Lent was traditionally a very somber time in my devout Catholic family. My parents and grandparents suffered from the gripping paranoia that only sadistic nuns could instill in humans, knowing that they were under the constant eye of God and would be mercilessly punished for sins like eating meat on Friday. But for one day during the 40 days of sacrifice, things got little crazy and everyone in our heavily Italian neighborhood let loose in an appropriate, Vatican-sanctioned way. The Feast of St. Joseph—San Giuseppe to the old timers—is cause for celebration, and the best part are the traditional pastries called sfingi or zeppole. Technically St. Joseph’s Day pastries aren’t meant to be eaten at breakfast, but the way I figure it if God’s going to give me a free pass for the day, I’m going to make the most of it.
Just about everyone, regardless of religion, knows who St. Joseph is: husband of Mary, foster father to Jesus, accomplished carpenter, and patron saint of the working man. Back in the Middle Ages a terrible drought plagued Sicily and the people prayed to St. Joseph for rain, promising him a large feast in his honor if he came through. The rain arrived, the country was saved, and the feast was on.
Being that it was still Lent they couldn’t go too nuts, so meat was unable to make an appearance on the table, not that this was really a problem for an island of farmers and fishermen. Tables were piled high with fava beans—the crop that flourished after the rain and saved the Sicilians from starvation—as well as the vegetables that were just coming into season, such as artichokes, cardoons, and eggplants. For the pasta (there’s always pasta) fried sardines were mixed with bucatini and breadcrumbs. You’ll also find breadcrumbs sprinkled on just about everything, since St. Joseph was a carpenter and it looks like sawdust.
Getting excited for St. Joseph’s Day for sardines and fava beans is the same as getting excited about Christmas for the fruitcake. The real excitement comes from the pastries: deep fried dough with a hollow center, filled with vanilla custard or cannoli cream, dusted with powdered sugar, and garnished with a maraschino cherry. It’s a cream puff on steroids, an explosion of borderline debauchery after weeks of deprivation.
But how does a creamy edible sex bomb figure into a feast defined by gastronomic simplicity? It doesn’t. The traditions (and dates) of most Christian holidays have nearly nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with the Vatican’s mission to eliminate Paganism through delicious conversion. Easter eggs have their roots in ancient fertility rituals. All Saint’s Day followed the Celtic festival of Samhain, a day when spirits were said to rise from the dead, observed on October 31. The tradition of bringing evergreen trees indoors in December was meant to cheer people up during the winter solstice and remind them that it was only a matter of time before the trees would bloom again.
St. Joseph’s Day falls near the spring equinox, when it was time to celebrate the end of winter and plant the year's crops. Lambs were slaughtered to the sun god so he would bless the seeds in the ground. Houses would be cleaned and purged of unnecessary items discarded as to cast off the misery of the previous year.
And to honor the goddess of fertility, large, round fritters were made, stuffed with milky cream, and topped with a cherry for, erm… the nipple. Just as breadcrumbs are meant to evoke an image of St. Joseph slaving away at his carpenter’s bench, working hard to support the baby Jesus, sfingi are meant to be the gigantic boobs of Ceres that you stuff into your mouth, smearing cream all over your face and licking it off your lips. Did the Vatican know about this before they gave it a pass? I’d say probably. Can you think of a better way to convince people to convert to Christianity than by plying them with dessert titties?
St. Joseph’s Day has always been a day to relax just a bit from the pressures of Lent, but none of us knew how intensely that foray off the path of righteousness actually went. So feel free to embrace it, because it’s Vatican-approved. And, since it’s “holy,” it’s pretty easy to rationalize buying far too many on the 19th and being “forced” to eat the leftovers for breakfast over the next few days, because wasting food is most definitely a sin.