[home]

The St. Joseph's Table

INTRODUCTION

ORIGIN OF THE TABLE

REASONS FOR DOING THE TABLE

THE TABLE AS EX VOTO

LOCATION OF THE TABLES

THE PARTICIPANTS

THE ALTAR

BLESSINGS AND PRAYERS

THE VIRGINEDDI

THE BREAD

THE FOOD

RECIPES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Niagara Falls NY

INTRODUCTION

The St. Joseph's Table is a ritual meal done by Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans in fulfillment of a promise made to St. Joseph for his assistance in a time of family or personal crises. The Table is held on or as close to his feast day of March 19th as possible. It is a very compelling and complex celebration with meaning for the people as a whole and even more specific meaning for the particular group or family celebrating the day.

Generally we can say that people "do" or "give" a Table. The Table includes the altar with an image of Saint Joseph, flowers, candles, fruit and bread as well as the special meal of meatless dishes served at what is traditionally an open house at the home of the person/family giving the Table.

The St. Joseph's Table tradition was brought to the United States by the late 19th and early 20th century Sicilian immigrants into Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado and New York.

In the process of immigration to the United States, the families brought their family organization and their belief system with them. Their saints came with them either physically as statues in their baggage or merely in their minds. They attempted to replicate as well as they could their life in a new situation. The Sicilian immigrants' religion was based on a close personal relationship with the local saints as patrons and friends rather than with God who was seen as a remote, unapproachable figure like the king. This feeling of a personal relationship with the saints often led to the immigrants speaking to the statues in church as if they were alive rather than seeing them as symbolic representations of the saints. Bargains are made with the saint for help with the most minute trivialities and, in exchange, are offered various tokens as appeasement. This is done to keep the saints from becoming vengeful. These offerings, placed in the local church or shrine, often take the form of ex votos. These are often models of body parts that have been cured of some affliction or paintings of the miracle. In some cases a pilgrimage to a holy place is promised. Often the saint would be punished if a request was not answered in what was thought to be a reasonable time. Punishment would be the public cursing of the statue or relic (this happens in Naples when the people want the blood of St. Janarius to liquefy), burying the statue in the ground (selling a house- bury a statue of St. Joseph in the ground), dunking it in water or placing it upside down in a cabinet until the favor was received.

Often the petitions stop with the saint or put God last. "Saint Anthony, if I have a son I will name him after you, Joseph Anthony. Saint Anne, if I have a son, I will wear a dress of your colors until it falls to rags. God if I have a son I will stay in the house for 40 days" is a paraphrase of one promise recounted by one woman recalling her attempt at age 18 after the birth of a daughter and two miscarriages to provide her husband with a much desired son.

With St. Joseph there is a hospitality and nurturing in the making and fulfilling promises. In Sicily, in a society that is kin-oriented and closed to outsiders, the Table has provided a way for the women to open their homes to strangers in an accepted manner as well as fulfill the promise made to St. Joseph.

Whatever the reason for the devotion to St. Joseph what has developed is very much a part of the lives of the people. Even though some feel the tradition is dying out it is actually, if anything growing as more people, churches and restaurants have Tables.

 

ORIGIN OF THE TABLE

There is no way to date the beginning of the Table. There are many stories as to how the Table began. There is one that the Table was brought to Sicily by a group of Christian Albanians fleeing from the invading Muslim Turks. Called the Arbreshe, they practiced Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. However they never assimilated with the rest of the population so the suggestion that this group was the carrier of the tradition into the rest of the population is doubtful. The most common story is that there was a drought and the people prayed to St. Joseph to end the drought. They promised that if the drought ended they would prepare a feast in his honor to which everyone, especially the poor, would be invited.
A detailed variation of this story was collected at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel R.C. Church in Niagara Falls:

This custom came about in the Middle Ages when there was a terrible drought one year in Sicily. The feudal landowners in desperation turned to St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of Sicily and promised him that if the rains would come they would prepare a big feast in his honor and invite all of the people of the town. When the rains miraculously came the landowners set up huge banquet tables in the public square and invited all the poor and served them themselves. After that the practice spread and from then on, anyone seeking any favors would promise the same thing and invited the poor to their homes. Particularly invited were orphans or elderly folk who did not have anyone to care for them properly. There were always twelve in number. If those invited to attend were orphans, they were referred to in Sicilian as "le Virgineddi" (the little virgins), and if they were elderly as "li vecchierreddi" (the dear old people.)

A variation collected in 1994:

The custom of the St. Joseph's Table started many, many years ago in Sicily. Farmers in a particular area experienced a crop that would not yield anything. At the same time farmers in other areas had an abundant crop. Knowing of their neighbors' plight they decided to give a feast for them in the piazza directly facing the church of their village. The meal consisted entirely of meatless dishes because meat was not easily obtainable and a very uncommon staple in their diet. Thus a tradition that was to be carried down from generation to generation was born.

And a third variation of this story collected in 1995 at the St. Joseph's (Buffalo) RC Church's Table:

The fishermen had been having very bad luck in catching fish. There were none in the sea. The sea was empty. The fishermen promised St. Joseph that if he gave them fish, they would make a feast for all the people of the village. They caught a great amount of fish and fulfilled their promise by having a feast in the village square. Because the first Table was done by fishermen, this is why fish, not meat, is always served at the Table.

