Gerald Scorsone tells an audience at Mount Morris' Theatre 101 how the St. Joseph's Table feast recalls a famous Italian famine.
St. Joseph’s Table tradition explained
It all began with a terrible drought many, many years ago. The prolonged dry spell during the 1700s in Sicily created a devastating famine.
Legend says that the people of one small village gathered often in their church dedicated to Saint Joseph, the Patron Saint of the community. Much praying was done for rain to pour on the withering crops, and the villagers promised to prepare a feast as a thank you when their prayers were answered. It finally rained!
Last week at Mount Morris Theatre 101, village natives Gerald Scorsone and Bernice Falsone Hotchkiss told about the variety of foods they prepared for the St. Joseph’s Table that was displayed.
The foods were all vegetables and breads, except for codfish and smelt, a tiny fish about the size of a sardine. There is no meat on a St. Joseph’s Table, since the tradition is celebrated during Lent on March 19th.
Often the breads are shaped into religious symbols; for example, the staff carried by Joseph; his beard also. And one of the macaroni foods is prepared with a seasoning of finely ground breadcrumbs, which depicts sawdust related to Joseph’s vocation as a carpenter.
Other foods include rice, lentils, baby artichokes, eggplant and cardunes (burdock stems) fried in a batter of eggs, cheese and flour. Ribbons, honey balls and fried dough balls are predominant in the pastry group.
Not only did everyone have a chance to sample foods from the table, but those gathered left with an orange and some bread in a small paper bag.
A St. Joseph’s Table is prepared in keeping with the original tradition: in thanks for a prayer answered. And it’s all about sharing the food with the surrounding community.
Both Gerald and Bernice have been active in keeping the tradition alive. Every year, Bernice prepares a plate of each food item and delivers them to shut-ins; this year, nearly 200 people enjoyed her generosity.
Bernice tried to get a recipe out of her mother years ago, but it never worked. So now she prepares all foods with a ‘pinch of this and a little bit of that.’
In 2001, when Gerald was the owner of Peter’s Party Complex, he prepared a St. Joseph’s Table in one of the large rooms of the party center. I was among about 300 people who attended.
There was a spirit of community not only during the festivities, but also behind the scenes. During the week preceding the event, more than 20 Mt. Morris women—most in their 70’s and 80’s—who recalled the many St. Joseph’s Feasts of their childhood and those which they hosted as adults, prepared food for the table.
Gerald recalled that there was conversation and laughter among the women as they busily prepared the variety of food.
“There could have been a little more efficiency in the kitchen if we didn’t have everyone’s opinion on how long to cut the bread dough strips or how the bow on the ribbons should be tied,” Gerald quipped, having enjoyed the fun.
The kitchen was also a ‘school’ for the younger women—in their 50’s—to learn the meaning of the tradition and the delicate art of using the right amount of the unique seasonings.
The event at Theatre 101 was sponsored by the Traditional Arts Program of the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts. Folklorist Karen Canning said that the St. Joseph’s Table was the first event in the Festive Foodways series of demonstrations, tastings and classes in 2012.