By: Trevor Wisdom
The significance of the Port of New Orleans to the city’s cuisine cannot be overstated. Not only was the port vital for the diverse ingredients off-loaded onto its docks, but even more so for the countless waves of immigrants who disembarked there and brought their unique cultural and culinary traditions with them. Throughout the 1880s, Sicilians migrated to the Crescent City and have left a lasting mark on its culinary landscape.
One tradition that has remained popular with the city’s Sicilian Americans is the St. Joseph’s Day Celebration, or the Feast of St. Joseph, observed annually on March 19. Of all the culinary wonders in New Orleans, arguably none is more spectacular than the St. Joseph’s Altars, erected the week before the feast. These marvelous, artful displays are offered in thanks to Sicily’s patron saint for saving the island’s residents from starvation during famine in the Middle Ages. The devotion that Sicilian Orleanians have for their patron saint is evident in the generous portions of distinctive foods given as offerings for the good fortune bestowed upon their ancestors as well as their own lives.
Three tiers of food are heaped upon the altars, with a statue of St. Joseph holding the place of honor at the center of the upper tier. And since the feast occurs during Lent, the food on the altars is meatless.
Sicilian families have erected altars since arriving in New Orleans and continue doing so to this day. The altars are a massive undertaking of devotion and thanks for personal prayers answered or favors granted in times of need. Altars today are found at churches, private homes, and Italian community centers, including the American Italian Cultural Center in downtown New Orleans. Each tiered altar is decorated with traditional breads in symbolic shapes ranging from lilies to lambs and the staff of St. Joseph, pastries (usually with figs), and fish in various preparations, representing both the 12 apostles and the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Other typical fare includes stuffed artichokes and fried artichoke stems, pasta with seasoned bread crumbs, and vegetables such as fried cauliflower and seafood-stuffed bell peppers. Each altar also features fava beans, or “lucky beans,” as these are what saved the Sicilians from famine when St. Joseph interceded and brought rain.
Dried beans are given as a token gift to altar visitors both for good luck and as a reminder to pray. New Orleanian Donna D’Arcangelo wrote Mama’s Kitchen: Three Generations of Italian-Creole Home Cookin’ in New Orleans to celebrate her Sicilian heritage and New Orleans traditions—just as her great-grandmother brought her family’s statue from Sicily as means of keeping native traditions alive in her new world.
As Donna notes, “They’re all traditional recipes that we Italian New Orleanians grew up with but unfortunately many in our generation never learned how to make. The Sicilian people blended their traditions with the New Orleans culture to make new traditions.” She continues, “It’s important that our traditional ways stay alive so future generations can continue making these New Orleans-Italian meals for their families.”