An article in the March 18, 1979 issue of the Western New York Catholic Visitor dates the beginning of the Table to 1268 with the following story:

It started in 1268. In the five previous years the harvests were very bad; drought. The priest begged the farmers to give up a few bags of wheat so that the orphans could eat. The farmers argued that there would be no harvest at all unless they planted the seed. The priest reminded them that the famine was a fact; many would die of malnutrition; the planting was at least a gamble; that it was shameful greed to refuse this charity. But farmers can be stubborn. Politely they asked the priest to return and all the growers would hear him out. His logic, persuasive words, brilliant presentation and cogent arguments would be presented then. The priest, himself a Sicilian, returned with several very thin and fragile orphans. In silence these unusually large-eyed people began to blink. Without words the priest said all that need to be explained. Clearly there was no debate.

A local supermarket published an ad the week of St. Joseph's Day in 1993 which told this story:

St. Joseph's Day is the celebration of the cruel Sicilian rebellion against the French (the Sicilian Vespers). The Sicilians believed that because of their cruelty, God caused a seven year drought on the island of Sicily. The Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph for rain and in return, they would hold an enormous feast to feed the poor. The drought was lifted and a tradition began.

Another story told as the "true story" is that a group of Italians were exiled from their country and set adrift in a boat. In despair they prayed to St. Joseph promising to honor him if their lives were spared. Cast upon the shore of an uninhabited island they erected an altar of branches and decorated it with flowers and gave him thanks.

One unique story was told by "Georgio": It was a very short explanation: "The people were starving and St. Joseph told the mothers to 'spray their milk'- (in other words the women were told to make cheese from their milk to feed the people) and from that time they had the Table".

 

REASONS FOR DOING THE TABLE

The Table is done in fulfillment of a promise made to St. Joseph to thank him for his assistance in a time of family crises such as

1. CURING ILLNESS: Forty years ago a woman on Buffalo's West Side promised to do a table if her son recovered from meningitis. She has continued doing the table for forty years. Donna told of her aunt doing a Table in thanksgiving for her daughter's continued remission from leukemia.

Susan's husband is the first man on the left.

2. BRINGING A LOVED ONE SAFELY BACK FROM WAR: This was very common during and after World War II and Vietnam when there were signs posted on homes on the Buffalo's West Side inviting any and all to a Table being given in thanksgiving for the safe return of a son. Susan deeply believes her devotion to St. Joseph kept her going during the year her son was in Vietnam. The Table she promised for his safe return was done the next year. Her mother-in-law did a Table in thanksgiving for Susan's husband's recovery from a severe head wound suffered in World War II.

3. TRADITION: After the initial promise was fulfilled, the family keeps doing it and after several generations may not remember why the first Table was done.

4. PERSONAL DEVOTION: Josie's Table began as the result of someone in her novena club (c 1960) asking if anyone knew of a St. Joseph's Table they could attend. No one did. Several of the women expressed the desire to do a Table but could not afford it. Josie had the idea of each woman giving her $.25 a week for the year. The next year they would take the money and do a Table. That was in 1961. When the majority of the women became to old to do the considerable work involved in its preparation, Josie's daughters and granddaughters took over. Since 1961, they have had thirty-three Tables. The sequence was broken only by a fire at the family home and her husband's death.

5. THANKSGIVING FOR GOOD FORTUNE: Several people have said that they do the Table as a way of saying thank you for a successful business, for continued good health.

The Table may be done once or many times. The idea is that once the promise is made, it must be carried out or misfortune may befall the family or the individual making the promise. Stories are told of disasters happening to people who promised a Table but did not carry out the promise. One is that a man went fishing instead of doing a Table and came back with only one arm. Another told of a family whose house burned down when they did not do the Table. I have not heard any such thing happening. However two local people interviewed mentioned a family member having a vision of St. Joseph after a promise was made and not fulfilled. One was in 1907 when Josie's mother promised to collect $5 every year to send to Sicily for a Table in the husband's family village if her baby would not die. One year she forgot and the baby became very ill on St. Joseph's Day. She saw St. Joseph asking why the money hadn't been sent. As soon as the money was mailed the baby got better. The second incident happened in Sicily during World War II. Lucy's aunt promised a Table if her son who had disappeared in battle returned safely. She did not do the Table as he had not returned. In a dream she saw Joseph asking for the Table which she did then do. Unfortunately the son did not return. You cannot say that this was punishment for not doing a Table but as Josie said: "Why take a chance." Another person said: "St. Joseph doesn't ask. St. Joseph demands."

 

THE TABLE AS EX VOTO

If we consider the tradition of the ex voto as a form of devotion and translate this into the function of the Table in peoples' lives, it is possible to consider the Table as an extended ex voto. People always speak in terms of "doing a Table." This seems to be the universal way of referring to the fulfillment of the promise. In looking at the meaning of "do", it is an act of fulfillment, of completion. A Table is the fulfillment of the promise.

Anything can be an ex voto by the intention of the person offering it. An ex voto can take the form of an object or an action. A person may promise a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to the saint or obtain a representation in a painting of the successful realization of the petition or a wax or precious metal replica of the part of the body cured through the intervention of the saint. This type of ex voto is usually hung on the image of the saint or placed in the shrine or holy place. Statues or other images of the saint may be ex votos as well. The primary consideration is the intention with which the ex voto is given.

Although doing a Table involves considerable personal sacrifice of time and money, the ex voto of the St. Joseph's Table is a positive action of hospitality and warmth. The Table as a whole is the ex voto. The individual promise is to do a Table in return for the saint's intervention in time of personal crises. It is not seen as a penance. This is in contrast to festas such as those of San Gennaro and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The premise with these is that a person will promise the saint that, in exchange for a filled favor, they will perform a certain penance within the context of the festa. These are often ones of considerable personal pain and physical sacrifice such as walking barefoot for many miles from the person's home to the church or carrying a candle equal to their body-weight and size in the procession through the neighborhood. The saints were appealed to and an answer was expected. In this way there was a sense of control over the fates.

