Food for the soul on the Feast of St. Joseph

William Bole

March 19, 1993|By William Bole

I GREW up in an Italian-American family in the 1960s, and there were some things my cousins and I couldn't wait for as spring pedaled down the block. One of these was the Feast of St. Joseph, celebrated March 19. The reason was not all piety and devotion to the carpenter from Nazareth. It actually had more to do with pastry.

Every year, Italian pastry shops rolled out a feast of puffy dough, fried in vats of oil and doused with powdered sugar. Many of them still do, not only in Brooklyn, where I'm from, but all over. It's the Italian answer to corned beef and cabbage, served up by the Irish two days before on St. Patrick's Day.

What these puffy treats have to do with Joseph -- the patron saint of Italy and of all working people -- no one knows for sure. And yet, there's more to this than pastry.

The feast is like an Italian folk tale about a carpenter-saint and the dignity of work. And it sends a message at a time when many Americans "work hard, play by the rules and get the shaft," as President Clinton used to say so undelicately in last fall's campaign.

Like people from the old country, Joseph knew what it was like to sweat nails just to put bread on the family table. He hammered for days on end, and still he and his wife had no place but a sheep trough where their boy could sleep on the night he was born.

Still, Joseph took pride in the skilled work of his hands, just like the Italian shoemaker. He knew the joys of work, especially the joy of laboring together with his adopted son, showing him the way of the craft.

So every year, followers of St. Joseph swing by the pastry shop and ask for some fried dough and powdered sugar. Minus the occasional yellow custard or ricotta filling, it's what most people who go to county fairs call a doughboy. Italians call it Zeppole di San Giuseppe, St. Joseph's own pastry.

Neighborhood theologians have speculated about how it venerates the earthly father of Christ to have a fried pastry named for him. But to most people, the zeppole (sounds like ZEP-o-lee) is just a sweetly peculiar way of somehow honoring the patron saint on his holy day.

In the more traditional Italian families, pastry is but one event in a feast of flour. Bakers of the house pour out loaves upon loaves of bread -- large and small, curled and round, some in the shape of lilies and staffs, symbols of Joseph. It's a celebration of their everyday bread, not to mention pasta and pastry. But it also celebrates and gives thanks for their labors.

People do not shape bread into lilies because they are hungry. They do it as a labor of love, an offering. It's a way of saying: Work is not just work; it makes us more human. Sounds naive, until you consider that the custom began with peasants in the poor south of Italy. They knew all about the other side of work, the drudgery and toil.

They also knew about Joseph. He was the one who worked not just for his daily bread, but for some bread of life, food of the spirit. And he knew when to clock out and take the family to a feast, like the wedding in Cana, where the wine ran low and his boy came up with 30 more gallons of the good stuff. Meaningful work, and steady feast-making. That's the Feast of St. Joseph, Italian-style.

4 And then there's the workplace in America today.

More people are scrambling to come up with their bread, and they have to work miracles to feed the spirit. Ask a keypuncher or grocery clerk or factory worker or someone else on the front line. Chances are they'll tell you about longer days of harder work and lower pay. They'll tell you how it feels to be used up on the job.

Joseph the carpenter says this is not the way human beings are supposed to work. The patron sends word that people ought to have it both ways, to have work that pays the rent and pleases the soul. He says he looks out especially for those who labor without hope.

The remarkable thing is that in the most beastly of labors, people do manage to be human. They manage to find not just bread but roses, too, and maybe a few sweet pastries on an early spring day.

William Bole writes from Lowell, Mass.

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