“Referring to a Sicilian as an Italian is like calling somebody from Mississippi a Yankee!”
– Cynthia Inzina Migliore
Sicilian vs. Italian may have been a jarring comparison in the past, but these days those twains are meeting more and more at St. Joseph altars all over New Orleans: Sicilian, Italian, German, French, Honduran, African, Vietnamese … Who knows anymore? Whatcha gonna do? Hand me some of that cannoli dough, would ya, Hans?
In fact, during the month of March you’re likely to see a wider variety of hands forming cuccidattas (fig cakes) and ladling out fava beans (“lucky beans” to most New Orleanians) than in the cafeteria line at the United Nations.
Unlike the King Cake however, St. Joseph altars aren’t being mass-produced and franchised out to places as far-flung as White Horse, the Yukon. But that uniquely Sicilian celebration that took hold of New Orleans over 150 years or so has waned, withered and returned to be embraced by just about anybody with something to be thankful for or armed with a petition to the Roman Catholic saint in whose honor the altars are built.
Although she winces at the title “Queen of the St. Joseph Altars in New Orleans,” Sandra Scalise Juneau (the married name is pure Avoyelles Parish French – see what I mean?), has a burning passion for the annual rite that combines carpentry, cooking and baking skills for every imaginable delicacy for one purpose: to honor a chosen saint.
Arguably too, nobody knows more about, nor has had a hand in the design and building of, more of the iconic altars and the food atop them than Juneau.
“It’s all I knew from the time I was just a child,” she says. “I went to St. John the Baptist School on what was then Dryades Street. My grandparents owned a grocery store on Clio and Liberty streets and I’d go there for lunch, then back to school. My other grandparents also owned a grocery store and my greatest joy was to go with Papa Scalise to the French Market on Sunday when he picked up the produce. It seemed all the Italians back then were in the grocery business. So I was always around food.”
So much so that, when her cousins were outside playing, young Juneau was right at her grandmother’s side serving a childhood-long apprenticeship in the love and making of St. Joseph altars.
“Right after Christmas, while most other families were getting their Mardi Gras krewes together, my grandmother was getting her St. Joseph Altar crew together,” Juneau says. “With her, I mostly watched because she always said she was too busy … ‘Next year, I show you,’ she always said. But I watched everything she did and later my aunt was hands-on with me. I learned well and that passion has grown to this day.”
She does admit that during the 1960s, the younger generation of boys in New Orleans turned to Rock ‘n’ Roll instead of Sicilian traditions and the building of St. Joseph altars took a back seat to the upkeep of ’57 Chevys. The girls of that era also were headed in another direction, according to Juneau.
“My mother’s generation didn’t want to be part of this, to be Italian or to speak the language,” she says. “They wanted to be American. But I think that changed in 1965 when the Hallmark Greeting Card company was doing a display for the public in their home office. It was called ‘Festivals,’” Juneau says. “It covered the unique traditions of various societies. Mimi Sheraton, who later became the food editor for The New York Times, was in charge of the event at the time and she invited three of us to New York to advise them on the building of a St. Joseph altar. They sent us three airline tickets. Well, my grandmother, who had founded the Santa Lucia (St. Lucy) Society, an organization at St. John the Baptist Church, got about 50 of her members together. They chartered a bus and came to New York to be with us. When they got to New York, Hallmark invited the entire Santa Lucia Society, all 50 of them, to lunch at The Four Seasons [Restaurant]. Can you imagine that? They said they came up to New York because wanted to see the St. Joseph altar. But really, it was just an excuse for them to charter a bus and go on a trip. They did that all the time.”
The exhibit ran for six months at the Hallmark headquarters on Fifth Avenue. During that time countless thousands viewed it and took home ideas of St. Joseph altars of their own.
Sandra Scalise Juneau’s passion was stoked. She was off and running and never looked back. In Louisiana, where it all began after the Civil War when Sicilians were brought as part of a massive immigration wave to work the sugarcane fields, St. Joseph altars went from family affairs built for living rooms to major year-round projects that outgrew those living rooms and were now open to the public in locations such as church auditoriums, Knights of Columbus halls or any place else that could handle long lines and large crowds.
Along the way, Juneau spoke to countless groups about the “Sicilian tradition from the middle ages to the present,” the symbolism of the three-tiered altars and about the actual building of the altars and the role of the altars as elements of “art and love.” She never hesitated to pepper her talks with personal anecdotes: “I had been working on a cross and I left to go wash my hands. When I came back this elderly lady had moved over and was adding her touches to my cross. Wow! That’s like taking your brush to another artist’s painting. God bless her!”
These days, Juneau designs and builds cakes in the kitchen of her home, “in sets of three to honor Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and sends them to anybody around the country who requests them – free of charge. “I couldn’t charge for this,” she says. “This is my love and my passion and it’s part of my petition to St. Joseph.” She’s been a culinary instructor in St. Joseph’s altar classes from Illinois to the state of Washington and has served as a creative consultant for the National Park Service. The list of Sicilian cuisine and St. Joseph altars that owe their success to Sandra Scalise Juneau is almost endless.
But don’t get the idea that after all these years the making of St. Joseph altars has devolved into “cut and paste.” No mass production here – far from it. Each element of an altar is created “as an individual work of art,” she says. “I remember way back watching my grandmother. Her little fingers would hold the cutting tools and she was an artist. Like I am today, she was so passionate. These were works of art representing the best she could give to her favorite saint, and to God. As she’d cut each piece, ever so slowly, I’d hear her in a whisper saying, “Jesus … Maria … Giuseppe.” It was incredible to watch. How could that type of passion not rub off on me?”
Nor is every work of art without its unforeseen dangers.
“Joe Maselli came to me and asked me to design a St. Joseph’s altar display for the Louisiana World’s Fair in 1984,” Juneau says. “I was honored to be asked and thrilled to do it. When the altar was finished, it was beautiful. Everybody commented on it. But there was one thing we didn’t count on – this was Louisiana in the summer and the humidity was murder on the altar. Over the six months of the run of the Fair, we had to change everything out three or four times.”
A later altar on which she worked coincided with a massive invasion of Formosan termites into New Orleans: “They even ate the altar cloths.” That problem was solved by having a Japanese company in California make molds of real food items sent to them and then recast all the “food” in material not so appetizing to the termites.
“You never know what you’re going to run into – even with St. Joseph altars,” Juneau says. “But my passion for my Sicilian heritage and the St. Joseph altars and all they stand for is stronger now than it’s ever been, in fact, more so. That passion grows every day. I really couldn’t think of doing anything else. And nothing pleases me more than to see more and more people of more diverse backgrounds add their own cultural and artistic flavors to our New Orleans tradition. I love it!”