The breads which form an intrinsic part of the Table are done in symbolic shapes which have meaning for the people. They are most often in the form of a person or symbol of a saint such as a lily for Joseph or heart for Mary. These breads can be seen as a substitution for the wax or metal figures used as ex votos in chapels and shrines. The braided breads often seen on an altar could possibly be traced back to the Greek votive custom of promising one's hair to a god for a favor received. Bread became a substitute for the hair in the Middle Ages. The simple bread figure of an infant that may appear on an altar could either be a representation of the Infant Jesus or a thanksgiving for a safe delivery of a child.

Promising to beg to get the money to do a Table to fulfill the promise to the saint was common in past years. Several informants have told that as a child they remember seeing women in their neighborhood or members of their family going from door to door asking for a few pennies for their Table and accepting no more than a nickel or dime. Josie tells of begging for money to send to Sicily for the village Table:

I got married at 15 and 11 months later she (Theresa) was born. I was just a kid, only 16 1/2 when she was born....My mother was giving her a bath. All at once she stiffened up and got all pale. My mother says, "This baby, my baby is dying, the baby is dying". So right away I turned around to St. Joseph and I says, "St. Joseph, please don't make my baby die. I'll go and beg for $5." My husband was working and making $50 a week. That was a lot of money (1924), but I wanted to beg. I could have taken $5 and sent it but no, I wanted to beg for it. Which I did. So I asked everybody, "Do you want to give me a nickel or dime or what ever?" I got the $5 and I sent it. That year we sent $10 to St. Joseph, to the village my mother came from. The reason for sending the money to them was so they could put on a St. Joseph feast. (The other $5 was money her mother had begged for saving her dying baby in 1907).

Several women said that this begging continues today but in a slightly different form. Rather than asking for money, the women who do the church Tables will ask local merchants for donations of food to be served as well as goods and services to raffle during the meal. As Fran said: "It is very humbling to go into a shop and ask for something for the Table."

Individual participants in church or club Tables may carry out a personal promise to the saint by their donation of certain foods, wine, bread or time for cooking. At St. Joseph's R.C. Church in Niagara Falls, one woman said she was there cooking in honor of her parents. She was older and lived in a small apartment so she was unable to do a Table of her own. Her participation in the church Table was a way for her to fulfill the promise. The statue used by Club 74 Italiano dell'Immacolata was donated by a member in thanksgiving for the cure of a family member from a serious illness. During a Table, people will donate money to light the candles on the Altar for a personal intention. They may also have the opportunity to write their petitions on slips of paper which are placed in a basket on the Altar.

 

LOCATION OF TABLES

In Western New York Tables are held in private homes, churches, restaurants and by social clubs, Senior/Community Centers and local colleges.

The Table was brought to Buffalo as a family celebration and is still based in the family. However the idea of family has been expanded to include members of churches and social clubs. There is also a recent pattern of the Table moving out of the Sicilian community into what are non-Italian/Sicilian parishes in the suburbs. The force behind these Tables is often a Sicilian-American who knows the tradition and is willing to assist in the planning and execution of the Table. This is how Maria became involved in her parish Table. She attended that had been advertised to the parish as a "St. Joseph's Table". As she said: "I felt very much out of place. It wasn't what I remembered from my family." The next year she offered to help with the Table. Even though she has moved out of the parish she has continued to help for the past seven years. The impetus for a Table here is a desire to build community in what are often large, anonymous parishes. It becomes a way for people to experience community within the context of a religious/social celebration. This indicates an opening up of the tradition to people outside the ethnic group where devotion to St. Joseph overrides ties with a specific ethnic group.

The church and restaurant Tables are open to the community as a whole. Churches do ask for reservations and a donation mainly to ensure that enough food will be prepared and their basic costs are covered but anyone who comes to the Table is not turned away. The people I have interviewed have all said that regardless of how many come to a Table there is always enough food to feed them with quantities of food left over. Any food left at the end of the Table is given to a soup kitchen or other type of charity dedicated to feeding the poor. Money raised through ticket sales for the church and club Tables and donations at the traditional restaurant Tables is given to charity. A number of the restaurants have traditional Tables in that all who come are welcome to eat with a freewill donation for charity asked. A number of other restaurants have begun to hold Tables but ask for reservations and charge a set price with only a percentage of their profits going to charity.

Beginning in 1995 the Buffalo Congregation of Sister of St. Joseph have held an annual Table, open to the public, for the benefit of the local food pantry. They relied heavily on a small book Viva San Giuseppe published by the St. Joseph's Guild in New Orleans LA . The cook at the sisters' retirement home who was born in Sicily also provided assistance. They do not ask for reservations simply having faith that there would be enough food to feed all who came. Each year they serve over 300 people and raise several thousand dollars in freewill donations for the Food Pantry in less than four hours. The committee followed the custom of "begging" to do the Table by asking local merchants for food donations. The response was overwhelming. Besides this several people showed up anonymously and left food- frittatas and cakes.

The church and club Tables are communal events with a sharing of food procurement and cooking. Churches and social clubs do Tables as a way to build community. They see the church or the club as an extended family that needs to gather around the same table from time to time to share a meal, to talk, tell stories and celebrate a common heritage or belief. The same is true of a number of the restaurants in the area. Regular patrons attend as they would a family Table often bringing a donation for the Table. Others come out of curiosity, to experience something that is of the "other". Some come because of political expediency. It is good for them to be there because of their particular constituency. Public officials attending the Table at John's Italian Village have included the Mayor of Buffalo, the Erie County Executive, various judges and district council people as well as the county sheriff.

