Saint Joseph's Day Table
Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19th, is, in Italy, also Father’s Day. The feast and festival—which always falls in the midst of Lent—is especially commemorated and celebrated in Sicily.
The tradition of the St. Joseph table of food “la tavala di San Giuseppe” has its origins in Sicily legend during the Middle Ages and attributes the end of a devastating drought to a prayer-devotion that the Sicilian people made to St. Joseph. This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to him. It is a shared celebration with the entire community where the riches of food are given as alms to the poor: Traditional etiquette is that no one can be turned away from
this table. As it is a living tradition, it has many interpreters and many food entries have been added and deleted along the way but two constants remain: no meat and sesame-coated breads in symbolic shapes.
A St. Joseph’s Day “Table” or “Altar” is a make-shift shrine-cum-dinner-festival held in one’s home, or more recently a church hall or club hall. The host family or group creates what amounts to a kinetic work of art. This table is rife with symbolism, particularly the decorative breads. It was this part of the meal that brought the DiCamillo family to be a participant in hundreds of these celebrations. Sicilian bakers sprinkle copious amounts of sesame seeds—which resemble and symbolize teardrops—on the many different types of St. Joseph’s Day Breads which Di Camillo Bakery has been producing for nearly a century.
The breads themselves are made from the same dough that forms our famous Scaletta “curly” bread, and come in the following shapes for St. Joseph’s Day:
The Latin Cross: Symbol of suffering and salvation.
The Bambino: The baby Jesus to whom St. Joseph was foster-father, St. Joseph’s Staff: Legend has it that St. Joseph’s staff blossomed into a lily, a symbol both of life and death, St. Joseph’s Purse: this symbol is a reminder to give alms to the poor during Lent.
A Sheaf of Wheat: Wheat is a reminder that, when a single, tiny grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much more food at harvest
St. Joseph himself: he is always represented in profile and hunched over with a cane, symbolizing that he was (according to tradition) an old man, while Mary was a teenager, St. Joseph’s Beard: this is actually the Sheaf of Wheat turned upside down, but young children delight when their fathers and grandfathers hold their beard up to their face. It is another reminder of Joseph’s wisdom and old-age.
Heart: a symbol of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the
Immaculate Heart of Mary that flourished throughout Italy in general and Sicily in particular in the 19th century.
The Crown of Thorns: in remembrance of Christ’s passion and that,
despite the day’s feasting among Lent’s fasting, this was still a season of sorrow—but of hope, too!
The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the season of Lent, and meat is forbidden during those forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter
Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardina”, another Italian island), are served on Foccacia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (our twice-baked Scaletta bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, Egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils.
Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers: those who cannot host their own Table. Stunning to behold and delicious to
partake in, the Di Camillo Family is proud to have been a part of so many Italian-American St. Joseph’s Day Tables over our 96-year history.
Ironically the Di Camillo family founded their first bakery on the same street in Niagara Falls as their parish church—Saint Joseph’s—which has married and buried, baptized and anointed generations of us. Indeed, the first bakery also served as a grocery store where many items, from tuna to tomato paste to eggplant Caponata could be picked up in preparation for St. Joseph’s table.
As no feast is complete without dessert, no Saint Joseph’s altar would be finished without the flourish of sweet items. The Di Camillo family has supplied a dessert banquet of biscotti and cookies. Our celebrated Biscotti Di Prato (rated #1 by the New York Times), our authentic Silician fig-filled Bucaletti Cucudatti, Biscotti Regina (another anise cookie, covered in those sorrowful sesame seeds); Biscotti di Vino, the venerable biscuit made with red wine (and covered with sesame seeds), Pane di Spagne (our larger, more airy biscotti), and Biscotti Amaretti a cookie fundamental to any Sicilian dessert platter.
Viva San Giuseppe!
- Michael DiCamillo