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New Orleans’ St. Joseph’s Altars: A Feast for All

Learn about this Sicilian tradition and find out where to see St. Joseph’s Day altars in New Orleans.

The St. Joseph's Day altar at Avo Restaurant (Photo courtesy of Avo Restaurant)

Ever noticed that many New Orleanians have accents similar to the kind you’d find in New York? That’s because New Orleans was a prime destination for Sicilians in the 19th century — in fact, by the late 1800s, the French Quarter was almost 80 percent Sicilian.

THE HISTORY

One of the traditions the Sicilians carried with them when they immigrated here was the construction of elaborate altars for the Feast of Saint Joseph, celebrated on March 19. According to legend, people prayed to St. Joseph to help them during a terrible famine that ended because of an unexpected bounty of fava beans. The story goes that the people created an altar of thanks and began a yearly tradition honoring the saint. Altars piled high with food served the dual purpose of feeding the hungry.

Today, altars are still used to thank St. Joseph for answering a prayer or to ask for help. Those who cannot build their own altar are able to keep their promises to St. Joseph by working on altars in their community or church. Some altars are created out of a custom called questua, which means “searching” or “seeking.” Instead of buying the ingredients and materials for the altar, one begs for them, further humbling oneself in an act of poverty. This recalls the impoverishment of the starving Sicilians who initially asked for St. Joseph’s help. It also reminds the person on the questua of the purpose of the altar – to feed the hungry. Some celebrations include tupa tupa (or knocking). Here, children dressed up like Jesus, Joseph, and Mary knock on doors until finally being welcomed in to eat.

The intersection of luck, generosity, and a reminder of the needs of others all embody the meaning of this day.

A St. Joseph’s Day altar in New Orleans (Photo: Victoria Roberts)

THE FOOD

Altars are set up in both churches and private homes and are laden with a bounty of foods associated with St. Joseph. Bread is shaped like crosses, Joseph’s staff, and his carpenter’s tools, including saws, hammers, and ladders. (St. Joseph’s bread is believed to have special powers. Throwing a morsel into a storm is believed to have the power to calm the winds. A piece kept in the house is supposed to ensure that the family will never be without food. A breadcrumb topping called mudrica, is sprinkled on pasta Milanese, representing the sawdust of the carpenter.)

Other symbolic foods include cakes shaped like lambs and covered in coconut, which represent the sacrifice of Christ. You’ll also find pastries formed like the pierced heart of the Mater Dolorosa, pignolatti resembling the pine cones Jesus is said to have played with as a child, whole fish symbolizing the Miracle of Multiplication, and wine recalling the feast at Cana. Swiping a lemon from the altar ensures one will meet the person you are destined to marry before the next St. Joseph’s Day, and each visitor takes away a dry, roasted fava bean for good luck. The intersection of luck, generosity, and a reminder of the needs of others all embody the meaning of this day.

St_Josephs_Day
A cake for St. Joseph’s Day. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

MORE TRADITIONS

Several other Saint Joseph traditions occur in the city, including traditional parades and the Mardi Gras Indian celebration of Super Sunday. St. Joseph altars can be found at New Orleans churches – especially those with strong Italian roots – but you’ll also find them in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and private homes throughout the city. A fresh green branch over a local’s doorway means you’re invited to participate in the ceremony and to share the food. There are literally hundreds of altars open to the public; below are a few of the most popular ones.

St. Joseph Altars

Rouses

Various locations

Rouses team members will build altars at various Rouses Markets on the Gulf Coast, including those at 701 Baronne St. (Warehouse District), 91 Westbank Expressway (Gretna), and 2900 Veterans (Metairie). The altars feature lucky fava beans, a statue of Saint Joseph, prayer cards, candles, “saw dust,” lemons, dried figs, cakes, Italian breads twisted into familiar Saint Joseph shapes, and authentic Italian products (no meat, of course). You can see them from March 15-18.

The French Market

1008 N. Peters St.
From noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 17, visit the French Market for the St. Augustine Church’s St. Joseph’s Day altar.

Chef Nick Lama’s Cuccidati cookies (Photo courtesy of Avo Restaurant)

Avo Restaurant

5908 Magazine St.
Chef Nick Lama’s altar, featuring his family’s own cuccidati cookies (and more baked goods) will available for viewing on Tuesday, March 19 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The blessing of the altar will take place at 11:30 a.m. and proceeds will go to the St. Francis of Assisi Church.

International House

221 Camp St.
This boutique hotel will celebrate St. Joseph’s Day with an altar of their own topping out at eight feet. Stop by on the evening of March 19 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for complimentary accordion music, Sicilian Sfincione (pizza) by chef Emeril Lagasse’s team, breads by Angelo’s Bakery, Italian aperitifs and cocktails, a sidewalk café, and chalk art.

LAGNIAPPE

St. Joseph’s Parade

Convention Center Boulevard and Girod Street, 6 p.m.
The Italian-American Club hosts the St. Joseph’s Parade, which heads out from the intersection of Convention Center Boulevard and Girod Street at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 23 and goes through the French Quarter. With sixteen floats and nine marching groups, this parade is a great way to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day.

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