 

THE PARTICIPANTS

Those invited to eat at the Table have traditionally been the poorest of the poor in a village or neighborhood. Even today Tables are open to anyone in keeping with the tradition of feeding any and all who come to the door.

In Buffalo people ordinarily do not take classified advertisements in the local paper inviting people to attend their home Tables as they do in Louisiana. The signs on houses after Vietnam inviting any and all to attend the Table being given in thanksgiving for the safe return of a loved one have not been the norm in this area. Churches and restaurants will advertise their Tables in the church bulletin, with flyers and in community newspapers. Club Tables are usually restricted to members, their families and invited guests.

Church Tables attract hundreds of people. In 1994, Holy Cross R.C. Church had three sittings serving over 600 people. St. Joseph's in Niagara Falls ordinarily will serve 200-250. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel serves at least 300. Home Tables may have 200 or more people coming to see the altar and eat. John's Italian Village Restaurant will routinely have 600 people attend its Table. LaNova Pizzeria will serve over 1500 people that are very representative of the community as a whole- politicians, bankers, customers, street people.

There is a great sense of obligation to attend Tables offered by family and friends especially if you are personally invited by a member of the family. One family Table I attended was very happy I came because I was a stranger to them. This meant more luck for them in the coming year. This in some way very much like the Jewish tradition of setting an extra place at the Passover Table and leaving the door ajar for a passing stranger to join them for the meal- leaving a place for Elijah or the Polish tradition of leaving an empty plate on the table at the Christmas eve dinner for the Christ Child.

 

THE ALTAR

Holy Angels RC Church, Buffalo NY
Senior Citizens Group Table

The altar is an intrinsic part of the Table. It is for many the focal point of the Table. The altar may be as simple as a table with a statue, a candle, a vase of flowers and a loaf of bread or as elaborate as a twenty foot long wooden framework covered with fabric and flowers, a fountain with running water and a banner reading "Viva San Giuseppe." The St. Joseph's Table altar can also be described as a shrine- a place with a sacred image which is the object of special devotion. Shrines are often a place of pilgrimages. People attend the same Tables each year, make personal requests from the saint and fulfill them by bringing flowers and food items for the altar. The Table then becomes for many people a place of pilgrimage.The traditional altar has three levels symbolic of the Holy Trinity- God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. The elements that compose the altar are: an image of St. Joseph, flowers, symbolically shaped bread, candles, fresh vegetables and fruit and occasionally sprouted wheat. What is included and how these elements are arranged depends on who is putting the altar together.

The platforms are arranged and covered with white cloths, often trimmed in lace and embroidered with "Vive San Giuseppe". St. Joseph is placed on the highest

level. The image most commonly seen on the altar is that of Joseph holding the Infant Jesus and a lily. People at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel were upset when a contemporary image of Joseph was substituted for the traditional one they had used for many years. The next year, the old statue was returned to the place of honor. The statue or picture is often handed down from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law. Donna recounted a story of their statue being misplaced and the feeling in the family that bad luck would result if they had to buy a new one. The image is often kept in a special place in the home during the rest of the year and is brought to the place of honor for the Table. Susan displayed the family picture in the living room while her son was in Vietnam. She promised to do a Table if he returned safely. She felt that St. Joseph kept him safeand provided her with the strength to get

St. Joseph's R.C. Church, Niagara Falls NY

through the year. At church Tables the statue used on the altar is ordinarily not the one displayed in the church during the rest of the year but is a separate one often donated by a member of the church in fulfillment of a promise made to the saint. At St. Joseph's in Niagara Falls, the women who cook for the church Table donated the statue. Their names and the donation date are written on a piece of paper taped to the bottom of the statue.

There are candles on each side of the statue and on each of the other levels as well. The type of candles range from single tapers, candelabra, small vigil lights and large seven-day devotional candles either plain white or with images of various saints including St. Joseph, the Suffering Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Jude. At some Tables people make a donation and light a candle for their own personal intention. At Josie's Table, visitors are taken to the altar and invited to light one on several dozen candles on the altar. By evening, the temperature in that particular corner is many degrees warmer than the rest of the room. At Holy Cross Church, the money donated for the candles is given to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for their charity work.

Flowers, especially lilies (the symbol of St. Joseph) are arranged around the statue. Often mums and other greens (potted plants or florist arrangements) are used. Lilies are never omitted even if artificial ones are used. Sprouted wheat called la vorieddu- the little green may be included. The only explanation I have been able to get for it from my informants is "tradition". . Louis thought it meant prosperity. Fresh fruits and vegetables are arranged around the statue and candles. Oranges are used in great abundance which some say are for the sweetness of St. Joseph. The long green ferny tops of fennel or finocchi are hung over the edges of the table. Grapes, artichokes and pineapples may also be used. One altar had garlic and dried red peppers tucked in between the bread and flowers. Mario who'd prepared this altar said his grandmother had always done it: "You know, as a protection from evil. But you're not supposed to mix them- the religious and the superstitious. But she did it and I do it."

Within this general framework, each altar is unique to the place and to the person constructing it. Altars may be duplicated exactly from year to year or may change radically. One person may assume the preparation of the altar as the fulfillment of their promise to the Saint or several may share in the responsibility.

