Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Foods for St. Joseph's Altar

I should have posted this a few months ago, to give ideas to people planning to host a St. Joseph Altar, as it is a large undertaking. And even a few days ago would have been better timing, but you can't argue with a virus that hits the family, so today is the best I can do. I can't let the Solemnity of St. Joseph go by without sharing this wonderful tradition, and a few recipes attached to it, and next year there will be information ready-at-hand.

The Solemnity of St. Joseph is such a special feast day during Lent. Besides being a patron of the Universal Church, of fathers, of families, and so many other patronages, he is also one of the most beloved saint of Sicilians, Italians, and Italian-Americans. One way this devotion is displayed through the tradition of tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Table or Altar).

The origin of the St. Joseph Altar comes from a legend that there was a great famine in Sicily many years ago. Things were so bad that the main staple to keep people alive was the Fava Bean, used mainly for cattle fodder. The people prayed to St. Joseph to intercede for the end of the famine, and their prayers were answered. And in thanksgiving, a huge celebration was held, with wealthy families hosting huge buffets, inviting all, especially the poor and sick. A form of this celebration has continued for years as the St. Joseph Table, or St. Joseph Altar.

Be sure to visit to the Virtual St. Joseph Altar. This is a beautiful tribute to St. Joseph, imitating a real St. Joseph Altar with different offerings in memory of departed family and friends. The site is full of information on the history of the Altar, recipes, coloring pages including a 3D Cut and Color Virtual St. Joseph Altar.

For further reading, I highly recommend a most beautiful book that shares full-color photographs of Altars around the United States, includes the ritual, symbolism, stories, recipes, and prayers, St. Joseph's Altars by Kerri McCaffety.

Since this is a food blog, now a little about the foods on a typical St. Joseph Altar. For details on the food symbolism, see
St. Joseph's Table: An Age-Old Tradition
and St. Joseph Altars.

There are three tiers of tables, representing the Trinity and the three members of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, with a statue or painting of St. Joseph or the Holy Family placed on top. The foods on the table are varied, and not limited to the typical symbolic foods listed below:

Traditional Breads in symbolic shapes: lilies, sandals, ladder, saw, hammer, nail, beard, ladder, and cane or staff of St. Joseph; cross, palm, wreaths symbolizing Jesus; artichokes; grapes; twists (some pictures and ideas have been previously posted here).

Symbolic Pastries, usually inedible with fig: Monstrance; chalice; cross; dove; lambs; fish; Bible; hearts.

Fava Bean: As mentioned above, the fava bean was the sustaining food for the families of Sicily. They considered themselved blessed or "lucky" to have the fava bean to survive, so the dried fava bean is now considered the "lucky bean". There are dishes that incorporate the fava bean, and it is given as a token of the St. Joseph Altar. It is a reminder to pray to St. Joseph.

Mudica: Over Pasta Milanese (see below) browned and seasoned bread crumbs are sprinkled representing the sawdust of St. Joseph, the carpenter.

Pignolatti: Fried pastry in pine cone shapes, reminders of the pine cones Jesus played with as a child.

Twelve Whole Fish: These fish represent the twelve apostles or the miracle of loaves and fishes. The Altar is not limited to just the 12 fish, as there are many dishes of shellfish and seafood, particularly Baked Red Snapper.

Pupaculova: Bread baked with dyed Easter eggs reminding of the close approach of Easter.

Wine: Miracle of Cana

Grapes, Olive Oil and Olive Salad, and Dried Figs: All these are reminders of vineyards and orchards of Sicily

Although a solemnity, which is one of the highest feasts of the year means no fasting or abstaining, typically the Altar is meat free. There are many different cakes, breads, pastries, and cookies, including St. Joseph's Sfinge or Cream Puffs, rice fritters, Zeppole, Osso di Morto, biscotti, pizelle, anise cookies, and cannoli, to name a few. Frittata or Omelets full of vegetables, and stuffed artichokes play a large role.

Besides the links above, I had compiled a page for St. Joseph's Altars for more information and recipes. Below are a few recipes I wanted to highlight this year:
Pasta Milanese

3 medium onions, chopped
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 (2 oz.) cans anchovies
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
1 (18 oz.) can tomato puree
1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce
1/2 cups water
salt, pepper, and sugar to taste
1/2 teaspoon oregano
4-5 fresh basil leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 small bunch fresh fennel
1 can macaroni seasoning with sardines (Pasta Con Sarde available from Italian speciality stores)
Cooked spaghetti pasta

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, sauté onions in oil until clear; add anchovies. Fry slowly. Add tomato paste, tomato puree, tomato sauce, water, salt, pepper, sugar, oregano, and basil. Wash fennel and chop finely; add to sauce. Simmer uncovered on low to moderate heat for 1 hour. Add undrained can of macaroni seasoning with sardines. Cover and continue cooking over moderate heat another hour until thick.

Serve over pasta.

