Rites Of Spring : Celebrating Father Spring

In the Bushwick section of of Brooklyn, where I grew up, we had holidays of our own. Holidays in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July. Holidays imported by the Sicilian immigrants of my grandparents' generation.

Foremost amongst them, was the Feast Day of St. Joseph, on March 19. In the old neighborhood, we called the two-week celebration surrounding it, "the feast."

To the Sicilian people, St. Joseph's profound commitment to his familial responsibility, and his quiet courage in the face of great adversity, have made him the exemplar of one of the traditional Sicilian ideals of manhood, "omu di panza, " a "man of stomach." A man who can stomach the "misery of life," and has the guts to do the right thing.

Church art in Sicily depicts St. Joseph as a white-haired and bearded man with kind fatherly eyes and strong steady hands. He often carries a staff topped with early spring flowers. To Sicily, St. Joseph has become a Christianized "father spring." By March 19, spring's renewal is very much in evidence throughout Sicily, and celebrated.

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In Brooklyn, however, the arrival of spring was not always so evident. From the beginning of the month, discussions of erratic March weather patterns, raged throughout the neighborhood.

The more devout smiled knowingly at these discussions. They knew them to be a waste of time, for the great saint would, certainly, supply good weather for the celebration of his feast. Whatever the reason, spring always managed to appear just in time for "the feast." On the morning of the feast day, the great statue of St. Joseph was carried through the streets in procession. This statue, made of wood, was larger than life. The saint's features were carved and painted by a master. His eyes held you in their gaze from many angles and for a great distance. His clothing was real cloth, topped with a long green mantle.

Preceding the statue was an army of acolytes holding candles or swinging thuribles. Enshrined in their midst was a priest carrying a long pole topped with a golden cross. Following the statue was a band, playing sicilianae in stately rhythm. Behind was a prowl of old women in black, carrying round loaves of bread before them.

Another old Sicilian tradition for this time is the St. Joseph's table, 'a tavula' i San Giuseppi. In exchange for answering a prayer, or out of devotion to the saint, vows are made to hold a yearly feast for a certain number of pitiable orphans in the name of St. Joseph. The devotees are assisted in keeping their vow by their families and neighbors. In Brooklyn, the most stunning of these tables was sponsored by Maria Roccaforte.

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Maria was born in 1891 in Santa Margherita de Belice, a mountain town in the Province of Agrigento, in southwestern Sicily. She immigrated to America as a girl, and by 1922, was married and a mother of four. She worked as a seamstress in a Brooklyn dress factory, doing piece work. Maria's sharp, dark eyes, and determined "no nonsense" will, contrasted her small, delicately boned stature. She was devout and pious, but by no means ethereal or aesthete.

In her 31st year, Maria had had a dream. As she told it, St. Joseph appeared to her. Startled, she asked, "What do you want?"

St. Joseph said, "I want you, Maria, to feed six orphans at a feast in my honor."

"But St. Joseph," she said, "I'm a poor woman."

He said, "Don't worry Maria, it will cost you only $1."

"But how?" she demanded, thinking that, perhaps, it wasn't St. Joseph at all, but some trick of the devil.

The good saint wrote in the air, listing all of the items she would need and their cost. Being quick at addition, from tallying the chits on her piece work, she informed the saint that the list added up to only 98 cents. Nearly at the end of his patience, he said to her, "Buy more napkins."

With that, she woke up, certain she had been visited by a heavenly presence.

Maria Roccaforte dutifully followed the wishes of St. Joseph. The feast for the orphans that year did, indeed, cost her only $1. Year after year, her St. Joseph's table grew. Everyone who visited left a small donation. And so, for the next 65 years, until her death at 96, Maria Roccaforte's St. Joseph's table never cost her more than a dollar, including the napkins.

For the St. Joseph's table, Mrs. Roccaforte's apartment was transformed into part shrine, part cornucopia. The furniture was removed, replaced by tiered tables swathed in white cloths. The tiers reached nearly to the ceiling. On some of these were placed hundreds of large votive candles. Each candle had a white label attached to its glass, so that persons could write down their reasons for lighting them. Other tiers were covered in flowers and potted palms.

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The highest tier in the main room, displayed an altar piece with a cross, flanked by a statue of the Virgin in prayer, and St. Joseph holding the Infant Jesus. It was decorated with lilies and candles. The whole piece was crowned with Christmas lights. Beneath, was a table set for seven, the six orphans and St. Joseph. Not the actual saint, of course, but a proxy named Mr. Guarofalo. He was, minus the beard, a dead ringer for the statutory representation.

