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.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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