The Washington Post

This pasta is a taste of a springtime tradition, from Sicily to New Orleans

- Ann Maloney

The closest I’ve ever come to making a pilgrimage is on St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans.

Every year, on or about March 19, more than 50 St. Joseph’s altars spring up in varying sizes and permutatio­ns throughout the city and nearby suburbs. Some are in private homes. Others are elaborate displays inside churches, schools or community centers. Then there are ones displayed in hotel lobbies, in bars and even in grocery stores.

I worked at the local paper, and so, with help from the Archdioces­e of New Orleans, I’d publish a guide to the altars, which pay tribute to St. Joseph, the patron saint of Sicily.

Then I used to fill my car with gas and head out to visit as many as I could manage.

The three-tiered altars, rooted in food traditions, legend and religious symbolism passed from generation to generation, draw the faithful and the curious. For Americans of Sicilian descent, like me, the altars are a connection to shared heritage and customs.

Hundreds of volunteers spend hours gathered in community centers and private kitchens baking breads, cookies and cakes and preparing vegetables and seafood to display.

The experience of visiting an altar can be as religious as you like, with kneelers available for stopping to pray, priests’ blessings, recitation­s of the rosary, and Mass before community meals of vegetarian or seafood dishes. There is no meat on the altars, because St. Joseph’s Day falls during the Lenten season, a time of abstinence and reflection.

The tradition of building an altar of thanks, laden with seafood, breads, pastries and citrus, began in the Middle Ages when Sicilians prayed to San Giuseppe to rescue them from drought and famine and built the altars when the rains finally came.

In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph the Holy Patriarch Joseph, patron of the Catholic Church, and set his feast day as March 19, so Catholics around the world observe this day.

In the United States, you’ll most often find the St. Joseph’s Day altars (or tables) in places where Sicilians have settled, such as Chicago, Long Island, Manhattan and, perhaps most abundantly, New Orleans. The tradition took hold there in the 19th century when waves of Sicilians immigrated to the city, including my maternal grandparen­ts. Many found a new home in the French Quarter, which was even given the nickname “Little Palermo.”

The observatio­n became more widespread during World War II, many say, as a way for families to pray for and offer thanks for their loved ones’ safety.

Volunteers display incredible culinary artistry — heavy on symbolism — with breads baked into the shapes of woodworkin­g tools, such as ladders, saws and hammers, as well as Joseph’s staff and sandals, and, of course, crosses. The altars are filled with flowers, candles, oranges and lemons, cucidati fig cookies, and pignolata honey balls. Memorial photos are commonly found on the altars as well.

Other common sights: Hardboiled eggs baked into the bread symbolize rebirth and the coming of Easter; heart-shaped cakes represent the sacred heart of Mary; lamb-shaped coconut cakes represent Jesus, the lamb of God; and whole baked fish recall the biblical story of the miracle of the multiplica­tion of loaves and fishes. ( The food is often donated afterward.)

At one altar, I saw a gorgeous rosary with each bead represente­d by a light-bluetinted cupcake. On another, the stations of the cross were recreated with cutout pastry and fig paste.

Joseph, who is described in scripture as a carpenter, spouse of Mary and earthly father of Jesus, is a prominent figure in the story of Christ’s birth, which is reenacted at some altars in a custom called “tupa tupa” or “knock knock.” Children dress as the Holy Family and knock on doors seeking shelter until they are finally welcomed to a table set with small portions of food from the altar.

Those visiting an altar are asked to make a small donation to help cover the cost and support charities. In return, they receive a bag containing a blessed fava bean — said to be the only crop that survived the Sicilian drought — a St. Joseph prayer card, cookies and usually a small piece of bread.

I still find those prayer cards and dried, blessed fava beans among my things from time to time.

When you move away from home, you keep some traditions the best way you can.

For a taste of St. Joseph’s Day, I’ve made this pasta milanese, a dish that has nothing to do with Milan as far as I’ve been able to determine but that often is served during community meals at the altars.

It is often made with fresh sardines and fennel, but here I’ve re-created a pantry-friendly version with salty anchovies and grassy dried fennel, with a touch of sweetness and nuttiness from raisins and pine nuts.

In keeping with the symbolism of the altars, the dish is dusted with toasted breadcrumb­s, sometimes called the poor man’s parmesan, which are meant to symbolize sawdust from the carpenter’s workshop.

It tastes like home to me.

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