St. Patrick’s day and St. Joseph’s day are always within a couple of days from one another in mid March. The official Spring date usually falls a couple of days later. This year and many years in my past have often been marked by an invitation from my Mother, “Anyone up for helping to prepare a St. Joseph’s day table?” Now that a few of my siblings live close by the invitation extends to us all. As special as a St. Joseph’s day celebration is for me I paused for some reason at this opportunity this year.
My family and I are all transplants from Buffalo, NY. St. Joseph’s day was celebrated each year mostly when we were younger. The event would be spearheaded by my Grandmother. My Grandmother came to America from Sicily when she was about 11 or 12 years old. I probably haven’t done as much research as I should on this subject so I’ll just speak on what I experienced growing up. I knew that this was obviously a religious holiday. My Grandmother was Catholic but wasn’t a regular at Church (in my lifetime anyway). My Mother raised us Presbyterian so I always found the pictures and trinkets of religious figures very intriguing. St. Joseph’s day table has roots from Catholicism and was a predominantly vegetarian/pescatarian feast. When you’re young and raised on pasta, pepperoni pizza and wings (As most good Buffalonians have been) a vegetarian/pescatarian feast isn’t all that exciting. Especially when the meal seemed to center around pasta con sarde (pasta with sardines). You could imagine that as a child the strong flavors of sardines and anchovy might not be pleasant on a youngsters palate. My stepfather and I would sometimes sneak away to get chicken wings before going to Grandmas house for this meal.
Being half Irish, it became battle of the Saints in a way. My Father’s side of the family is predominantly Irish which is the origin of my name. My Dad owned a bar when we were young for a short while and we would go to the St. Patrick’s day parade wearing goofy green woven hats and sporting green jackets with his bar’s name embroidered on the back. The unfortunate thing is that I know much less about what St. Patrick’s day is really all about. As I got a little older I saw the day as an excuse for people to get completely blitzed on green beer and Irish whisky. Corned beef and cabbage, the traditional meal eaten this day was usually much more tolerable as a youngster than the food shared on St. Joseph’s day. Meat and potatoes vs. pasta and fish. I pledge to do more research on St. Patrick’s day in an attempt to reclaim any of its dignity it has for me.
These two celebrations happened around the same week and as a child you’re often dragged around to these sorts of events. They’re traditional, yearly family occurrences.
Now that I’m older and my palate has developed, I’ve learned much more about food and can really understand the importance of this one dish served every year at the St. Joseph’s day table. pasta con sarde (click here for recipe). This dish has become a dish that means so much to me recently. The sauce typically has many ingredients that I believe sum up my understanding of what would be very traditionally Sicilian. The base of the sauce has fennel, sardines, anchovy, raisin, pine nuts, capers, and tomatoes.
Some other dishes that were seen served at the table would be some type of frittata, artichokes, breaded and fried cardoon,(a type of green which grows similar to artichoke). When we couldn’t find cardoon, my Grandmother would sometimes substitute celery. There was a special bread that was bought from local bakeries which had a sesame and/or anise flavoring. Buffalo has a very large Italian population and finding these types of foods were not normally an issue. For dessert she would fry up a dough called sfingi which is something we definitely didn’t want to miss. That was the one thing we could certainly tolerate no question.
This year my Mother’s invitation to help with St. Joseph’s day table really got me thinking about traditions. Meals, ceremonies, cultural customs that are so unique and special. My Grandmother has passed a few years ago and she actually hasn’t prepared a St. Joseph’s day table in many many years previous to her passing. Does this yearly event pass with her or should we keep it going? Even though we didn’t really understand the exact meaning of the meal I always knew that it was special. It’s something that I’m able to connect to my ancestral roots with. As generations pass and we become further removed from what we know as our cultural beginnings do these customs fade or do we do what we can to keep them going. Do all families have some kind of tradition that they hold on to which they feel is important? If they don’t, maybe they’re created and then passed down to newer generations. Pasta con Sarde has become that dish that I could call my soul food, I’m able to taste that dish and it has such a transcendental effect that touches the dusty corners of my memory and speaks volumes about my history.
Please share what dish, tradition or ceremony gives you a sense of belonging.