HOLIDAY FOOD – The Feast of San Giuseppe

18 Mar 2003

Once the order is given by the master, or mistress of the household, the domestic staff immediately begin to set up the banquet for the ‘Festa di San Giuseppe’ (the Feast of Saint Joseph) at the entrance to the house. This is the start of the staging of the representation of the Holy Family, whose significance is expounded step by step. One woman brings a huge pot of pasta and chickpeas to the table; others bring bread and various other foods. There are 12 items in all, the number of the Apostles. Three poor people, who represent the Holy Joseph, the Madonna and the Baby Jesus, are seated at the center of the table and are served, often by the by the members of the well-off host family. Then other local poor people receive the same treatment. Subsequently, the host family itself gets together at home to consume the banquet.

The sequence of events re-enacting the Holy Family is followed by a crowd of onlookers. What this parochial feast aims to communicate is the restoration of a social order centered round the family. The Festa di San Giuseppe is an anti-Carnival festival. At Carnival everyday roles are overturned, there are images of a back-to-front world, abundance, voracious eating and profligate sex—in complete contrast to Lent. But Lent is not a festival at all; it is a time dedicated to fasting, to spiritual reflection and to silence, following the ancient practices of hermit monks. The Festa di San Giuseppe is a festival, but one in which—from the organization of the banquet onwards—everything is directed toward reinstating roles within the family, within the Church community and, by extension, within society. During Carnival, food is attacked voraciously, during the Festa di San Giuseppe it is simply tasted. As it falls during the lean days of Lent, when no meat may be eaten, dishes are prepared accordingly. They feature pasta with chickpeas, vegetables, fish, bread and starchy foods. This is completely unlike Carnival which sees an excessive consumption of pork.

The Festa di San Giuseppe is a festival that has absorbed earlier religious manifestations and adapted them to new situations. Offering food to the poor was already common practice in the Middle Ages. The humanist writer from the Salento area in Puglia, Antonio De Ferraris, known as Galateo, refers to the large tables for the poor that were organized for the Festa di San Luca (Feast of Saint Luke) in the fifteenth century. The offering of the banquet of San Giuseppe the poor has, symbolically, an educational function: the idea is to prevent people being lured by the voluptuous pleasures that can throw them and their families off course and break down the sense of community that the Church provides.

There are various theories why chickpeas are eaten during the feast. In the Middle Ages, soups made from pulses, especially chickpeas, were handed out at the entrances to and inside hospitals as a gesture of charity: social medicine as it was conceived in those days considered the poor and the infirm as a single group. References to such matters can be found in some of the recipe books of the period; a recipe entitled ‘Dei ceci per l’infermi’ (Chick Peas for the Infirm) appears in Libro della cocina (Book of Cookery), written by an ‘Anonimo toscano’ of the fourteenth-century.

The preparation of the dishes for the banquet is always the focal point of the festival, and the first of the new season’s produce is used to stress its importance. It is necessary, however, to distinguish the word ‘banquet’ in the sense implied here from the devotional banquet. In Sicily it is the latter type that is more widespread, although it takes place in many parts of the Italian mainland too. During the feast, breads are prepared in shapes that, symbolically, recall the Holy Family. In Sicily they bake sfingi, leavened pastries filled with ricotta. In Cale, in Molise, they prepare chickpeas, troccoli (fat spaghetti) with fried bread crumbs, fried vegetables, plainly baked salt cod and sweet taralli(crunchy, ring-shaped biscuits). In other parts of Molise, they serve boiled wheat, vegetable soup and leavened fritters, as well as huge loaves of bread.

In Puglia’s Salento peninsula, banquet dishes comprise pasta (called tria locally, from the Arabic alatrya) with chickpeas; fried sardines with a saffron sauce rather like the Roman garum; vampasciuni (grape hyacinth bulbs) in an oil and vinegar dressing; stuffed pizzas and copete (dark nougat with almonds). The pasta and chickpeas of Sava (also in Puglia) are enriched with raisins, tomato sauce and mussels with their liquid. In another part of Puglia, around Alberobello, the zone of the famous trulli(ancient, characteristically shaped limestone dwellings) there are no organized banquets, but fried chick peas and black chick pea soup are eaten all the same.

In Calabria, the classic dishes are, once more, home-made pasta and chick peas, although the pasta has more diverse shapes and names: tagliolini, tubetti, canarozzi. Then there are beans, fried salt cod in batter, vegetables, both fried and boiled, served with a variety of sauces; sweet pizzas, stuffed pizzas and ricotta-filled cannoli.

Giuseppe Fumarola is a student of the anthropology of foodways

Adapted by Maureen Ashley

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