In a family tradition that she learned from her grandmother at a young age, Sandra Juneau is helping to pass on the St. Joseph’s Day tradition of making cuccidata to a new generation.“Once she passed, I picked up her tools and just began carving,” said Juneau, a New Orleans culinary historian. Roughly 50 New Orleans residents and Xavier students learned how to master the art of baking the sweet dough pastry with fig filling at a workshop at Xavier’s Convocation Annex on Feb. 20, 2016.

The workshop was part history lesson, part cooking workshop. Those who attended learned how the shapes of the pastries commemorate St. Joseph’s Day and are molded into different Biblical symbols. St. Joseph’s Day is a feast day in which Catholics honor the spouse of the Virgin Mary, also the stepfather to Jesus Christ. These shapes of the cuccidata include a fish and a cross, representing Jesus Christ; a circle, used to represent eternal life; and a staff, which is symbolic of St. Joseph.

The pastries are part of the celebration of St. Joseph’s Day, which takes place on March 19, 2016. The tradition of making the St. Joseph altars, sometimes called St. Joseph tables, was brought to the United States in the late 1800s with Sicilian immigrants. In preparing the altars, many of the early immigrants found continuity, giving thanks for the many blessings they had received. The altars are primarily seen in private homes and are presented for guests on the day of the feast. The feast itself is used to bring together friends and families and to have a great time with one another. The tradition of making cuccidata is central to these feasts. No two St. Joseph altars will ever be alike, Juneau explained in the workshop. No two cuccidata designs will be made alike, she added. The altars, Juneau explained, are set up in three tiers, each representing a member of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Each tier is then filled with special cuccidata, the fig cakes, pignolata, which are fried pastries, and mountains of biscotti, which are Sicilian cookies.

Sandra Juneau lecturing on the history of St. Joseph's altars in the city
Sandra Juneau lecturing on the history of St. Joseph’s altars in the city

“The tradition and holiday is more famous in New Orleans than in Sicily right now,” Juneau said.Once Sicilian immigrants came to the United States, and settled in New Orleans in the 1800s, the tradition grew more popular with Americans than in Italy, Juneau said. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the altars were a popular tradition used to pray for loved ones in World War II. “In the 60s and 70s the tradition started to die off, then in the 80s it slowly came back to life, to what it is today,” Juneau said. “There’s no reasonable explanation for the rise of the tradition in the 80s, but I’m glad it happened,” she said.The Catholic tradition took off in New Orleans, particularly the practice of making cuccidata. There aren’t many differences between the making of cuccidata in New Orleans and in Sicily, Juneau said, with one difference being that the people of Sicily use lard, and in New Orleans, we use Crisco, she said. In New Orleans, families, churches, schools and even some lounges prepare St. Joseph’s altars and advertise to the public.

Like Juneau, Dr. Kim Vaz, Xavier’s associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences said she has been celebrating St. Joseph’s Feast Day since she was very young. As a child, it was the first time she saw the altars and cuccidata.“I was captivated for the rest of my life, I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” said Vaz, who organized the workshop. “When I came back to New Orleans, I became involved because I was just so moved and I wanted to be a part of something so moving,” Vaz said. In planning the workshop, Vaz said she hoped to pass the tradition on to another generation. “This is a dying art form and we are working to preserve it by creating opportunities for young people to learn it,” Vaz said.For this reason, New Orleans resident Leslie Brennan said she decided to come to the workshop. “I invited my friends, and they invited their friends,” Brennan said. “This is a dying art, and I came to help pay honor to St. Joseph,” she said.

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