While we hear plenty about St. Patrick’s Day festivities this time of year, for many Italian-Americans in Los Angeles the big celebration of mid-March is St. Joseph’s Day. The multi-day event culminates on March 19th, and while the mid-Lenten feast honors the patron saint of Sicily, it’s also celebrated by many immigrants and descendants of other regions of Italy, as well as anyone in need of a hot meal. Charity is a central component of St. Joseph’s Day, and everyone who attends receives a complimentary plate of pasta, while other traditional foods can be purchased with all proceeds going to feed the hungry and homeless. And while St. Joseph’s Day celebrations take place around L.A. County, including San Pedro, South Pasadena and Montebello, the biggest in the region takes place at St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church on the outskirts of Chinatown, an area that was once a major epicenter of L.A.’s Italian-American community. The feast offers participants from all walks of life to eat and celebrate together as a community.
“In the earliest days of the Feast of St. Joseph, it was all done in people's homes,” explains Marianna Gatto, historian and Executive Director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. “A family would host the feast one night and invite all of their neighbors for a communal meal, and then it would be somebody else's turn the following day. Many times there would be multiple homes hosting the altars for the feasts all at once. After World War II was when the church itself really started to present the feast, and it transitioned from a celebration that primarily took place in people’s residences to the church.”
While Italian-Americans have celebrated St. Joseph’s Day in Los Angeles for generations, many of the traditions can be traced back to Sicily sometime in the late Middle Ages. The legend goes that a severe drought contributed to widespread famine in the region, and Sicilians prayed for rain to St. Joseph ("San Giuseppe" in Italian), the patron saint of workers, promising that if he answered their prayers they would dedicate an annual feast day to him when they would feed the hungry. So when the rains returned and crops began to grow again, Sicilians began the tradition of St. Joseph’s table or altar.
Initially created as a means of feeding the poor and form of public charity, St. Joseph’s Day tables evolved to become more of a way to raise funds to feed others. The elaborate three-tiered devotional display is typically adorned with vegetables, fruits, and traditional pastries and breads, and in some cases pasta dishes and fish as the celebration falls during Lent. The symbolic bread is often intricately braided into shapes such as a cross, a sheaf of wheat, St. Joseph’s staff, as well as St. Joseph himself. As St. Joseph was a carpenter by trade, the breads are often covered with sesame seeds or bread crumbs to signify sawdust. “Wheat was one of the most important crops of Sicily and figures significantly in Sicilian culture and society,” Gatto explains. “The Romans used Sicilian wheat to feed ancient Rome and Mussolini used Sicily as his bread basket.”
Walking into Casa Italiana, the large event hall adjacent to St. Peter’s Church, you’ll find an enormous St. Joseph’s Day table decorated with vibrant bouquets of flowers and palm fronds, candles, and statues of St. Joseph, as well as Jesus and Mary. Smaller tables surrounding the central table overflow with wrapped plates of regional Italian pastries, including cookies, cannoli, and sfinci (or sfingi), a popular Sicilian pastry closely related to the more well-known zeppoli. “Zeppoli are a fritter that various parts of Italy make, often times they're like a donut and tossed with a little powdered sugar,” Gatto explains. “But for the feast of St. Joseph, they fill them with cream or custard — depending on the part of Italy you're from — and they're very Sicilian.” St. Joseph is also considered by many to be the patron saint of pastry cooks, which helps to explain the abundance of sweets.
There are also large cakes on each of the tables, which are dedicated to St. Joseph and sponsored societies of the church, all of which are organized around a specific saint. All of the cakes and plates of pastries are for sale, and the money raised goes towards the church’s efforts to feed those in need. “A lot of these religious societies trace their history back to the early 1920s and even prior to that in Los Angeles,” Gatto explains. While a significant number of northern Italians immigrated to Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the U.S., during the early part of the 19th century, Gatto explains that it wasn’t until the late 1880s and onward that more southern Italians began to migrate to Southern California. Many were motivated to leave home following the unification of Italy, which created major economic disparities between the North and the South. At the time, many Sicilians were drawn to the fishing and canning industry in San Pedro, while other early Southern Italians who came were also drawn to L.A.’s booming railroad industry, settling in the area around St. Peter’s Church and present day Los Angeles State Historic Park. A significant population of Italians also immigrated to L.A. from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, and in particular the port city of Bari, which helps explain why one of the church’s largest societies comes from the region. “Despite the fact that Italians moved out of this neighborhood a long time ago, they come back for events like this,” Gatto says. “So when they do the saint's feast day, hundreds of people will come from all over Southern California. It's a reunion of sorts.”
“You'll see a lot of fruit at one side of the table as it's also the celebration of the harvest, and some would say the cultural exorcism of hunger,” Gatto says. “We take it for granted today how rich our lives are, but when the famine took place in Sicily people were dying. So centuries later we memorialise that, and use it as an opportunity to share with others because food is best enjoyed when you can share it with other people.”
