| Patricia Majher

St. Joseph’s Table

Legend has it that St. Joseph – patron of fathers, carpenters, social justice, and the Universal Church – also had a hand in saving Sicily from a terrible drought.

It was during the Middle Ages that the drought occurred, killing the crops and putting the people of this Italian island in peril. Only the lowly fava bean, then grown as animal fodder, survived and became the sustaining food of the farmers and their families.

But the Sicilians knew they couldn’t go on with just one thing to eat. In desperation, they prayed to St. Joseph for help; as protector of the Holy Family, he was thought to be the most appropriate saint to intercede on their behalf. Shortly thereafter, the rains came down and the harvest was saved.

In thanksgiving, the people gathered the first fruits and grains, had them blessed, and offered them to St. Joseph on his feast day, March 19. Every year since, Sicilians in Europe and around the world have repeated this tradition by preparing a tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s table) in the great saint’s honor.

You can join in this tradition at your church or even in your home. To prepare for it, you need to set up a three-tiered table (symbolizing the Holy Trinity). Then cover the table with a white cloth and decorate it with a statue of St. Joseph and symbols of his craft: hammers, saws, and other woodworking tools.

The flower of choice for a St. Joseph’s table is a lily, though other seasonal blooms may be used. Candles of varying heights may also be placed on the tiers, to help to illuminate the display.

Then comes the food – and lots of it. Since St. Joseph’s feast day falls during Lent, the table’s dishes are often meatless. Fish, pasta, and vegetable dishes are common; stuffed artichokes are a particular favorite. So are breads fashioned into a variety of sizes and shapes including monstrances, chalices, crosses, staffs, and wreaths. Bread crumbs or mudica are often sprinkled on the food and on the table to symbolize the sawdust from St. Joseph’s workshop.

Pastries also have their place at this celebration; among the most popular are sfingi (cream puffs flavored with lemon and orange rinds) and a fried shortbread sweet filled with jam or almond paste.

The display, though beautiful to look at, is meant to be shared with others; in Sicily, the foods are blessed and distributed to those less fortunate in the community.

If you visit a traditional St. Joseph’s table, you’ll likely walk away with a gift of fava beans – the food that saved the Sicilians from starvation.