A couple of years ago, I met a mother/daughter duo in a quilting class who, after we established a familial Italian connection, told me an intriguing story about a tradition from New Orleans called St. Joseph's Altar.
Now, I have lived here off and on for close to 20 years, and although I am not Catholic, I thought I had a handle on local happenings and this one completely slipped my radar. In addition to the tradition itself, these ladies made a fig cookie recipe that grabbed me by the throat and hasn't let me go. Cucidati....even the name intrigues.
I had the impression that these cookies take time to make and are usually exclusively mad around the Eastertime. This may not be the case, but as I said, it was my impression. The Altar is set up to honor St. Joseph and came to New Orleans from Sicily where the tradition started after a time where the famine in Sicily brought the people to beg their patron saint, Joseph, for relief. In answering their prayers, they paid homage to him by erecting an altar with their harvest and giving the food to the less fortunate.
In New Orleans, people would drape a greenery on their doorways to signify that they had built their own altar inside and invited people in to partake of the food and the tradition lives on in Churches, schools, homes and in this following case a local bakery, Nonna Randazzo's.
I spent summers and most Christmas weeks with my Father and Grandmother as a child and grew up hearing and eating Italian. The two of them conversed almost exclusively in the language and neither my brother nor I ever learned it. We instead spoke Swedish back home in Texas with our Mother and Mormor. Yessss. that was quite the combination.
My father's mother was in fact from Sicily and devoutly Catholic. But she learned to cook (deliciously, I might add) by my Grandfather who hailed from Naples. We ate like kings and queens in New York and I learned to make ragu and caccitore and biscotti and sesame anise cookies but I never had any fig filled nothing so I raced home and phoned Dad and asked him about it. After determining that I clearly had the pronunciation incorrect, we Googled it phonetically and ta-da! He got it! But no, he knew the cookie but not the tradition! And no my Grandmother who loved figs as much or more as me, never made them.
Again, that was a couple of years ago and last year another quilting group I am in spoke of this St. Joseph's Altar again and told me about Nonna's and that they held an Altar every year that was open to all! And that it was going to be held the sencond week in March. So, I went!
John met me there last Sunday and we enjoyed the very pleasant company of strangers at the lovely Nonna's in Covington. Here are a few photos for you to enjoy
If you can identify any of the dishes and give me names, I would be much appreciated!
When we left, we were handed a "goodie bag" with several items inside. A St. Joseph's Prayer card, a sesame anise cookie (memories!) a fava bean for luck (place it in your pantry and you will never run out of food.) (It's in there) and several cookies and a crust of bread for the freezer. Now in the face of a mighty storm, you break a piece of the bread off and cast it to the wind to protect your home!
And if you are interested in learning more about St Joseph's Altar, this is a link to the Virtual St Joseph's Altar