Late in the afternoon last Thursday, March 19, I stood at the front door of Angelo Brocato’s. In the world of Italian confections Brocato’s is perhaps the best there is, including the old country.
There is significance to the date March 19 for that is St. Joseph’s Day, a time of celebration including at Brocato’s where the tables are usually full, the lines long and the spirit high. But this year, because of the coronavirus, no one was allowed past the front door where a temporary counter had been set up to vend the various cookies. As a young man Angelo had learned quality confection-making when working at Palermo’s bakeries. One day he would get on a boat at Palermo harbor and head to New Orleans where there was a growing Sicilian population.
Each March 19 there is a small St. Joseph altar in the store. The sweet selections are fragrant from the anise used in Italian baking and made tempting by the cannolis stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese and fig cookies (cucidati) whose fruit is enriched by the growing power of the Mediterranean sun.
We lost an important week in New Orleans’s native culture last week. The days roughly between March 13 and 20 are the city’s culturally richest time of the year. The week is filled with celebrations honoring the feast days of two saints who somehow get to circumvent Lent’s sacrificial demands. First there is St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) for which the prelude is a series of parades the weekend before. The day is celebrated throughout the world, but nowhere like in New Orleans where the festivity might as well be called, “Patty Gras.” A population obsessed with floats and throws would naturally influence any culture’s parade that rolls down its streets. To the Irish’s credit, among the items tossed from their floats, cabbages and potatoes have proved to have more purpose than doubloons and beads.
Irish immigrants are a part of the city’s history, most notably those who escaped the potato famine on the Emerald Isle and became part of the work crews to build a canal from the lake to near downtown. The workers were housed in an area still known as the Irish Channel though now their descendants have long since assimilated into the American mainstream.
St. Joseph’s Day is the more spiritual of the two saints’ celebrations. Visit a St. Joseph’s altar and see the prayers, offerings and memorializations. The altars, according to legend, originated in Southern Italy in gratitude to St. Joseph for relieving the populace from a famine. So, the worshippers built altars celebrating food including cakes (the classic shaped like a lamb) as well as fish, artichoke, pasta and the fixings.
From my own research I can tell you that the tradition has been on the wane in Italy and survives because of New Orleans. This city is the global epicenter or preserving and improving an ancient European custom.
Here’s one more twist: In the early 20th century there was common intermingling in New Orleans between blacks and Sicilians. Both groups were considered to be part of the economic underclass. (As an aside, from that circumstance jazz would evolve and sweep the word.) Blacks who shopped at small groceries run by Italians saw the altars honoring St. Joseph who they respected because he was the patron of working people, like them. From that, St. Joseph became part of the early black culture. The Mardi Gras Indians honored Joseph by costuming and dancing one day a year other than Mardi Gras, and that would be on the Saint’s Day. (That has since been replaced by what is now known as Super Sunday, but the origin was with Joseph.)
So, it happens that during the special week in the middle of March we have an intermingling of three cultures; Irish, Italian and American blacks, each developing their own spin to their native celebration.
Back at Brocato’s I decided on a classic, a serving of Lemon Ice. (Lemons grow practically softball size in southern Italy). It was an alternately tart and sweet workout for the taste buds.
Though the moment was joyous the day was not. St. Joseph’s Feast also happened to be the day this year when Virus fatalities in Italy surpassed those in China. On neither side of the Atlantic could the day be truly celebrated.
This time it was a famine of the spirit.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.