The altar at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Niagara Falls, which is done by a professional florist as his contribution to the Table, is very different each year. In 1991, the statue of St. Joseph was surrounded by a large bower of grapevines and calla lilies. In 1993 an arrangement of artichokes, spaghetti, oranges and flowers was placed at the base of the statue. In 1995, sprays of wheat were very prominent in the display.

At St. Rose of Lima in Buffalo, the altar (right) fills the stage of the hall where the Table is held. A framework of wood is set up and covered with gold and purple fabric ruffling. A large banner reading "Vive San Giuseppe" is hung over the top. The statue of St. Joseph (borrowed from the nearby Carmelite Monastery) is set in an arch covered with tulle. Flowers (real and artificial) are placed around the statue. Candles are arranged on the altar and the floor of the stage. As it is set at the back of the stage, it is more remote from the people than the altars at other Tables where they can be touched by those attending.

At LaNova Pizzeria, the altar is placed at one end of the restaurant against a mirrored wall. The statue of St. Joseph holding the Infant Jesus was surrounded by lilies and azaleas and arrangements of carnations and daises. A fish covered with lemon slices like scales is placed in the lowest level of the altar surrounded by candles. On the tray with it was a sample of each of the foods being served at the Table. The candles on the altar are devotional ones including St. Joseph, St. Anthony, Our Lady of Guadeloupe and Our Lady of Grace. They appear to have been brought in by people attending the Table.

At home Tables, the altar is usually prepared on a table or buffet against the wall or at the end of the serving table. The altar at the Sisters of St. Joseph Table was covered with an elaborate cutwork bedspread and heirloom lace tablecloths provided by their cook. Trays of food as well as oranges and bread were placed around the statue.

The most elaborate home altar documented is Josie's family altar. Her carpenter son built a three-level altar that stands in the corner of the living room. It was made in such a way that it could be taken apart and stored in the basement during the rest of the year. However it has always remained in the living room. St. Joseph is placed on the top level and is surrounded with candles and bread. Toni's family altar (left) is a simple table to the side of the kitchen incorporated a picture of St. Patrick as well as Christmas style twinkle lights, artificial flowers and holy cards.

The food served at the Table is ordinarily placed in close proximity to the altar. Several methods of serving have been observed at the various churches, restaurants and social clubs. The food and how it is served will be described in the section on food.

BLESSINGS AND PRAYERS

If at all possible, the altar and the food being served is blessed by the parish priest. The blessing is very important for most people and they often will not eat until the Table is blessed. A number of different prayers have been collected. Some use prayers which give an origin story for the Table or a blessing which includes a prayer supposedly written in 50 AD and passed down through the centuries. Copies of this prayer are often given to the people attending to take with them to use when they feel the need to petition St. Joseph. One young man returned to a Table he had attended before going to Vietnam. He asked for a new copy of the prayer as the one he'd received was worn to shreds. He felt the prayer kept him safe while on duty. As he told the woman whose Table he'd attended: "I had this prayer on me. I saw kids, my buddies getting killed all around me but I was spared and I know it was the St. Joseph prayer that spared me".

A custom in New Orleans that I have not found in Western New York, is having a bowl of fava beans on the altar for people to take as they are leaving the Table. Fr. Vincent spoke of his mother who was born in Messina Sicily keeping a fava bean in her purse and that he wondered why she did. Keeping the bean in your purse is reputed to insure good luck and a never empty wallet. This supposedly began in Sicily where fava beans were used as fodder for the cattle. During a famine in order to survive, the poor farmers prepared them for their table. Thus it became a "lucky bean". People in New Orleans often wear a silver or gold fava bean on a chain as a way to keep the luck with them. The Sisters of St. Joseph gave out fava beans at their Table. This was not out of tradition but because the booklet (Vive San Giuseppe) from Louisiana they used to plan their Table told of this custom. The beans were in great demand from the people who knew of the custom of keeping the bean in your purse or wallet for luck. In ancient times beans were thought to have mystical powers.

One practice common to all the Tables is the shouting of "Vive San Giuseppe" after the blessing and as people feel so moved during the Table.

THE VIRGINEDDI

Club 74 Italiano dell' Immaculata

La Virgineddi (Little Virgins), or Saints as they are sometimes called, is the name given the people selected to play the role of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) at the Table. Traditionally those selected were the poorest of the poor of the neighborhood or town. Sometimes they were selected by drawing lots. In theory they had to be poorer than the family giving the Table in order to receive the hospitality of the family. This became increasingly difficult because people were ashamed to admit their abject poverty in this way. One woman from the Upper West Side always wondered why she had not been invited to a table when a child. She at first thought it was because she was half Irish. Later she found out that she was not considered poor enough to be invited to be part of a Table because her father had a regular job

Anna spoke of her grandmother going out on the street on Buffalo's Lower West Side and literally pulling children in to eat. Carla said that when she was a child in Hamilton Ontario they always had at least one orphan from the nearby orphanage as an angel. There would be twelve children for the first sitting after which they would be given food to take home to the rest of their families. Their parents would be allowed to watch them eat from the kitchen.

Traditionally Joseph has been portrayed by an old man, Mary and Jesus by young children. They would often be accompanied by others representing angels, the Twelve Apostles or other favored saints. They would go from house to house (usually three) seeking a place to stay and something to eat. A few have said that this represented the "Flight into Egypt" undertaken after Jesus' birth (Matt 2: 13-15). They would be refused admission to all but the house with the Table to which they had been invited. There they would knock three times. A simple dialogue would take place between the Virgineddi and the family inside:

To a soft knock on the door:

"No, there is no shelter here."