In other rooms, the tiered tables were covered with food. Mountains of stuffed artichokes and bell peppers, and cords of fried asparagus and zucchini, are but a few of the vegetables represented. There were schools of fried fish, and a harvest of pasta tossed with garlic and olive oil, or fava beans, or green peas, or chick peas. The pasta was prepared in batches to keep it hot. The dishes were all meatless, as befits a Sicilian holy day.

No feast in the name of St. Joseph could exist without pasta chi sardi, pasta with fresh sardines. The dish consists of a long tube pasta, such as buccatini or perciatelli, mixed with fresh sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts and currants. Each city or village, neighborhood or family, in Sicily, has their own absolute interpretation of this dish. Sometimes, tomatoes or saffron are added. In other places, the dish is served baked, with toasted bread crumbs sprinkled on top. In still others, all the ingredients are pounded together into a paste, and then mixed with the pasta. The consumption of this food, on this day, was obligatory, nearly devotional.

One room was filled with bread. This was made for the occasion and donated by the Giangrasso Bakery, the best in the neighborhood. The more intricately sculpted loaves were made with yellow durum wheat, the same grain used for couscous and pasta.

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Oranges, pineapples and bananas filled in any empty spaces that could be found. Pastries abounded, because St. Joseph is also, the patron saint of pastry cooks. One of the daughters-in-law alone made 50 pounds of cookies!

The pastry of the day was sfinci 'i San Giuseppi. These are balls of cream puff pastry deep fried until puffed up and hollow to golden perfection. When cooled, they are split and filled to overflowing with sweetened ricotta, chocolate chips and candied fruits. In centuries past, these pastries were made by nuns in cloistered convents and distributed throughout the village.

Every one of the hundreds who passed through Mrs. Roccaforte's door during these three days was fed and given a roll, an orange and some cookies, to take home. If one's name was Joseph, a loaf of bread was added. This food was treated as religious artifact and people crossed themselves before eating it.

Mrs. Roccaforte chose her pitiable orphans wisely. Called i virgineddi, the little virgins or innocents, they were neither too little, nor pitiable. Small children could not eat enough to fulfill her vow and please St. Joseph. Moreover, the crowd surrounding the table would not be satisfied, lose interest and stay home.

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One year, my cousin Felicia and I were chosen to be two of the pitiable orphans. Both of our fathers had passed away when we were small children, so we were technically eligible. As 12-year-olds, however, we did not appreciate being thrust into the center of this kind of spectacle. Even so, our families gave us no choice but to accept this honor.

At noon on the March 19, we assembled in Mrs. Roccaforte's hallway. When everyone had arrived, she went inside and closed the door. Mr. Guarofalo, in the role of St. Joseph, knocked on the door. "Who is it?" asked Mrs. Roccaforte, in Sicilian. "I need a place to stay, and something to eat," he replied. "We have no room, go away," was her stern answer. He knocked again, receiving the same reply. The third time, in response to her question, he said, "It's St. Joseph with Mary and Jesus." With that, the door was thrown open and we were ushered inside, amid the cheering crowd. Felicia, myself, the other four virgineddi, and St. Joseph (Mr. Guarofalo) were seated at the table of honor, with deference and delight. We were all given a small drink of sweet vermouth, for a welcoming toast. Mr. Guarofalo made sure that the bottle stayed him, for future and regular refills.

The grand luncheon began with pasta. Felicia and I ate heartily. When we had finished, the same selection was passed among the crowd of onlookers. Our bowls were filled with a different variety, and we proceeded with vigor, as expected.

By the fourth bowl of pasta, we began to slow down. This was, however, only the beginning. Vegetables, fish and later sweets and fruits, were piled onto our plates, in prodigious quantities.

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My cousin and I, flashing a look between us, understood that we had no choice. We must eat! The crowd cheered us on, themselves joining in the feeding frenzy. Four hours later, barely able to stand, we were, mercifully, released from the table. Mr. Guarofalo could also barely stand, but for a different reason.

Waddling our way out, through the ebullient back-slapping crowd, we thanked Mrs. Roccaforte for inviting us. "St. Joseph will bless you, my children," she said, lovingly touching our faces. Then she dropped her hands to her side and gently admonished "But only you didn't eat."

