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The History, Recipes, and Symbols of a New Orleans Tradition


Sandra Scalise Juneau

Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars

  • Every year on March 19, Roman Catholic churches and households in and around New Orleans celebrate St. Joseph's Day, part of which involves preparing elaborate tiered displays filled with foods, prayers, and offerings. As the centerpieces of these celebrations, St. Joseph Altars capture a deep-rooted tradition established in south Louisiana by immigrants from Sicily, whose families have been giving thanks to St. Joseph since the Middle Ages. Sandra Scalise Juneau's "Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars" documents the practices of this annual ritual involving recipes, lore, and religious symbolism passed down through multiple generations. While preparations for St. Joseph Altars have adapted over time to local ingredients and tastes, most of the traditional dishes still follow cooking and baking methods that remain relatively unchanged from those practiced over a century ago. Juneau's book traces the history and symbolism associated with the St. Joseph Altar tradition, from its Sicilian origins to its establishment among Louisiana's celebrations, then later its embrace by multicultural communities across the United States. She also provides a guide for preparing a St. Joseph Altar, complete with lists of a host's duties and a recommended timeline, along with explanations of traditional foods and suggestions for physical set-up and proper placements. Several chapters are devoted to recipes, highlighting savory dishes centered on delectable breads, fish, pasta, and spring vegetables. Steps for preparing and baking pastries receive special attention, with detailed instructions for carving the intricate fig cake designs known as cuccidati. By collecting stories and documenting pieces of cultural heritage, Juneau tells of the faith associated with this sacred tradition so that it can continue for generations to come.

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