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St. Joseph's eve

Today is St. Joseph Day. Only it’s not, except in certain Italian-American neighborhoods, where it’s been St. Joseph’s Day since more or less the weekend, which is when the confection known as the St. Joseph’s pastry started showing up alongside the grudgingly offered Irish soda bread in local bakeries. We Italians, never reluctant to indulge our impulse toward aggrieved resentment and victimization, have to remind the whole world that not everyone is congenitally (or even civically) compelled to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Must have something to do with the status anxiety that comes with, as I’ve seen at least one Irish writer phrase it recently, “arriving on a later boat.”

Growing up in rural western New Jersey, I was spared the ethnic strife I understood to be forever roiling the urban centers to the east. My father might mutter vaguely now and then about “Connecticut and Westchester Irish” he had to deal with as a day student at Fordham University in the 1950s, but he exhibited indifference to March 17, and I didn’t even know what a St. Joseph’s pastry was, or the symbolism it carried for certain immigrants and their children, until I got to know my wife’s family.

From them I got my first look at a St. Joseph’s pastry, along with firsthand stories from the frontlines of Jersey City—about the Irish toughs who bullied my father-in-law, the Irish girls who brazenly yanked the hair of his aunts and grandmother right beneath the noses of the uncaring teachers, the general haughtiness and superiority with which the Dillons and Halligans and McGoverns carried themselves, “walking down the streets liked they owned them—which they did!” Umbrage and resentment in plentiful supply, but neither did these stop my father-in-law from forging close friendships with kids like Francis Xavier Fitzpatrick and Jimmy McGovern himself (whose father Mugsy was selected for running the numbers “on account of his photographic memory”). Or one of the cousins from marrying the beautiful Kay McGillicuddy. Or the grandparents and the Dillons from becoming lifelong, mutually helpful neighbors.

Settled in Brooklyn, I was reintroduced to St. Joseph’s pastry only after my son was born, by the older Italian woman in whose care we were leaving him a couple of afternoons a week (his name, go figure, is Patrick). She said he really liked it, even better than the pistachios and Tootsie Rolls she fed him despite his only being eighteen months old at the time. This morning on the way to the subway I stopped by the local bakery, where a marked-down, forlorn-looking loaf of day-old soda bread sat on the counter. Over the weekend I read that the neighborhood I live in is now only about 20% Italian, down from 52% thirty years ago—a decline not nearly as great as I suspected from having watched the turnover in just the last decade—with median household income having more than doubled. Most of the other customers were ordering lattes and croissants. I ordered a St. Joseph’s pastry, selecting the custard variety (zeppole) over the cannoli-cream (sfinci), having to be reminded of the difference and forgetting just how large and daunting these things are. I’ll probably just bring it back home and split it four ways for dessert tonight, and quietly celebrate St. Joseph’s eve with the family.

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Dominic,

I realize this is Lent and that zeppole can be large, but splitting it FOUR ways? Doesnt sound like much of a feast to me. It will certainly be a quiet celebration! Open the borsa and at least get two.

My own preference is for sfinci: here's a recipe with a rather delectable photo of the delicacy:

http://michelescicolone.com/sfinci-di-san-giuseppe/

Everything I have read says that St. Joseph's Day is Wednesday, March 19th.

Everything I have read says that St. Joseph's Day is Wednesday, March 19th.

There's a large Italian community here in Oakland, CA, may of who are descendants of folks from Calabria.  I understand the St. J Day got it's start in Sicily which, of course, is just across the bridge from Sicily.

When I asked some of them about how they are celebrating, they told me that it never was a big thing in their families and social clubs.

Could it be more of an East Coas/Southeast/Midwest thing?  I know it's big in Kansas City and New Orleans.  There are a LOT of Italians here, particularly in San Francisco and I have read/heard nothing about celebrations, altars, meals, etc. out here.

When I was brilliantly creating a regular "letter from ---" for  The Trenton Times, the place in Italy with the roots of most of the residents of Chambersburg in Trenton, NJ  (where Jimmy Carter had to go when he got in trouble with the Sons of Italy, but that's another story) was, I was reliably told, Calabria. The reguar letter idea fell through (like most of my good ones), but apparently there are a lot of cousins in comon between Oakland and Trenton -- two cities undervalued by people who have never been there.

St. Joseph's Day was never a big deal in Trenton while I was there. Neither, though, was St. Patrick's Day. I've heard more about it since I have been in Florida. The major seminary makes a big deal over Joe-Pat, which it handles as a big, super combined day to extort a lifting of the Lenten fast from the bishop. (I don't know why Joe comes first. Alphabetically? Chronologically? Putting the Irish in their place?). Some South Florida restaurants also seem to use the double-header idea. My wife had corned beef and cabbage at Stresa's yesterday. That feels to me like ordering grape leaves at a German restaurant. I had the fish.

Dominic,

Did your family belong to St. Cecelia's at Herbert and N. Henry Streets in Greenpoint? Great parish and great neighborhood.

I am a zeppole person through and through.  I went to as many Italian Feasts in the summer that I could attend just to get a brown paper bag of hot zeppole coated in powdered suger.  That is heaven to me.