Again the knock:

"No, there is no shelter here."

The third knock was answered:

"Who is it?"

The reply:

"I am St. Joseph. I seek shelter for Mary and Jesus"

They would enter the house to cries of "Viva Jesu, Maria and Giuseppe." They would be seated at a special table and be served a bit of all the food prepared for the table.

Today a Table may or may not have the Virgineddi present. If they are present, they may be very informally selected from family members attending at the Table. The Virgineddi are considered by some to be holy on the day of the Table and everything they ate or touched is said to become sacred.

At one home Table, Jesus is the youngest child present. Whether it is a boy or a girl seems not to make a difference to this family. Joseph is usually the oldest man present. Mary and her mother, St. Anne are female family members. Their position is indicated by being seated at the head of the Table and by being served first.

The Virgineddi for Club 74 Italiano dell'Immacolata are the daughters and granddaughters of the members. Joseph is enacted by a husband or son of a member or as happened one year, a daughter's boy friend. Jesus is usually a son, grandson or nephew. Usually they volunteer to be part of the Virgineddi. If no one volunteers, they are asked to do so. No one refuses because of parental pressure. They dress in stereotypical Biblical dress made by a member of the Club. The littlest girls are dresses as angels with halos and wings.

At Toni's family Table, the grandchildren are sent into the living room amidst much giggling and pushing. Then wearing simple scarves and robes, they knock on the door between the living room and kitchen and do a very simple dialogue similar to those above. After three tries to enter, they are admitted to the kitchen to the traditional shouts of "Vive San Giuseppe"

 [top]

BREAD

Display of St. Joseph's Bread at the Castellani Art Museum
Niagara University, NY

After the image of St. Joseph, bread is the most important component of the altar. Symbolic of St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, usually the shapes and materials used in making the special St. Joseph's bread follow a fairly rigid convention. The St. Joseph's bread is part of the ancient tradition of shaped celebratory breads found in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Everyday bread is transformed and transcends its profane role as food in becoming a way of celebrating the sacred and life itself.

Commercial Italian bakeries in the area will produce vast quantities of special bread for the day. Beginning early in the morning on St. Joseph's Day, Balistreri's Bakery will use over 8000 pounds of flour to handmake over 4000 simple cross and cane shapes. The same at Luigi's and DeCamillo's and Gino's Bakery- large basket, cross, crown and cane as well a smaller fish, knot and snail. Other individuals in the area make

simple Infants, fish, and St. Joseph's purse. One woman, whose cut hand refused to heal, remembers her mother making a bread in the shape of a hand to place on the altar as a petition for the healing of the hand. This is very much within the tradition of the ex voto- of leaving the image of the body part which needs to be or has been cured. on or near the altar of the saint to whom the petition has been made. Occasionally an especially gifted artist will emerge from the community. A Sicilian womanliving in Buffalo NY is one of them.

As she has said the shapes come from her head, her heart and her hands. She makes the bread each year out of a deep devotion to St. Joseph. She sincerely believes that St. Joseph gives her the ideas and the energy to make the bread. She denies any knowledge of having seen bread similar to what she makes even though it is common in the Mediterranean area. The first bread she made (1959), while still living in her home town of Caltavuturo, was the lily (the traditional symbol of St. Joseph). The Mazza Della Madonna is a replica of the club held in the right hand of the Virgin Mary as the Patroness of Caltavuturo. She describes it as "a bastone- a club that the Virgin Mary uses to kill the snake [the devil]".

She also makes representations of a monstrance, an artichoke, a sheaf of wheat, cardoons (burdock) and asparagus. She is very proud of the fact that her bread always come out the same. People often ask her if she has a mold or a form for the bread. However each piece is formed by hand using simple tools- wooden dowels as rolling pins, a sharp knife, a pair of scissors and a practiced eye. When she left the dough to rise after the first kneading, she covered it with a cloth and then placed a knife across the top. When questioned about this at a later date, she said it was simply to keep the cloth in place. Her mother had done it and her grandmother as well. One can still wonder if at some time in the past this was done as a charm to keep anyone from cursing ("giving the evil eye to") the bread to prevent it from rising. She said baking bread in Sicily was much more difficult because the baking was done in brick ovens fired by wood. The length of the baking was determined by the experience of knowing how hot the oven felt and what color the bricks were when the dough was placed in the oven. But the ages-old tradition of commending the bread to the protection of God to insure success in baking with a prayer silently recited and the sign of the cross made over the bread as the oven door is closed is still followed.

Once baked, bread is treated with the greatest respect. The father has the task of slicing the bread but only after a sign of the cross is traced on the top. If a piece was dropped it would be kissed when picked up. Even the bits too stale to eat are made into thickening for sauces, stretchers for meat and on St. Joseph's Day, the special topping for the pasta con sarde called mollica.

If at all possible, each person attending a Table is given a small loaf of St. Joseph's Bread (or at least a blessed roll) to take home with them. An orange and a special prayer card are also often given to them. The abundance and fullness of the Table thus goes with them in the bread and the orange. They are assured of having enough food to feed themselves and their families for the coming year. Some feel that keeping a piece of the bread in the home will be protection against fire, lightning and other misfortunes. This is similar to the custom of keeping a piece of blessed palm in the house from each Palm Sunday to the next- as a protection against misfortune.

