Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Joseph's Day---Food, The Color Red, and Real Estate--A Humorous Saturday Journal

Buon Giorno di San Giuseppe!!

This will not be a devout history, but a lighthearted look at  St. Joseph's Daya little-known holiday, always right after St. Patrick's Day, and its connection to my family of origin. 

Yes, I am continuing my brief series to commemorate my late Grandparents' 100th year.  Some might find this to be empty sentimentality.  To me, it's a way to keep the two of them alive, in the minds and hearts of new friends....perhaps the giddy sense of happiness they gave me will rub off on some unwary reader, who might come away with the same sense of energy they inspired in me...They would have enjoyed knowing that.

The custom, the devotion and the feast, originated in my Grandfather's country of origin, Sicily. It is not a totally solemn occasion, but one of much revelry, food, and gently humorous rituals. It brings to mind childhood feasts, relatives, the reminder that we need to laugh at ourselves affectionately, for keeping traditions long after we remember why (if we ever knew in the first place!)

The Italian community the world over celebrates St. Joseph's Day as ardently as Irish (and many others) celebrate St. Patrick's Day. St. Joseph is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In the Middle Ages, the people of Sicily, faced with a severe drought and famine, asked their patron Saint Joseph to intercede with God to bring rain. When the saving rains came, the people promised to show their appreciation with a series of feasts, festivals, feeding of the poor, and the Wearing of Red.  Why red?   Some think it's the closest color to the vestments worn during lent; others claim it's a lighthearted challenge to the Irish and their Green. Again, we're not REAL sure, but it feels right, and the tradition is comforting, so we keep it.


Entering the Arizona Condo where Sam and Lucy lived their final years, one notices their absence, the unusual quiet in the rooms;  yet, the two of them are everywhere there.  They are at once there and not there, like the optical illusion of the goblet morphing into two silhouettes....

In my imagination, the air is still filled with the warm scent of tomato sauce simmering, pungent and sweet. My mouth still waters at the mellowness, owing to their secret concoction of garlic and onion, tomato sauce and paste, a heady blend of seasonings, tender neck bones, a pinch of baking soda to take out the bite and extra acid, and the pinch of sugar to enhance the sweetnes of the tomato.

Under that aroma would be the all-pervasive, summery scent of greens with a simple dressing of olive oil, sweet red wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, and oregano.

Lucy, my grandmother was the Queen of sauce and salad, and the recipe known as bracciole, the rolled round steak stuffed with breading and hard boiled egg, wrapped in bacon and tied with string.

When Sam, my Grandfather, was in the kitchen (he spent a lot of time there), he was the Master of Baking.  Pizza crust made from scratch always had the warm smell of beer as the dough was being punched and kneaded.  He even ground his own sausage, and stuffed the casings, which looked like enormous condoms when they were strewn across the cooking table.  Sam was also known for his cream puffs, and all kinds of breaded vegetables, like squash, and mushrooms.  (Later I'll relate his experiences as a 30-year employee of Nabisco.)

Sam and Lucy didn't have to wait until St. Joseph's Day to celebrate its spirit all year. The fact is, they never went to anyone's house empty-handed.  They lived to feed the ones they loved, and those who loved them, and we were an army.

One of the Sicilian staples was (and is) fava beans, which are still used in the Minestrone and other dishes for this holiday.  (See?  even Hannibal Lecter is in the spirit of the holiday, wearing his red..... )  Fava beans were considered lucky because during the drought, they thrived while other crops failed.  Using bread crumbs on top of certain pasta dishes brings to mind sawdust, to commemorate Joseph the Carpenter.

In fact St. Joseph  is the Patron Saint of carpenters, house buyers and sellers, fathers, pastry chefs (appropriately), wheelwrights, and working people.


Maybe due to his being a carpenter, home-sellers have asked for his intercession to bring on buyers.
One of the goofiest traditions connected to St. Joseph is the burying of a statue upside down in the yard of a home that is for sale. You can even buy a kit for this purpose!

"When petitioning St. Joseph for help in selling a home, a believer is expected to bury a small statue of the saint upside down in the ground, facing away from the house but near the "For Sale" sign....The statue is dug up once the home has been sold and then taken to the seller's new home, who then must place the statue in a location of honor, in recognition of Joseph's help in making the successful move possible. According to some, failing to take that final step will have future repercussions, making it difficult to sell the new home when the seller decides to move again."

What are St. Joseph's Pants?  Click on this link for a recipe for special cookies filled with ground sweetened chick-peas (fava beans), a St. Joseph's Day staple in Sicily and elsewhere. 

Next up:  Another St. Joseph's Day tradition that nature lovers appreciate...and how it reminds me of an old Academy-Award-winning Short Film.....


  1. The Italian Culture is loaded with such warm and loving traditions and celebrations, and St. Joseph's Day is no exception. Thanks for yet another glimpse into your origins and the sweet visit with Sam and Lucy. I can almost smell the heavenly aroma of the garlic and tomatoes wafting through my screen. Great post Tom!

  2. I'm glad I had the opportunity to know Sam before he died in 2001. He was a true character, loyal friend, and protector of those he loved. He also lived life to its fullest. (Hmmm ... he reminds me of someone else I know.) I remember Sam serving up steak and eggs for us at the condo the first time I visited there in the late 90s -- and then another time when he prepared lasagna for you, Kirk and me in Schaumburg. Time for dinner. Bring on the pasta!!