3 days. Yeilds 6 1/4 cups.

Stuffed Artichokes

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Stuffed Artichokes Recipe

Ingredients:

artichokes
bread crumbs (plain or seasoned)
romano cheese, grated
garlic, finely chopped
green onions, chopped
parsley, chopped
olive oil

Directions:

Cut off stalks and tips of artichokes. Wash well and turn upside down and drain. Mix all dry ingredients well. Stiff artichokes by separating leaves.

Place stuffed artichokes in a large pot of shallow waster. Slowly pour gnerous amounts of olive oil over artichoke, so that it seeps through and moistens stuffing. Cover pot and steam for about an hour or until leaves are tender. It may be necessary to add more water to the pot.

Baked Red Snapper Fish

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

Baked Red Snapper Fish Recipes

Ingredients:

10 lbs. red snapper (head optional)
salt and pepper
oil or soft margarine for brushing fish
juice of 1 lemon

Directions:

Place cleaned red snapper in roasting pan. Rub salt and pepper on inside and outside of fish. Rub oil or margarine on top of fish. Squeeze lemon over fish. Bake covered in 350 degrees for 50 minutes. While fish is cooking make sauce.

Sauce:
3 tablespoons oil
1 bunch green onions
1 bell pepper
6 toes garlic
1 16 ounce can tomatoes
salt and pepper
parsley
1 cup water or white wine

Directions:

Sauté green onions, bell pepper, and garlic in hot oil. Add tomatoes. Cook 15 minutes. Add salt, pepper, parsely, and water or wine. Pour sauce over fish. Return fish to oven uncovered for 15 to 25 minutes longer or till tender, basting frequently with liquid. Garnish with lemon slices and parsley.

closeup of inedible dough's use for decorations

From thankevann.com
From thankevann.com

How to make decorations in dough

For inedible dough recipe used to create St. Joseph’s symbols go here - Italiansrus.com.

Traditional Prayer to Saint Joseph for the Spirit of Work

Glorious Saint Joseph, model of all who pass their life in labor, obtain for me the grace to work in a spirit of penance to atone for my many sins; to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my own inclinations; to work with gratitude and joy, considering it an honor to use and develop by my labor the gifts I have received from God; to work with order, peace, moderation and patience, without ever recoiling before weariness or difficulties.

Help me to work, above all, with purity of intention and with detachment from self, having always before my eyes the hour of death and the accounting which I must render of time lost, talents wasted, good omitted, and vain complacency in success, which is so fatal to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all after your example, O Patriarch Joseph! This shall be my watchword in life and in death. Amen.

Summary

Gratitude!

This is a lesson from hundreds of years ago, still celebrated today, of what it is to give to others even when you are in your time of need. The act of gratitude has been with us for generations. No matter how bad our current economic times what will be your act of gratitude for how you have been blessed in your life?

Photo Credits

Images of St. Joseph from Chant Art - HolyCards.com

Italiansrus.com



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Comments are always welcome! 2 comments

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

denny, this s beautiful, i liked the bread baked in the shape of a hammer, it's good to see the old traditions still practiced, tho i grew up with a lot of sicilian catholics,i've never seen this...we had a popular tradition for a while in our area, if you wanted to sell your house, you burried a statue of st joseph in the front garden and there was some argument whether you were supposted to bury it upside down or right side up...tho i don't do church anymore, i could not bring; myself to bury st joseph in the dirt


Denny Lyon profile image

Denny Lyon 7 years ago from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA Author

Hi, Delores, thanks for visiting! Those medieval bakers were imaginative! I figure a lot of traditions are localized. Here in Louisiana they may have been influenced by the other Catholic immigrants: Spanish, French and German. I have heard about burying saints in the dirt for various reasons.

The favorite around here is to get some bread blessed by the priest and then proceed to break it up in tiny pieces and draw a line all around your house as the flood waters start rising. You would think the birds would eat it but they evacuated long before the waters started rising and headed for higher ground.

Oddly enough, no one has ever flooded using this prayer. I figure what is going on is by using something tangible like bread, they focus their intent on the desired outcome, unknowingly linking up their spirit to God so the intent is realized in their tangible world! Who really knows but a lot of people believe it and use it and have benefited from it.

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