We are heading to New Orleans for two of our favorite only-in-New-Orleans events, St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) and the Sunday closest to it, known as “Super Sunday” (which we can assure you has nothing to do with the Super Bowl). Super Sunday is the day when Mardi Gras Indians parade their finery through the streets, and St. Joseph’s Day is a holiday with origins in Sicily that celebrates the miracle of St. Joseph saving the island from famine (see our previous coverage here). And oddly enough, these two days are related, and Mardi Gras Indians also march on St. Joseph’s night.
Though other areas in the US obviously have Sicilian-American populations, the tradition of the St. Joseph’s Day altar is observed with fervor in New Orleans, owing to its particularly concentrated Sicilian population. St. Joseph’s Day is observed in New Orleans to a much larger degree than it is elsewhere, even Sicily. Every Catholic church and high school in greater New Orleans seems to have an elaborate St. Joseph’s Day altar, and they can range from modest altars in homes to unthinkably huge, sometimes taking up the entire Church community center. The altars, contributed to by parishioners and the community, traditionally have three tiers and are decked out with statues, flowers, photos, candles and food. All of the photos in this post are from altars we visited in 2016.
Typical St. Joseph’s Day altars are decked out with tons of food, including citrus, fanciful breads in shapes representing Joseph’s trade as a carpenter (or even fish or figures), whole fish, dozens of varieties of cookies, fava beans, and more (You may even see a lamb cake or two). And if you visit a church on St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans you will probably be treated to a bowl of Pasta Milanese or other meatless favorites. Pasta Milanese is similar to pasta con sarde, but with tomatoes, and of course you have to top it with breadcrumbs, representing the Joseph’s carpentry sawdust – check out this recipe from Sicilian Girl.
Our favorite St. Joseph’s Day food is probably the fig-filled cuccidati cookie, which are also traditionally made at Christmas. We bought a cookbook on St. Joseph’s Day at one of the churches we visited a few years ago, which now provides us with our go-to cuccidati recipe. The St. Joseph’s Day altars are cookie heaven, and volunteers spend weeks making literally tens of thousands of cookies for some of the larger altars. We also like to seek out some of the unique foods that are probably unseen outside of a single parish, like the amazing, giant, fleur-de-lis crawfish-shaped “Craw-fig” cookie below, that we spotted on an altar in Metairie.
At the end of St. Joseph’s Day, the altar is symbolically broken in the “Tupa tupa” ceremony and the food and donations are distributed to charity. You will probably also get handed a fava bean for luck, and a bag of cookies to take home. And if you manage to steal a lemon from the altar it means you will get married (or have a baby) by the next St. Joseph’s Day. We love to go around New Orleans and the surrounding area on St. Joseph’s Day and visit all of the altars, since no two are alike. For 2018 we found a few guides (Italian American Center, ABC) to all of the St. Joseph’s Day churches in the area.