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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2007

Move over, St. Patrick: Italians celebrate St. Joseph's Day tomorrow

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The zeppole is a traditional St. Joseph's Day pastry. The zeppole is a traditional St. Joseph's Day pastry.
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The tap is kicked.

The green beer runneth dry.

The headache is lifting.

St. Patrick's Day is over.

Let's talk St. Joseph's Day.

It's tomorrow.

You knew that, of course.

You did... didn't you?

You know, the story of how during the Middle Ages the already drought-plagued island of Sicily suffered a particularly torturous string of rainless months. And how the crops shriveled and starvation set in. And Italy - at least the southern end - seemed more doomed than normal. But the villagers prayed and prayed, and as it is told, on March 19, St. Joseph stepped in and worked a few of his contacts. And rain fell again on Sicily, and the people rejoiced, and if the nuns from my grade school can be trusted, all of Italy celebrated by wearing red and stuffing its face full of shell fish and pastry.

Therefore, St. Joseph's Day.

La Festa Di San Giuseppe.

Every March 19...

You've never heard of it.

It's tough being Italian in Toledo. I grew up in New England - Providence, R.I., to be specific - and mention it every five seconds. You've seen that poster, "A New Yorker's View of the World," with Manhattan in the extreme foreground and Los Angeles in the distance and nothing else? Well, for years, I assumed everyone celebrated St. Joseph's Day. At the least, every Italian - even the bizarre, red-headed Italians with their roots in the north. It was a big deal. In elementary school, I had St. Joseph's Day off. It was celebrated in homes, in Catholic parishes, between families. But of course, large swaths of the East Coast are Italian, and the streets in my neighborhood closed for Festa Di San Giuseppe parades and bakeries would line the sidewalks with stalls. The other day, in a fit of nostalgia, I called Sofo's Italian market on Monroe Street to ask if it did any special St. Joseph's Day pastries.

I was put on hold, then:

"Sir, we have challah bread."

"That's Jewish."

"OK, wait a second."

She returned:

"We do Greek Easter bread."

I was crushed.

But it was understandable.

Until I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I'd never had a paczki, either. Toledo has a small Italian population, and even less of an Italian tradition. St. Joseph's Day tends to be celebrated in cities with large Italian populations - particularly with roots in southern Italy. New Orleans makes a party of it, of course. But beyond the big eastern cities, it gets spotty: Detroit does a bit on its east side. Chicago celebrates some. So does Pittsburgh. If Sofo's didn't know about St. Joseph's, Toledo didn't celebrate it. On a whim, I called Michael's bakery on the east side. They never heard of it, either. I called Mancy's Italian on Monroe - I was briefly elated.

"You know, what? Every year we get asked if we do anything for St. Joseph's Day," a hostess said. There are others like me. A St. Joseph's tradition in Toledo! "But no," she said. "We don't do anything for St. Joseph's Day."

I e-mailed my editor:

"Could I have Monday off for St. Joseph's. It is my heritage."

He replied, intolerantly:

"No."

To be fair, I always thought of St. Joseph's Day as too good to be true - fairly dubious. So did the Irish kids I knew. You've seen The Departed? (Or as they say back home, Da Depahted.) Picture that Irish-Italian hostility with fewer bullets and everything else is dead on. Here we are, two days after St. Patrick's, declaring our own holiday. Sound fishy. There's the story of St. Joseph, the crops, the rain, But deep down I thought they were right. We must be jabbing the Irish. They wear green. We'll wear red. They celebrate by drinking too much? We're going to indulge our own cultural stereotype and eat a lot.

Plus our story was leaky.

The Irish kids would prod:

"How do you know St. Joseph ended the drought in Sicily? Maybe it was Jesus? Or Mary?"

We would say, because a week before the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) - when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will soon give birth to the Messiah - Joseph meets Mary, and a week before the Feast of the Annunciation, the drought ends, so of course Joseph is responsible.

Not even I bought it.

The Irish kids got a day off from school, too (if they went to Catholic school, that is), but it didn't matter. To them, we had plagiarized a holiday and don't even think of wearing green. When I hear how "everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day," I still think to myself that whoever says that isn't Irish. Schoolyard arguments would sound like:

"St. Joseph's Day is a joke."

"Give me a break. St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland? There are no snakes in Ireland."

"Because he drove them out."

"There are no zebras, either. What, he drive them out, too?"

Point, Italy.

That's when it got mean. Newly emboldened, some Italian kid would pull out the biggest gun:

"What about Irish food? St. Patrick drive out the taste, too?"

The centerpiece of St. Joseph's is food, tons of food, and if the Irish beat us in popularity and beverages, no amount of cabbage and corned beef could hope to compete gastronomically. Specifically, St. Joseph's Day is about the St. Joseph's Day "altar." In some churches, it's an actual altar piled high with nonperishable foodstuffs. But in more common practice, it's a table stacked with carbohydrates and endless excuses to eat pillowy cream at Lent. Please understand: Despite the name and holy importance, St. Joseph's Day is as much about Catholicism as St. Patrick's Day.

In short, not at all.

I remember realizing this.

Irish friend: "What's with all the bread crumbs on the table?"

Me: "Since Joseph was a carpenter, that's his sawdust."

Irish friend: "And the beans?"

Me: "Beans are the only crop that didn't dry up in Sicily."

"Which means they were never going to starve, were they? I thought you said starvation -"

"Over here, zeppoli!"

I said the centerpiece is food.

It's actually zeppoli (pronounced ZAY-po-Lee), which is food the way an Aston Martin is a sports car. There's no "genuine" St. Joseph's Day menu, just as you rarely get "authentic Italian cooking" in this country, but rather a combination of regional traditions and ingredients. Pasta con sarde is a favorite - basically, a savory sauce of tomato, raisin, anchovy, sardine, and fennel over spaghetti. Plenty of St. Joseph's tables boast a pignolata (pronounced Bin-olata), a precipitously tall pyramid of fried dough marbles bound together with a slather of honey.

But no zeppoli, no St. Joes.

A zeppole (that's the singular) is a pastry. Some variations in Italy are close to a doughnut - which frankly, to me, is what a paczki is. The zeppole I know, however, looks like a cream puff and is split lengthwise. The halves are deep fried. Between rests sweet yellow custard, sometimes a helping of ricotta and often a spoon of honey. Then, the whole thing gets covered in powdered sugar and topped with a cherry.

One and you die happy.

The nuns at my school would give us tiny boxes the day before St. Joseph's Day. Inside each was a single zeppole, and seriously, though I've heard all the stories from grandparents about getting oranges for Christmas and rolled my eyes too, this was a present.

I had to have one.

I called St. Joe's in Toledo.

Father Stephen Majoros broke the news: "You are not missing anything. It's a matter of culture and the area of the country. We hold a special Mass but that's it."

I called St. Joe's in Maumee.

Father Frank Murd told me when he served in Tiffin the Italians in the parish were so anxious to fit in with the dominant Irish customs, they referred to themselves as "Mediterranean Irish." He said yes, his parish celebrates St. Joseph's Day. They give out St. Joe's medals (a tradition I had forgotten), and they even set out a St. Joseph's table.

With zeppoli? I asked.

"With doughnut holes," he said, then added, "You do know that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers - of the working man."

And all pastry chefs, I said.

"Well, that's good, too."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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