FOOD

The Table is a meal so the food that is served is an important component. The meal served is vegetarian: First, the feast of St. Joseph occurs during Lent which is a time of fasting, of no meat. Second it is the end of winter, the beginning of spring. In earlier times, March was a time of scarcity in Sicily. The food stored from the previous harvest was almost gone. Dried fish and new greens from the fields were the base for the Table. One woman said that when she was growing up in Sicily 30 years ago meat was a rarity. It was served at most only two or three times a year. When local people were questioned if they'd ever seen meat on a Table the response was "NO! You never serve meat at a Table. It is always vegetarian." Even though the rules of fast and abstinence are much more lenient today, Sicilian-Americans hold the tradition as they learned from their parents and grandparents with little, if any, change. The meatless meal then continues out of tradition not because of seasonal or economic necessity.

The work of preparing the Table is part of sacred gift of hospitality promised by each woman who participates. In general, the women who do the church Tables do not belong to any specific church organization but come together annually for the purpose of doing the Table. Several of the women who do the church Tables voiced a concern over whether the tradition will continue because the younger women are working and do not have time to do the preparation for the Table. Many of the women donate their time cooking and serving to fulfill a personal promise to St. Joseph for a favor asked and received or simply as thanksgiving for his blessings. Thus people who cannot do a home Table for one reason or another are able to continue the tradition.

The primary responsibility for the execution of a Table is given to the women of the family: grandmothers, mothers and daughters, aunts, cousins, nieces. This may be extended to include non-Sicilian daughters-in-law who are slowly enculturated into the tradition and who will then often be the bearers of the tradition into the next generation. Susan said that at first they only trusted her to make some of the desserts.

The Tables are intergenerational with the older women teaching the younger women through direct involvement especially with the home Tables. Children are involved by helping to greet visitors and by serving the food. Teenagers in parish confirmation programs often use helping at the Table as part of their community service project. At one Table the youngest bag the rolls that are given to each visitor as they leave.

The extended family network cooks, bakes, decorates, constructs, and serves. The promise made to the saint is personal but it is carried out through this kinship network. Friends and relatives will often come great distances to cook for and to attend a Table.

It is interesting to see a shared kitchen in the preparation of the Table. Most women are very territorial in regard to their kitchens, usually preferring to cook alone. For the Table, they share the space and the responsibility for preparation of the food. Each is assigned a task often based on what they do best. Because of the perceived sacredness of the meal, kitchens as well as pots and pans are carefully cleaned and blessed. From stories that have been told to me, St. Joseph even seems to watch over the cooking to prevent accidents and spoilage.

Theresa told this story:

One year I'd had surgery and I wasn't feeling good. We had done all the cooking. The night before St. Joseph's Day we cooked the fish because the fish will spoil. But by the time they came to the fish all the refrigerators were filled with the cauliflower and everything. We cooked the fish. My mother put it in my brother's bedroom which was the hottest room in the house. Mama was washing the floor and cleaning the house. She changed curtains and everything because we had done all the deep frying and everything in the kitchen. So when she got through she went to bed forgetting the fish.

I woke up during the night and I was freezing. I thought it was me because I was sick, but the furnace had gone out. So she calls my brother, "Call up Weber (the furnace man). Tell him to come. I got guests coming and there's no heat." So my brother calls up Weber. My mother says, "You go down in the basement with him and show him where the furnace is." I went down with him. He's looking at the furnace. Nothing's wrong with the furnace. All of a sudden he looks and he says, "There's a switch. Who turned the furnace off?" I says, "Nobody turned the furnace off." You don't turn the furnace off in March. He showed me where the switch was way up on top there. There was no one down there except my mom washing the dish towels. The furnace had gone out and saved the fish. If the furnace had not gone off, that fish would have been all spoiled. We could have served everything else but the fish. They were colder than the things we took out of the refrigerator.

For home Tables, the food might be cooked at different relatives' homes and brought to the one home where the Table is held. For the church Tables most of the cooking is done in the church or school kitchen. The clubs, not having a regular place to hold their altar, will divide the responsibility for the cooking among the members. It is done at home except for sauce and brought to the hall where the Table is being held. Restaurants will use their regular kitchen to prepare the food, working in and around the times the restaurant is open.

All the food is prepared from scratch. Little, if any, commercially prepared food is used including the pasta. For the church Tables this varies but the norm is home-made. A church, because of the numbers being served, may use a commercial eggplant parmigiana and pre-breaded fish. The sauce might be made by several women and combined into one pot when served.

For the most part, few men are involved in the actual preparation and carrying out of a Table. At the church and club Tables the men may assist with the heavy work of preparing the sauce and of cooking and draining the pasta. At the club Tables, for the men it is a time of talking, storytelling and sharing a glass or two of wine. When asked why they do the sauce, Georgio said "The women never cook here. They cook good at home but do not cook so good over here. We cook better here. We help. The pots are a little heavy for the women. We make the soup and the macaroni ready to serve." Susan when asked about her husband's involvement in their Table said that he did all the shopping and errand running while she and his cousin did the actual cooking.

One men's club: Club Madonna Del Soccorso (Mother for Help) founded in the 1930's as a mutual aid society does their own Table. Restaurant Tables are sponsored by the owners who are often husband and wife so the man plays a large role in the Table as far as organizing and hosting it. At LaNova Pizzeria, male friends of the owner seem to do most of the work. He also gets community figures to help with the serving.

The basic menu that is common to most Tables through out Western New York has not changed in the seventy-five years I have been able to go back except for some personal variations based on family origins in Sicily or family preference for certain recipes. The recipes used are traditional ones passed down from mother to daughter. In some cases recipes approximating family recipes are taken from cookbooks and modified or adapted from remembered ones. One woman said that a pinch of sugar should be added to each type of food served as a reminder of the sweetness of St. Joseph.

