The St. Joseph's Table in Buffalo
By Nancy Piatkowski
The Table is a ritual meal done by Sicilians and Sicilian Americans in fulfillment of a promise made to St. Joseph for his assistance in a time of family or personal crises such as curing an illness, bringing a loved one safely back from war, family tradition, personal devotion, thanksgiving for good fortune, building parish or organizational community. The Table is held on or as close to his feast day of March 19th as possible.
There is no way to date the beginning of the Table. The basic story is that there was a drought and the people prayed to St. Joseph to end the drought. They promised that if the drought ended they would prepare a feast in his honor to which everyone, especially the poor, would be invited.
The St. Joseph's Table tradition was brought to the United States by the late 19th and early 20th century Sicilian immigrants into Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado and New York. Even though some feel the tradition is dying out, I have found otherwise. In fact in Buffalo, if anything it is growing as more people, churches and restaurants have Tables. In Western New York Tables are held in private homes, churches, restaurants and by social clubs, Senior/Community Centers and local colleges.
Those invited to eat at the Table have traditionally been the poorest of the poor in a village or neighborhood. Even today Tables are open to anyone in keeping with the tradition of feeding any and all who come to the door.
The altar is an intrinsic part of the Table. It is for many the focal point of the Table. The altar may be as simple as a table with a statue, a candle, a vase of flowers and a loaf of bread; or as elaborate as a twenty foot long wooden framework covered with fabric and flowers, a fountain with running water and a banner reading "Viva San Giuseppe". If at all possible, the altar and the food being served is blessed by the parish priest.
Commercial Italian bakeries (Balistreri's, Luigi's, DiCamillo's, Cristiano's and Gino's) will produce vast quantities of special bread for the day. Specific shapes are: large basket, cross, crown, cane, fish, knot and snail.
La Virgineddi (Little Virgins), or Saints as they are sometimes called, is the name given the people selected to play the role of the Holy Family at the Table. Traditionally Joseph has been portrayed by an old man, Mary and Jesus by young children. They would go from house to house seeking a place to stay and something to eat. They would be refused admission to all but the house with the Table to which they had been invited. Today a Table may or may not have the Virgineddi present.
The Table is a meal so the food that is served is an important component. The meal served is vegetarian. First, the feast of St. Joseph occurs during Lent which is a time of fasting, and of no meat. Second, it is the end of winter, the beginning of spring. In earlier times, March was a time of scarcity in Sicily. The food stored from the previous harvest was almost gone. Dried fish and new greens from the fields were the base for the Table.
What is served: Pasta con sarde with mollica. (Mollica is considered by some to be symbolic of the sawdust from Joseph's workshop, and was originally made from the bread that was too stale to eat); Lentil soup with rice; olives, fennel (finocchi); an orange slice; Battered/deep fried cod fish (baccalà); vegetables: asparagus, artichoke, cauliflower, fennel, and cardoons; Frocias (frittatas)- omelettes filled with any vegetable available; Desserts: sfinge, pizzelli, pignolata sometimes called strufoli (honey balls), farfallette dolci (ribbons or bowties), cassata (cake) and Bread.
Any money collected from the participants at church Tables remaining after the bills are paid is given to selected local charities such as Catholic Charities and the St Vincent de Paul Society. Some money may be sent to orphanages or other charities in the peoples' hometowns in Sicily.
The tradition of the Table is very important to the people as are all family and group traditions. The more I read and experience about the Table, the more I learn. If nothing I have learned the warmth and hospitality that exists in a society that we hear is becoming more fragmented and unconcerned with others.