Like most Americans, New Orleanians too celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, although here in New Orleans we also celebrate St. Joseph’s Day. There already was a parade through the Quarter in St. Joseph’s honor and March 19 (St. Joseph’s actual feast day) will be quite the day for viewing of the altars throughout the city.
The tradition, which is Sicilian in origin but carried on locally by Italian-Americans and people of all nationalities and faiths, includes baking cookies and cakes and preparing foods for the altar. According to a legend, a drought and famine during the Middle Ages caused much suffering in Sicily. People prayed to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, and promised to thank him with food altars on his feast day, March 19, and give away the food to all. Supposedly on midnight of March 19, it started to rain and broke the Sicilian drought. Many now create altars to thank St. Joseph for their personal prayers as well.
Over the years, the Crescent City Farmers Market has done many altars, with local media legend and Slow Food Chapter founder Poppy Tooker leading the design and collection of the goods. At least 3 altars have been created to be viewed on market day and one even included 19th century prayer benches borrowed from the Ursuline nuns who are the founding order of the city and have been here since the 1720s tending to their duties which includes their venerable girls school, the oldest operating Catholic school in the US.
The altars are found in churches, businesses and homes throughout the city and when you leave after viewing, you will receive a fava bean. The fava bean will bring you luck throughout the year. Part of the tradition requires that no money be spent on the altar, so its creators must beg for all items. Once the day is over, the altar is broken down and its content donated to the poor.
St. Joseph’s Day has another connection to food: it is also traditionally considered to be the last day to plant summer tomatoes for this region.