It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of St Joseph (or San Giuseppe) in Italian culture. As the foster father of Christ and patron saint of fathers, families, workers and unborn children, St Joseph functions as a kind of symbolic paternal figure to Italian Catholics, and it is not by coincidence that his principal feast day, on 19 March, is the day Italians honour all fathers (la festa del papà).
Marked by abundance and giving, la festa di San Giuseppe is a categorically food-focused celebration of spring’s bounty. In countless communities throughout southern Italy and Sicily, the days leading up to 19 March see an ambitious and communal food-making endeavour, resulting in banquets so lavish and plentiful they seem to mock the very idea of hunger, if not vanquish it outright for the remainder of the year. No matter how many hungry guests gather round one’s table on San Giuseppe, there must always be leftovers to give to neighbours or homeless people.
At the centre of the feast is ‘St Joseph’s Table’, upon which this mountain of food will be arranged. Nothing is placed on the table by chance; every item embodies some emblematic association or auspicious end. Bread takes centre stage, as the most perfect expression of man’s toils transformed into sustenance, and recalling as well the ancient Roman grain festivals once observed at the end of winter. Sweets, particularly fried and cream-filled pastries, mean a temporary reprieve from fasting and abstinence during Lent. Flowers, asparagus, wild fennel and fava beans laid around the table speak to springtime’s imminent return, while lemons, oranges and wine represent the fruit of the preceding season’s labours. Fish-based dishes symbolise Christ, and there is usually no meat present on the table.
The countless fascinating food rituals surrounding this holiday derive from both ancient pagan and early Christian customs. In more recent centuries, thanks to Italian immigration, St Joseph festivities have taken root in other parts of the world—namely America, where Italian-American communities celebrate Saint Joseph with large, potluck-like events. Here are some of the Italian foods and lore associated with this significant feast day.