Gatto explains that St. Peter’s Church is of the order of the late Italian Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, an order which is dedicated to the care and protection of migrants. “It's a huge part of their mission, not only migrants that come from abroad, but the families that may not have a roof over their head,” Gatto says. “So the church has an incredible feeding program, not only for those who are homeless but also those who are facing food shortages. They may have a roof, but don't have enough to eat. And historically the church has done a lot in the migrant community. “It's something that the church doesn't highlight much, but I personally think it's important given what we're facing in our city with the crisis of homelessness. All year long, every day of the week, there are people in this kitchen cooking and sharing. A lot of it is based on donations, and this festival specifically helps support the programs all year round.”
One of the major ways that St. Peter’s Church helps to feed the surrounding community is during the three day feast for St. Joseph, where every attendee receives a free plate of pasta. “Every year we use between 3,500-4,000 pounds of spaghetti, and around 300 gallons of sauce,” says Pasquale Bruno, a committee member for the event, who has also handcarved much of the ornate woodwork around the church and the Casa Italiana hall. “It takes two days to make the sauce.” In addition to the free pasta, guests are able to purchase additional food — all of which has been donated or made in house by volunteers — including meatballs, sausages, pizza, salad, fish (for those observing Lent) and a variety of vegetables. Bottles of wine that are sold by the glass at the feast are also donated by San Antonio Winery, the historic Italian winery that remains the last vestige of a winemaking industry that once thrived in the area.
“Everybody used to make food at home and bring it to the table here [at the church] around 40 to 50 years ago," says Angela Gallidoro, who coordinates the extensive cooking production for St. Joseph’s Day. “It was really nice, there were a lot of stuffed artichokes and other vegetables. We don't do that any more though, now people bring cookies, flowers, fruit, and we cook.” Some of the popular dishes made by Gallidoro with the help of several volunteers are plates of fried artichokes, cauliflower and zucchini, which can be purchased to eat at the feast or taken home. Artichokes are hugely popular in Sicily and since the first crop of the season is typically harvested in March, they feature prominently in the St. Joseph’s Day celebration.
Fava beans are another notable component of the feast — you’ll likely notice them scattered on the St. Joseph’s Day tables — as it’s believed that the crop also helped save Sicily from starvation during the drought of the Middle Ages. Traditionally a fava bean soup, known as Maccu, would be communally prepared and served to feed the entire community, including the poor. Gallidoro recalls growing up in Sicily and helping prepare the soup as a child, "When I was little, we used to go around to people’s houses and ask for beans, lentils and all the legumes. Then in the streets, they would make a fire and put a big pot in the middle and cook all the beans. At night, everybody would go to get some and they'd also have a little focaccia. Today, we make the spaghetti for the same reason.”
While most of the volunteers in the kitchen have been helping to prepare the feast of St. Joseph’s Day for decades, some of whom immigrated from Italy like Gallidoro, they do occasionally get help from the younger generation, including the granddaughter of one of the most active members of the parish. “My hope is that this continues for a long time, especially with the younger generations,” Gatto says. “Even within my lifetime, there are people that are no longer in these kitchens because they're no longer around. The survival of this rests on continuing to share these traditions and have a generation who is interested and willing.”
Gatto also sees the cooking for the celebration a welcome opportunity to take a break from work and the hustle of modern life. “It's a chance to slow down and it feels really good,” she says. “You work together, and there's a lot of unspoken cooperation and little nuances that are part of a lifestyle that's rapidly disappearing. Thankfully, there are people that are actively working to reverse that trend and bring us back closer to our food sources.”
While St. Joseph’s Day is the time of year that St. Peter’s Church raises the most money for their charity efforts, throughout the rest of the year they also work to feed those in the community that are homeless or food insecure on a weekly basis. “We feed almost one thousand people every week here, and collect food for over five hundred families,” explains Bruno. “Whatever we collect we use for donation. With the church, there's nothing you put in your pocket, you pull from your pocket to help those who need it.” During the year, the church also hosts special dinners and food drives around the holidays. “For Thanksgiving, we prepare five hundred baskets to donate, and on Thanksgiving Day we feed two thousand people here in the hall.”
At the long tables inside the hall of Casa Italiana, you’ll see a diverse group — from different socioeconomic, ethnic and even religious backgrounds — gathered to enjoy the plates of pasta and sweets during the feast of St. Joseph’s Day. “This is one of the few places which is a great equalizer,” Gatto says. “Los Angeles is still very much a city of cars where we put ourselves in our automobiles and roll up our windows on the way to work, and we don't have to deal with or fraternize with people who might not be of the same persuasion as ourselves. And this is one of the few places where you might see people who might be down on their luck, sitting next to a downtown business person enjoying a meal. So it's a powerful reminder that we live in this world together. We have a shared destiny — whether we want to recognize it or not — and it's within all of our powers to hopefully do something that's going to improve our communities.”
St. Joseph’s Table at Casa Italiana for St. Peter’s Church celebration | Danny Jensen