The traditional topping for Pasta Milanese is made using stale Saint Joseph's bread. Hard bread is grated into fine crumbs and browned in a skillet then mixed with a little sugar and sometimes a pinch of cinnamon.
Another type of pasta special to the St. Joseph Altar:
Pasta with Honey

1 lb. thin spaghetti or millerighe macaroni
3 cups toasted breadcrumbs
1 cup honey
3 Tablespoons water
1 Tablespoon sugar

Cook spaghetti (or macaroni) according to directions. DO NOT ADD SALT. Drain thoroughly. Place on a large platter well separated to prevent sticking together. Add toasted breadcrumbs and mix well. Let stand until cool. Heat honey, water and sugar until well blended. Pour over pasta and mix well. (From Mrs. J. Occhino in St. Joseph's Table Recipes)
I already mentioned in a previous post how much I'm enjoying Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker. The New Orleans area has many beautiful St. Joseph Altars, and this cookbook shared several recipes used for these altars, including Fig Cakes, Italian Seed Cookies, and Ursuline Academy Anise Cookies. The one I'm sharing here is for stuffed artichokes, a unique recipe because there are no bread crumbs for the stuffing -- a bonus for those with gluten or wheat free diets.
Stuffed Artichokes alla Scilian
(Makes 2 servings)

1 artichoke
1 head (about 12 cloves) garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 lemon, sliced
3 to 4 cups water

Cut stem off artichoke and trim 1/2 inch off top of leaves. Open and spread the leaves as much as possible. Wash under faucet. Turn upside down and drain 10 minutes. Mix remaining ingredients except olive oil, lemon and water in a large bowl. Salt artichokes lightly. Spread artichoke leaves and pack stuffing between them. Pour 1 teaspoon olive oil on top of artichokes and top with lemon slice. Place artichoke upright in a pot with a tight lid. Pour 3 to 4 cups water in pot, cover, and simmer over low heat about 45 minutes. Add more water if necessary. When a leaf is easily removed, the artichoke is done. Season with additional lemon if desired.

May St. Joseph bless you and your family, and any St. Joseph Altar, big or small you may visit or participate. Pin It


  1. This is a fabulous post, Jenn. I'm so glad to see it here to spread the knowledge of the St. Joseph Altar celebration. We are having our first large group St. Joseph Altar tomorrow with our homeschool group. I'm so looking forward to it.

  2. Yes, this is a wonderful post Jenn! Thank you for taking the time to post, and I hope everyone is feeling better soon!!

    One of my boys has been working on making the 3D cut and color St. Joseph Altar you linked to. It is WONDERFUL!!

  3. Hi Jessica,

    My name is Monica I am a part of a wonderful Catholic community. Our ministry of Divine Office has a mission to gather assets beneficial to our community in praying the Liturgy of the Hours.
    Your blog is a delight, I admire your dedication and all the work you put in your articles. I hope more people will find they're way to your blog.

    Thank you for all your wonderful Lent recipes and may God bless you,


    Pray with us

  4. Your altar is just gorgeous. What a beautiful tribute to this great saint. I will plan farther ahead next year and make our altar bigger than ever!

  5. Oh, thank you, Barbara, but I can't take credit. It's my sister's Altar. She's amazing.

  6. This is such a fantastic post, thank you! I'm having to star it to link for later so I can re-read it and read all the links!

    Thank you again!


  7. We had my parents and three other families over to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph with us. While my mother is from northern Italy and didn't really celebrate in this manner, we have since adopted the custom.

    While we didn't make a three-tiered altar, we did decorate three tables.

    We had fava bean gift bags . . .

    sawdust sprinkled on the pasta . . .

    and a short description of the feast day for the nine children present to read

  8. I appreciate all your ideas, especially the 3-D altar for St. Joseph. We did it last year and are looking forward to it this year also.
    Regarding St. Patrick's day: I too used to struggle with non-Irish or non-Catholics celebrating, but have come to see it like you fact, I even used to feel that way about Mother's's not a liturgical feast, why are we making a big deal? Then I heard a priest talk about how we should encourage anything in our culture that supports motherhood and realized (with much humility) my mistake. So, I too have become a supporter of the current culture embracing our feasts! Now, if only they would try out the fasts! :)

    Just a note regarding donations to charities of monies saved from Lenten meals...I have found that Catholic Relief Services has a fantastic record of following Church moral standards AND giving the most out of every dollar to those in need. Heifer has a bad reputation for supporting "other" social programs and does not give as much out of every dollar to those in need. Please encourage the faithful to donate to CRS or other Catholic charities we are SURE protect the unborn and support Catholic teachings of openness to life. Blessings to you and yours! Rachel

  9. I thought St. Joseph Altars were only indigenous to New Orleans. Do any of the altars mentioned distribute fava beans or "lucky beans" to visitors to the altar? The legend goes if you carry a fava bean or "lucky bean" in your pocket or purse you will never be without money, and the pantry with a fava bean in it will never be bare.

    1. Hello, they are not indigenous to New Orleans. My family came from Sicily to Chicago in 1910 and have put out a St Joseph's Table every year since! Done of us have moved (i live in Arizona) and still make a sj table!

    2. Also, yes, my family always gives a fave bean for luck to keep in the purse or pocket.

  10. These ideas are so helpful. Thank you! We used some and also shared a link to this forward when sharing about our own St Joseph Table at Thank you, again, and have a blessed St. Joseph's day!