BAKED PASTA WITH FRESH SARDINES (Pasta chi Sardi d'Andrea)

5 pounds fresh sardines, 1 1/2 ounces each, or larger

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion coarsely chopped

4 sprigs Italian parsley

22 black peppercorns

2 cups dry white wine

3 cups water

8 canned anchovies in oil

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

3 pounds perclatelli pasta

1 cup pine nuts, choppes coarse

1/2 pound thin tops of fennel, finely chopped

1/3 cup currants plumped in white wine

4 to 6 thick stalks fennel

Crushed red pepper

* Cleaned and fillet sardines. Save heads and skeletons for use in fumet. Snap off head by twisting away from body. Holding fish in one hand, slit belly with thumb nail of other. Remove and discard entrails. Continue slit down fish. Laying it flat, on work surface covered in wax paper, open it like book. Slip thumbnail under spine and remove with all bones. Cut off tail and dorsal fin. Separate 2 fillets. Rinse under cold running water to clean. Remove any loose bone. Leave skin on.

* As each sardine is cleaned place on platter tilted so that liquid drains into sink.

* After sardines are cleaned, start large pot of water with salt and little olive oil to boil. Cook pasta in water mixture.

* To prepare fumet, in sauce pan well greased with olive oil, place sardine heads and skeletons, onion and peppercorns. Cover and cook at medium heat 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

*Remove cover, add white wine. When alcohol has evaporated, add water. Continue cooking at gentle boil, uncovered, 1/2 hour.

*Meanwhile, melt anchovies with little of their oil in covered double boiler, until they can be whisked into paste.

*Cook 1 cup of bread crumbs over very low heat in heavy skillet, with 2 teaspoons olive oil, stirring frequently. Crumbs will toast quickly, so stir frequently to prevent burning. Keep turning and toasting until dark brown, but not burnt. Remove crumbs immediately from pan to stop toasting further.

* Pour fumet through fine mesh strainer into another saucepan, discarding all solids. Mix few tablespoonfuls of fumet into melted anchovies. Mix thoroughly, then add misture back to fumet with 1/2 cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep sauce covered and warm until ready for use.

* Bring large pot of water to boil with little salt and olive oil. When water boils, add pasta and cook until slightly underdone. Drain and toss in large bowl with pine nuts, currants, thin fennel tops and enough fish sauce to moisten.

* Pour some fish sauce and half of dressed pasta into large baking pan. Arrange sardine fillets in single layer. Moisten with more fish sauce. Add rest of pasta and remainder of fish sauce. Sprinkle top with 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, decorate with whole thick fennel stalks. Bake at 400 degrees 35 minutes.

* Sprinkle toasted bread crumbs and crushed red pepper on top to taste.

* Note: Recipe may be halved.

Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains:

458 calories; 914 mg sodium; 204 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams protein; 0.28 gram fiber.

SAN GIUSEPPI'S CREAM PUFFS (Sfinci 'i San Giuseppi) SHELLS Serve the sfinci accompanied with a sweet dessert wine, such as California orange Muscat. Other great choices would be from the long list of Sicilian sweet wines, or a Marsala Virgine or Soleras, a class quite different than the one we usually use in cooking. All of these are, alas, expensive and difficult to find in this country.

* SHELLS

1 cup unsalted butter

2 cups water

2 cups flour, sifted

8 eggs, at room temperature

2 quarts Light oil for frying, such as safflower, sunflower or canola

Melt butter in water in saucepan. When water comes to boil, add sifted flour all at once and stir. Continue stirring and cooking until mixture is smooth and pulls cleanly away from sides of pan, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, beat another minute and turn into bowl. Add eggs singly, mixing thoroughly before adding another. Beating in eggs can also be done in electric mixer using paddle attachment. Beat at low speed just until last egg is absorbed. Let batter cool.

Pour oil into 3 1/2 quart pot and heat to 400 degrees. When oil is ready, drop in batter by mounded tablespoonfuls. Fry until rich golden brown and hollow inside. Remove sfinci from oil with slotted spoon and roll on brown paper or paper towels to absorb grease.

Shells may be made up to 1 day before serving. Store uncovered in dry place.

* RICOTTA CREAM FILLING

3 pounds ricotta

3 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons orange liqueur

3/4 cup dark chocolate chips

1/3 cup candied citron, orange, or lemon candied orange peel, in long strips

Powdered sugar

Pass ricotta through large-holed screen of food mill to break up curds. Mix in sugar with wooden spoon. Do not use electric mixer, which will destroy curds. Mix in vanilla and liqueur, Fold in citron.

Refrigerate. Be sure mixture is completely cooled before folding in chocolate chips.

Just before serving, make slit in top of each sfinci and fill to overflowing with ricotta cream. Decorate with candied peel. Dust with powdered sugar to taste.

Note: Recipe may be halved.

Makes about 24 pastries.

Each serving contains:

658 calories; 216 mg sodium; 240 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 62 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.12 gram fiber.

* In baked pasta and sardine photo Cottura handpainted Italian pottery platter and platest from Cottura Ceramic Art Imports, Century City shopping center.

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