In honor of today being March 19th, I thought I would re-post and updated version of one of my earlier blogs about the (delicious) traditions associated in Italian culture with the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day.
Saint Joseph’s Day is to the Italians what Saint Patrick’s Day is to the Irish. Just two days after the Irish deck themselves in green and enjoy cold pints of Guinness, Italians celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph. Though the husband of Mary, Joseph is an important figure in the history of Christianity, thereby March 19th is now dedicated to his remembrance. Rather than wearing green, Italians typically celebrate by dressing in red.
In Italy, il Giorno di San Giuseppe is also Father’s Day, Festa del Papà, but the day has even more significance in the south. Sicily regards Saint Joseph as its Patron Saint because many credit him with saving the people from drought during medieval times. Once the rains arrived, the Sicilians celebrated their good fortune with great feasts. Unlike the heavy Irish fare of corned beef and cabbage, the traditional celebratory food for the Italian feast is based upon the peasant cuisine of the Sicily, including minestrone with fava beans, la frittata, and plenty of fish. But considering that Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs, the holiday is most known for its signature pastry: la zeppola.
As an Italian-American, I grew up eagerly waiting for Saint Joseph’s Day because I knew it was the one day a year when I could go to a local bakery and indulge in una zeppola. Le zeppole are typically made from a choux pastry, which combines eggs, water, flour and butter. They can be brought fried or baked and are usually filled with a rich pastry cream. While in Italy, I was on a mission to discover these pastries in their country of birth; however, I became disappointed to learn that my American idea of le zeppole is very different from the Italian conception. In much of Italy, zeppole typically refers to small deep-fried dough balls (think Dunkin Donut munchkins) sprinkled with powered sugar or honey.
Depending on la pasticceria, the doughnuts might be filled with the creamy custard that Italian Americans recognize in the states. Unfortunately, these offerings seem to be in the minority. In Napoli, li zeppoli are small fritters of fried dough, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with this, they are just not what I associate with Saint Joseph’s Day. I have, however, discovered that the pastry of my childhood is best associated with the recipes from Sicily. Perhaps if I visited the island, then I would find the dessert that I crave 364 days out of the year.
Despite living in Italy for four months, I never did find una zeppola that matched the product I salivate over in the Italian bakeries in Rhode Island. Even more, I cannot find any nearby bakeries in D.C. that serve up this delicacy. When I asked my Italian professor during my freshman year where I might try to find them, she had no idea what I was talking about, but she emailed me a few recipes for the munchkin-like zeppole. While I appreciated her suggestions, these could just not compare.
Since living in D.C. and then studying in Italy for a semester, I have come to greatly value my family’s traditions rooted in my Italian cultural heritage. Although D.C. certainly has its fair share of Italian restaurants, nothing seems to come close to those back home, never mind the great cooking of my Italian family members. So while I may not enjoy una zeppola on this St. Joseph’s Day, I am still wearing red in honor of my Italian roots.