Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Viva Italia!

While everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s another celebration in New Orleans that follows the saint’s feast day (this year, St. Joseph’s feast day was moved to March 15 in order to not coincide with Holy Week).

When you think of New Orleans’s history, do you think about its French history? Can’t blame you. Perhaps, if you know a little bit more about the city’s history, you think about its Spanish history (there’s a great deal of Spanish architecture in the city).

However, those in the know will also think about the city’s Italian-or rather, Sicilian, culture (muffalettas at Central Grocery, anyone? Oh, yum.). After the unification of Italy, thousands of Sicilians immigrated to New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana. In fact, between 1500-1879, New Orleans had the largest Italian-born population of any city in the US. Although the Sicilians, like many Italian immigrants at that time, faced prejudice and discrimination, they soon incorporated themselves into New Orleans’s restaurant and food store/supply culture, as well as other business ventures.

While French speaking French Quarter residents are long a thing of the past, Italian-American family culture remains strong in New Orleans. One of the enduring traditions of the Sicilian immigrant community that is still in existence is the celebration of the feast day of St. Joseph. The classified section of the city’s Times-Picayune runs dozens of ads inviting the public to St. Joseph altars.

What is a St. Joseph altar? Families and church members spend weeks preparing food and decorations. There’s a variety of food on the table, but it is a meatless table. This could be because the day falls during Lent, or because the Sicilian peasants in Italy could not afford meat on a regular basis. Elaborate altars groan with a variety of breads and cookies, with some having religious significance.

While many churches have their own altar open to the public, many families host altars in their private home. Anyone is allowed to attend; after admiring the altar (there is often a children’s tableaux of the journey to Bethlehem before the consecration of the altar), guests are often (but not always; classified ads will indicate if food is being served or not) served a (meatless) spaghetti or other traditional Italian-American supper and are handed a small bag containing cookies and/or bread, plus some religious items or cultural items of significance (such as a fava bean).

My family is not Italian, we did not attend a church with a significant Italian-American congregation, and my Catholic school had a French tradition; I can remember only one time visiting a St. Joseph’s altar as a child. However, as with other New Orleans traditions, St. Joseph’s Day traditions fascinate me. When I moved to Houston after graduate school, I searched the Houston Chronicle and the Internet in vain for St. Joseph’s Day altars (I was feeling homesick!).

There’s one part of the year that makes me homesick for New Orleans, and that’s Mardi Gras through Easter. Whether it’s parades, the Friday night tradition of eating seafood at a church or at one of the many crowded seafood restaurants (although meatless Fridays are no longer an obligation, many southeastern Louisianians continue the practice), or gorging on boiled crawfish, there are several traditions about this season that make me nostalgic for southeastern Louisiana.

Since I missed Italian American Heritage month in October (who knew?), here are some terrific books that center on famous Italians and Italian/Italian American heritage in general.

Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer is a gorgeously illustrated biography of the master artist and inventor. It’s almost too much to look at, from the timeline to captions under the photos, there’s an abundance of things to read and examine. The book does an admirable job of revealing the genius and obsession of Da Vinci.

For fans of thick novels brimming with fantasy and adventure, check out Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, Inkspell (the sequel), and The Thief Lord. Sharon Creech’s The Castle Corona is also a fun read.

The American Family Album series is an engrossing and enlightening series of first-hand accounts of immigrants. Dorothy Hoobler’s The Italian American Family Album is a humbling and fascinating read of the long history of Italian immigration to the United States. From perilous sea passages to cramped tenement buildings, to stories of family traditions (and, of course, food), achievement, and more, this book is a remarkable collection of memories and stories.

I haven’t started it yet, but I am very eager to read Scott O’Dell fictional account of the life of St. Francis of Assisi (The Road to Damietta). The tumultuous life of the Italian saint is told from the viewpoint of a noblewoman and acquaintance of Francis. I am looking forward to reading this book by a great historical fiction author.

I’ve already mentioned it in a previous post, but Jennifer Holm’s Penny From Heaven is not to be missed. It’s a heartwarming and heartbreaking look at an Italian American family living in post World War II New Jersey. The internment of Italian Americans during World War II is not something that is commonly known; Penny From Heaven explores this and also the lingering prejudice felt by some toward Italian Americans after the war, as well a realistic look at a family trying to move past a deep loss.

Here's a short but expanded article on St. Joseph's Day traditions in New Orleans.

St. Joseph's Day is also an important day for the "Mardi Gras Indians" in New Orleans.

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