What is served is:

1. A soup of lentils and rice sometimes with greens such as chopped spinach or fennel tops added.

2. Pasta con sarde with mollica: This is a red sauce made with anchovies, a commercial canned sarde (sardine) sauce, fresh sardines or smelts, chopped fennel tops and served with mollica (finely ground bread crumbs toasted with a small amount of sugar added) rather than grated cheese. The mollica is considered by some to be symbolic of the sawdust from Joseph's workshop. Others say it is because they were to poor in Sicily to have cheese to use on their pasta. Mollica was originally made from the bread that was too stale to eat.

3. Raw food including black and green olives, a slice of fennel (finocchi) which has a round white bulb, green leaf stalks and feathery green leaves and a licorice/anise taste. Fennel has been considered a sacred and healing herb for many centuries. An orange slice is included in this part of the meal. Some say it should be a third of an orange to symbolize the Trinity. These foods are said to be a sign of poverty and are served at the beginning of the meal.

4. Battered/deep fried cod fish (baccalà), asparagus, artichoke, cauliflower, fennel, and cardoons, which while a part of the artichoke family, look like oversized celery. Many people even today have a "secret" cardoon patch in the country where they cut fresh cardoon in the summer and freeze it for St. Joseph's Day.

5. Frocias (frittatas) are omelets filled with any vegetable available.

6. Desserts: sfinge or sfince (a deep-fried cruller-type pastry sometimes dusted with powered sugar), pizzelli (egg wafers), sfinge di San Giuseppe (a cream puff made from sfinges with a ricotta cheese filling), pignolata sometimes called strufoli (honey balls), farfallette dolci (ribbons or bowties- Theresa's daughter told me she uses her pasta maker to roll the dough until it is paper thin) and cassata (cake).

7. Wine, coffee, pop (soda)

8. Bread

Churches' menus have been adapted because of the taste of the people attending. They often serve plain marinara sauce on pasta rather than the pasta con sarde and add linguini and clam sauce, calamari (squid), fried smelt, caponata, potato salad, three-bean salad, orange slices with onions, pepper and olive oil, eggplant parmigiana, haddock (or even fish sticks) instead of the baccalà, and pizza (for the children who will not eat the traditional foods). Individuals will add additional foods to their Tables as personal taste and family taste dictates: kidney beans and rice, lentils and macaroni, stuffed artichokes and baccalà ghiotta (cod fish in a light red sauce with olives and pine nuts).

The amount of food prepared and served at the church and restaurant Tables is enormous. For example at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel recipes are designed to feed at least 200-250 people. In an average year the women cook 55 lbs of haddock, 20 lbs of smelt, 10 gallons of spaghetti sauce, 24 lbs each of cauliflower and broccoli, 30 lbs of cardoons, 3 crates of oranges, 9 gallons of wine, 12 lbs of bread crumbs, 12-14 lbs of pasta.

The method of serving the food varies especially for the club and church Tables:

1. Plates with a sampling of all the foods being served are prepared by the committee and placed on tables around the altar in front of the room. The lentils and rice and pasta con sarde are served to the people at their places by members of the sponsoring group. The prepared plates are then served.
2. A green salad and the lentils and rice are served at the table with the rest of the food served buffet style.
3. Everything is served buffet style.
4. Potluck: Each person or family attending the Table is asked to bring a company size dish. What may be brought is specified on the flyer advertising the Table. A small donation is also asked to cover basic other costs such as the pasta con sarde and lentils and rice and fish. At. St. Rose of Lima suggested dishes included meatless casseroles such as eggplant parmesan, spinach lasagna, omelets with vegetables, gelatin molds, cheese trays and cookies especially Italian type. No brownies was a specific request.

Plates of food at John's Italian Village, Buffalo NY


At home Tables, the family may have a "First Sitting" when the altar and food are blessed by the parish priest and twelve invited guests (symbolic of the twelve apostles) are served by members of the host family. After this, the food is placed on a table near the altar and people are invited to serve themselves as they arrive.

Regardless of how little food there may seem to be on the Table, everyone I have interviewed has said that there is always enough to feed all who come to the Table. Once the Table begins, no additional cooking is done. One woman talking about her home Table said: "The pot of pasta is never empty. Regardless of how much is served, the pot is always full. When one platter is empty, there is always another one in the kitchen to replace it." Plates are often prepared and sent to those who for one reason or other cannot attend the Table to connect them to the celebration.

Even after many people are fed, generous amounts of food are left over. The tradition which began with feeding the poor is continued by sending what food remains to the various soup kitchens and dining rooms. Any money collected from the participants at church and club Tables remaining after the bills are paid is given to selected local charities such as Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Some money may be sent to orphanages or other charities in the peoples' hometowns in Sicily.

The Table, on some level then, could be seen as counter to the concept of the "limited good" which teaches that there is a finite amount of anything material available to any one person, at any one time, in any one place. What does exist is always in short supply. There is no way in a person's power to increase the available quantities. One may acquire more only through the intervention of a higher power, such as a saint. The hospitality of the Table stands counter to the intense individualism of the Sicilian society struggling against any outsider who attempts to take what is perceived as an undue share of their resources. Everyone basically says the same thing: "St. Joseph provides." Thus taking the responsibility for the amount of food out of the realm of the secular and placing it in the realm of the sacred.

 For information on a slide/lecture on the St. Josph's Table contact

Nancy Piatkowski , the researcher of the above material.

The illustrations are from her collection of over 800 photographs of Tables in Buffalo and Niagara Falls NY

[home][top]