In New Orleans, We’re All Sicilians

In New Orleans, We’re All Sicilians
March 20, 2010
Marisa Robertson
The Faster Times

“Where are you from, honey?” the woman asked as she ushered me into her home and gave me a lunch bag filled with homemade cookies. “New York,” I said. “And I’ve never seen anything like this before.” “That’s because New York doesn’t have any Sicilians,” she countered. Pace Vito Corleone, Tony Soprano, and the gang, but once you’ve visited - and dined from - the St. Joseph’s Day altars of New Orleans, you’ll be forgiven for agreeing with her.

It all started back in medieval Sicily, when islanders prayed to their patron saint San Giuseppe for rain to deliver them from drought and famine. The rains came, and wealthy families expressed their gratitude by offering altars of food to the saint, then opening up their homes to their needier neighbors, who feasted on the remains. The holiday made the transition to the New World along with the thousands of Sicilians who settled in New Orleans in the late 19th century (giving birth to such local culinary touchstones as Central Grocery’s muffuletta and Brocato’s ice cream), and the Crescent City remains its spiritual home.

Like so much of New Orleans life, a true St. Joseph’s Day altar belongs to the “more is more” school of aesthetics: its three tiers are covered with a white sheet, adorned with a crucifix, and then piled to the ceiling with cakes, cookies, candies, flowers, candles, silver-framed photographs of loved ones, tricolore streamers, braided loaves, and fishes (because it’s a Lenten feast, meat is never served). Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that the altars aren’t dissimilar in philosophy to an all-dressed, overstuffed po’boy or even the brilliantly colored beaded and be-feathered costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians, who hold an impromptu march each St. Joseph’s Day night. In all cases, there’s a peculiarly New Orleanian sense of bounty, a “holy trinity” of hospitality, good food, and joie de vivre. After all, where else would altar-makers actually go to the trouble of advertising in the local classifieds that they’re expecting you?

Fittingly in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, St. Joseph is also the patron saint of the ill and needy, and the holiday incorporates elements of petition as well as thanksgiving. Unlike Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, it hovers just slightly under the city’s cultural radar (plenty of New Orleanians have never visited an altar, although they’ve all heard of them), but it’s not simply a community celebration. Sure, a good number of the people milling about any given altar probably grew up in the neighborhood, but just as Americans everywhere are a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, anyone viewing an altar the next day (and dining from it the following) winds up feeling like an honorary Sicilian, whether you can compare notes on provenance (”You’re a Schiro? My grandmother was a Schiro!”) or not.

A weary traveler can count on being greeted with open arms, often by a host whose fingers are still floury from kneading bread. After arriving at Louis Armstrong International airport on the afternoon of St. Joseph’s Eve, just in time for the afternoon altar viewings, I headed straight for my first destination: the Dauser home in the nearby middle-class suburb of Kenner, where several dozen cars were pulled up at all angles to the open garage like iron filings to a horseshoe. About forty people were milling about the back yard waiting for the blessing of the 21st annual altar to begin. As the priest dipped a celery stalk in salt water and sprinkled the drops over the assembled crowd, several members of the crowd surreptitiously wiped tears from their eyes.

Sensing a stranger in their midst, two charming elderly ladies immediately offered me a seat at one of the folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the altar. “Where are you from?” asked one, just as the other broke in with a more pressing question, “Are you married?” “Brooklyn,” I said. “And no.” They glanced at each other delightedly and leaned closer. “Take a lemon off the altar,” one of them whispered. “Just make sure no one sees you.” “A lemon?” I asked. “That’s right. When an unmarried woman takes a lemon from the altar, she’ll be married by the next St. Joseph’s Day.” “What happens if a married woman takes a lemon?” I wondered a little too loudly. The ladies looked at each other sadly. “It rots,” they said in unison, and sighed.

For someone who gets exhausted when she throws a dinner party for ten, just imagining the labor that goes into preparing even the smallest St. Joseph’s Day altar is overwhelming. At the Greater New Orleans Italian Cultural Society along Bayou St. John, it takes 60 volunteers several weekends of baking to produce all the cucidati (pastel-colored glazed fig cookies) and other desserts scattered like jewels across the altar. As a general rule, the larger the cultural institution, the more elaborate its altar - and the more likely that the dishes enshrined on it will go directly to feed the homeless. All the more reason why the real joy of the holiday comes in a smaller, more intimate settings: walking into a strange home, like the Talamo-Metzgers’ (the host was quick to confess that a German butcher had crept into the bloodline somewhere along the way), and being greeted with a smile and a plate of maple-braised carrots, stuffed artichokes, and pasta.

About that pasta: It’s just not St. Joseph’s Day without a serving of pasta Milanese topped with mudrica, a “sawdust” of toasted breadcrumbs in honor of Joseph’s trade of carpenter. Those who don’t want to wait until next year should consider grabbing a copy of chef John Besh’s most recent cookbook, My New Orleans, which features his interpretation of the dish (Besh uses a good dose of red-pepper flake in his breadcrumbs, but old-timers will tell you sternly that a good sprinkling of brown sugar is the only flourish needed).

Before you say goodbye to the altar, be sure to leave a small donation and take a fava, or “lucky”, bean (which, or so the legend goes, was crucial to Sicilians’ survival of that famine centuries ago) as well as a few St. Lucy’s Eyes, in honor of the blinded martyr Santa Lucia, patron saint of vision. (Rest assured, the “eyes” are just uncooked garbanzo beans.)

Me? CalI it the magic of St. Joseph’s Day, or of New Orleans itself, but I couldn’t resist. I snuck a lemon too.
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