St. Joseph Day and St. Joseph altars, loaded with delicious baked goods and other tasty treats, have been part of the New Orleans and vicinity scene for more years than I can remember. People visit the altar, leave an offering for the food they take and this money is donated to the poor.

Another reason to be thankful that there's a New Orleans.

Alan - alas, no, not a St. Cecelia's family.

The zeppole that one buys at the feasts are not zeppole San Giuseppe. Dominic the reason your father got upset with the Irish was because he did not have a Vito Corleone in his neighborhood like I did. Being a "college Italian" at that time means he forgot to honor the Godfather who would have protected him. Then "his enemies would have become the Don's enemies and people would fear him."

In 1948 I sold newspapers in bars from Third Avenue to Wales Avenue in the Bronx which was completely Irish. There was not the tension you spoke of. It must have been with the educated crowd. 

At any rate, Bona festa. And explain to Alan the difference in zeppoles. 

Thanks, Bill, for your concern.  I know the difference between the two types of zeppole.  My comment was about how much I enjoy the ones at Italian Feasts not the ones associated with St. Joseph's Day.

Jim McCrea,  I live on the east coast now (DC area) but come from California, as you know.  This site is so heavily dominated by northeasterners - with a sprinkling of midwest and and a couple of people from New Orleans (for a little pizzazz) - it's almost funny at times.  So often the posters seem unaware of the fact that there is a big country out there!

Like you, I never knew of anyone in California making a big deal of St. Joseph's day.  It's not a big deal in in DC but  there is one Italian American parish that apparently celebrates it in a big way. I never knew until reading this post today that St. Joseph's Day is a big event in at least some Italian American families/parishes.

Anne Chapman, as An Olivier would tell you, 'pizzazz' is just another term for joie de vivre. St. Joseph had it and so do real New Orleaneans.

Anne,

Years ago California was the New Frontier. People were going out  there as an adventure. In the beginning the movie industry was looked down  upon so the unexplored West Coast was open to them. "That's "how the Jews invented Hollywood." Nobody else wanted  it. Don Corleone's family stopped at Vegas. 

So blame those renegade  Italians who forgot their heritage and did not give San Giuseppe his due. Such a lacuna. Nonetheless, I would bet that Joe Dimaggio's family celebrated the feast. 

Anyhow, everywhere  part of the tradition was that on that day, you had to pull the ear lobe of anyone named Giuseppe as you kissed them to wish them a happy Saint Joseph's Day. 

Bill, interesting about the traditions. I am totally unfamiliar with them.  My family (maternal and paternal) were among the adventurers I suppose - settling in Los Angeles well after the Gold Rush, but long before Hollywood (1880s).  My mother told me lots of stories about growing up in LA when it was a small town.  I have some great family photos from the early 20th century, including some showing some major streets that are now famous (Sunset, Sepulveda, etc)  when they were dirt roads.   By the time I came along, Hollywood was in full swing and I lived in a neighborhood that is very close to major studios, so, unsurprisingly, most of our neighbors worked for the industry. My best friend was Jewish as were most of our neighbors.  I grew up celebrating Jewish holidays with her, but even though I went to a parochial school I never even heard of anyone celebrating St. Joseph's Day!  I don't think LA had many ethnic parishes which seem so common on the east coast and mid-west (except for the Spanish-speaking parishes). I've never known a single person in my whole life named Giuseppe!  

Bernard and Ann, I do hope someday to visit New Orleans. I have traveled a fair amount in my life, both in the US and outside of it.  I lived in France for a year when younger and I have been fortunate enough to visit many of the world's great cities over the years, from Tokyo to Rome, and in the US probably every major city except New Orleans. I do hope to remedy that at some point because I've always envied the apparent joie de vivre of your city.  I'll put it on the bucket list!

Hope everyone had a great St. Joseph's Day!

Well I'll be darned!  I just discovered that Sicily is across the bridge from Calabria, not from Siciliy.

Who woulda known?

Out here in my Castro District parish, this would be viewed as a delightful tradition:    "Anyhow, everywhere part of the tradition was that on that day, you had to pull the ear lobe of anyone named Giuseppe as you kissed him to wish him a happy Saint Joseph's Day."

Bill:  I'm sure you meant "him" rather than "them" unless it is a practice on the East Coast to name some women Giuseppe.

As a product of a "mixed marriage," that is of an Italian and Irish couple, the sometimes antagonism between the two, was more of a source of humor than anything else in our family. One joke was that our family cooked and ate Italian, but drank Irish. Good thing it was not the opposite, as Irish-Americans, at least until recently, were no culinary stars. Our generation has kept up that tradition. As the day to day cook in the family, with some Tuscan and Sicilian in my ancestry, I cooked a new dish, for us, Sicilain rolled and stuffed eggplant for St, Joseph's Day. (No patries -- diet and lent!) Delizioso! I must say. Give it a try, Dominic. Thanks for this entertaining article.

Anne --

Do come on down :-)  But to tell the truth, though I dearly love my city, I don't understand the strong attraction to others.  The only other place I've lived is Washington DC, and I could have been happy there too, though now it seems to be all legislators, lawyers and lobbyists.  Yes, we do have parades at the drop of a hat, and we have the oaks and the food and the eccentrics and the music .  . .  Hey, I guess it really is different.