I was simmering pork chops Wednesday afternoon, March 19, when I noticed the mailman struggling to fit a small package through the mail slot on my front door. Oh, how I love packages! Particularly this one. And to think, I’d almost forgotten it was coming.
Inside was a beautiful braid of anise-flavored bread, dusted with sesame seeds and baked by my friend, Rose Ann (Scott) Penney, who mailed it from her home in Olympia, Wash.
She’d made the “St. Joseph bread” as part of a traditional Italian-Catholic custom reportedly begun in Sicily during the Middle Ages and passed down to her by her Sicilian relatives.
Raised Catholic – though very nearly completely Irish – I’d never before heard of the Feast of St. Joseph or “Festa De St. Guiseppe,” which is celebrated every March 19 to thank St. Joseph for answered prayers.
According to legend, St. Joseph rescued Sicilians from a devastating drought. In celebration and gratitude, they held a meatless feast in his honor complete with fava beans – the crop that saved them.
The tradition grew to include the much-anticipated “St. Joseph bread,” and this year Rose Ann (for whom the kids and I cat-sat when we were neighbors in Naperville) decided to share hers with us. I was so honored.
Enclosed with the bread was a copy of the warm and funny story she wrote 15 years ago in honor of her mother and aunt, as she prepared to revive their wonderful tradition. I got such a kick out of it that she permitted me to share it with you here:
“The celebration of St. Joseph’s Day, as it was done in my father’s family, started in the small towns of Italy. St. Joseph was the patron saint of families and many had a special devotion to him … . An altar to St. Joseph was set up in the home and a feast of meatless dishes was prepared, usually with a minimum of 13 dishes. In the morning, the priest would come to bless the table and food and during the day people would visit each home and say a prayer at the table. They were welcome to sample the foods and upon leaving would each be given some cookies and a cannoli.
“Three people were chosen to represent St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Before starting the meal, special prayers would be said to St. Joseph invoking his help in caring for the family. The special dishes were served, one at a time, to each of the three saints, who tasted, but were not required to finish, each dish. The leftovers of the feast were then given to the poor of the village.
“In my Grandmother’s house, the three saints were seated at the head of the table … . The women of the family who prepared the feast did not eat any of the food and mostly stayed out of sight preparing the dishes. The favorite ingredient of the day was the St. Joseph bread. Large loaves were prepared in the shapes of a wreath, a braid (to represent Mary), a beard and staff (to represent St. Joseph) and an infant (to represent Jesus). These were all placed on the altar, and the wreath was cut to be served with dinner. The other loaves were sent home with family or given to friends who may have need of special prayers.
“My mother (Mary Scott) returned to Penn Yan (New York) after my father’s death in 1962, and Aunt Aggie, his sister, moved in to help raise her four children: (Rose Ann), Joseph, Michael and Ignatius. The two women decided to continue the tradition of the feast of St. Joseph … . The cooking and baking started a week before the feast, and friends and family were invited to share the day … . Family came from Le Roy and Rochester and even from Canada. Friends came from the neighborhood, the church and from work … . Both women were very active in the church community, my mother worked at the local newspaper and my aunt worked at Michael-Sterns (a then – large clothing manufacturer) … you get an idea of the scope of their circle of friends.
“They wanted to share the tradition with everyone, so, instead of one dinner for 13 people (as was the tradition), every person who visited was treated to the full seven-course meal! Then, upon leaving, every person was given a bag containing cookies, cannoli and a small loaf of the bread. …By the time I was a junior in high school it seemed the whole church showed up at our home on this special day … though we probably only served 300 people or so. A long table was set in the dining room and TV trays and laps were used by those who could not fit at the table. Many would show up during their lunch hour, and a steady stream followed throughout the rest of the day. … We usually fed the last guests at 10 that evening!
My mother and aunt kept watch over the ever-boiling pots of noodles and spaghetti, and we children – and anyone else we could commandeer – were enlisted to wait tables. As each new group of guests enjoyed their meal they were treated to my mother, who stood in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room, as she told the story of how the feast started in Italy … .
“Do you remember the old wicker laundry baskets?
We had one of those overflowing with empty cannoli shells, waiting to be filled with a delicate cream. At least 100 pounds of flour were made into loaves of bread. Fortunately, it was an apartment house, and the ovens in each apartment were requisitioned in the baking. Beginning the evening before, women showed up with their electric frying pans to help cook all the vegetables and fish. We were literally up all night … . The next morning we hurried home from Mass to make the cream for the cannoli and spiengi (a fried pastry), before the priest arrived to bless the table!
“In 1976, pregnant with my first son, I cajoled Aunt Aggie, who was not in the greatest health, to once again show me how it was all done. She and my mother were the last in the family to celebrate this feast and I feared the tradition would soon disappear. Many of the recipes were not written down, and as the week progressed I learned that, even when they were, they were in need of interpretation. The tablespoon called for in all of the recipes was of the dinnerware tablespoon variety …In one instance, a ‘heaping’ tablespoon is defined as ‘as much will stay on the spoon when you withdraw it from the box!’ The most intriguing, perhaps, is the measure of lard or Crisco that is added to the five pounds of flour required for each batch of bred. How do I describe to future bakers ‘a handful’ when it means remembering the size of Aunt Aggie’s hands?
“And so it went, my hands covered with flour, I recorded every ingredient and how it was measured and mixed, swirled batters by hand so I would remember the feel and consistency, immersed totally in the laughter and loving of these wonderful women and their wonderful friends, who had become family.”
Rose Ann wrote that, this year. “It was a bit of a virtual celebration with friends and family in New York, Batavia, California, Florida, Rochester and Penn Yan, N.Y., all enjoying the bread on the same day. I am so blessed,” she wrote.
You blessed us too, Rose Ann. As for me and mine, we may have blown it with the yummy pork chops – so much for a meatless feast! – but we also enjoyed feasting upon your delicious bread and your story as I read it out loud.
Been a long time since I was a practicing Catholic – but that’s my kind of communion.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at email@example.com.