By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
While St. Patrick's Day celebrations get lots of attention in the area, not as much is known about the St. Joseph's Table (or altar) except in the Italian-American community. The day is two days after St. Patrick's Day, although it may be celebrated on other days.
Sam Crisanti explains the history and tradition of the St. Joseph’s Table at last year’s event.
At a recent meeting of CIAO, the Chautauqua Italian-American Organization, members took time to explain about the history of the tradition, the foods and decorations used and how their grandparents and great-grandparents marked the day.
Fredonia resident Margaret Valone stressed hospitality to others.
"Everyone was welcome," she said. "We looked after those who had less."
Salvatore "Sam" Crisanti of Silver Creek, the president of CIAO, joked that one priest called the celebration "the original grease-fest" because many of the foods are fried. His wife, Sally, provided some written information about the celebration.
St. Joseph was the foster-father of Jesus and made his living as a carpenter. He is the patron saint of the family as well as workers.
According to tradition, the St. Joseph's Table goes back to a severe drought in Sicily during the Middle Ages. The peasants prayed to St. Joseph. When the rain came and the crops grew, they thanked St. Joseph by having a feast and inviting everyone in the community.
Sally wrote, "The foods are a bit different in each Sicilian community, but include many fried vegetables, frittatas (an egg based dish similar to an omelet or quiche), lentils, and pasta made with no meat since the feast takes place during lent. There are many tasty 'dolce' or sweets at the end of the meal."
Carol Kuell of Silver Creek, who acts as historian for the group, provided a list of items that were on the menu at last year's gathering: pasta, bread, decorative bread, plain sauce, sauce con sardi (a pasta sauce with sardines), rice and lentils, fried cauliflower, fried cardoone (burdock stems), fried artichoke, asparagus frittata, bean frittata, fried cod, oranges, anise, olives, spfingi (also spelled as sfinci; a deep fried sweet dough sometimes filled with a sweetened ricotta mixture), honey buds, cannoli, and modica (fried bread crumbs used in place of parmesan cheese to top the pasta). Beverages included wine and coffee.
The decorative breads represent items associated with Lent (for example, a crown of thorns or crosses) or St. Joseph (for example, the saint's staff or a nail.) The fried bread crumbs are also symbolic. St. Joseph was a carpenter and taught the trade to Jesus; the crumbs represent sawdust. Usually, cheese is not a part of the meal.
Nancy (Botticello) Ortolano of Fredonia explained how food was served in her family when she was young. Her family, including her great-grandmother who spoke no English, gathered together. First sitting was a plate of bread, oranges, and olives. Next was lentil soup, followed by the meatless pasta with the fried bread crumbs. Fried vegetables and fish were the next course and finally came the dolce (or dessert.) She and other members of CIAO remember that wine was drunk after family members said "Viva San Giuseppe."
Ortolano provided a picture of her grandmother, great-grandmother, and a great aunt and uncle during a celebration in the 1950s. Sam Crisanti shared a picture of his grandparents on St. Joseph's day. Sam noted that his grandfather died in 1954, so the picture predated that. Both pictures show elaborately decorated tables with the St Joseph shrine at one end.
The table is three-tiered. The highest level contains a picture or statue of the saint. The tiers represent the stairway to heaven and the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). In the pictures provided, candles and flowers adorn the table. Both tables feature lilies, a symbol for St. Joseph.
In back of Ortolano's picture was information about the celebration, including prayers to St. Joseph for the occasion. She said her mother kept the information.
The paper said, "The St. Joseph Table can be very lavish or very simple. In the original custom, the dining room table was extended full-length and moved against a wall. The statue of St. Joseph on the table becomes a shrine surrounded with candles and flowers. ... Those who come to celebrate make an offering which is later given to the poor. When celebrated in the home, a family may extend invitations to relatives and friends or to others, such as the residents of a home for the aging. It is also customary that a priest bless the food before the guests arrive."
Locally, the St. Joseph's Table will be observed on March 17 at Holy Trinity Church in Dunkirk. The event is already sold out. More than 500 people are expected. On March 18, St. Joseph Church will have a Mass at 5:30 p.m. followed by a meal for parish members. This meal will not be as elaborate and will not necessarily have traditional food. This year, CIAO is celebrating its table at the Colony Restaurant in Silver Creek with the Mt. Carmel Senior Citizens on March 19 at 5:30 p.m. Traditional food will be served. The cost is $10 which covers the food as well as a donation to charity. Reservations can be made by contacting the restaurant at 934-4826.
The foods, decorations and method of celebration vary somewhat. As Sally Crisanti pointed out, "The only thing that remains the same at every St. Joseph's Table is that no one ever goes away hungry."
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