Thursday, July 24, 2014

Festa, Family and Food Presentations

This is the proposal I send out to Italian-American cultural groups to interest them in my presentations. I gave a presentation to an Italian Language club in May at Our Lady of Grace Church in Gravesend, Brooklyn. I'm returning to their group in September to talk about another passion: Regional Italian Cuisine.

 The Origins & Traditions of Three Italian Festivals 
A Fulbright Project
Stephanie Trudeau

About the Presentation:
This presentation is an examination of the evolution and continuity of the cultural traditions of three saints’ feasts, the Gigli in Nola, the Ceri in Gubbio and St. Joseph’s feast in Salemi, Sicily. These festivals unite their communities in creative, cooperative effort toward a common goal and the feasts’ artwork, music and celebratory foods illustrate and symbolize their historical tales of heroic sacrifice and redemption. The enduring strength of these feasts may be because they reinforce the pride and identity of the citizens of communities so impoverished in the past that it gave impetus to the Italian diaspora of the late 19th century. The feasts celebrate suffering, rejoicing and survival, and their folk art serves to reshape historical narratives and social identities in a modern society. This nine-month research project examined the evolution of these feasts from pagan rites to Christian celebrations, their artwork combining contemporary design with the baroque, all serving as expressions of cultural identity.

The photographs and commentary bring to life the elements of the feasts’ preparations and celebrations:
·        Women and their daughters make bread, crafted in myriad shapes and forms, as the principal element used to decorate the altars and banquet tables created for St. Joseph’s feast.
·        Papier-mâché is the art form used to create ornately sculpted facades for the 85-foot towers - the gigli - carried on the shoulders of men through the streets of Nola to celebrate the Festa dei Gigli. 
·        The Ceri is a race through the streets of Gubbio of three huge wooden cylinders, each crowned with a statue of a saint and also borne on the shoulders of a nine-man team. Men and their sons carry on the traditions of both the Gigli and the Ceri.

The duration of the presentation is about 45 minutes with a half-hour Q&A period.

About the Presenter:
Stephanie Trudeau is a singer/actress/writer who worked nine years as a music educator at several Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn. After completing her B.S. in 2005 on the History and Performance of American Popular Song, she began a research project on the continuity of Italian culture and traditions in Italian-American communities. In 2006 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy to continue her Festa research, in which she compared and contrasted the traditions of the feasts as they are celebrated in both Italy and the U.S. After completing her Fulbright she began working at The Bronx Museum of the Arts as manager of the museum book/gift shop. After leaving the Bronx Museum Stephanie created a company, Stevie’s Artisans Urban Folk Art, which sells the work of four artisans. She has presented her Festa photos at DeVry College in New Jersey, The Brooklyn Historical Society and The Italian American Historical Society of Providence, RI. Her article, Born to Giglio, published in 2005 in “Voices, The Journal of New York Folklore,” was the start of this Festa journey.

The following introduction was used by the Italian American Museum for a recent speaking engagement:  The Italian American Museum invites you to a photo presentation of a Fulbright project entitled, "Festa, Family and Food." Please join us as Fulbright scholar Stephanie Trudeau presents a lecture with power point presentation on the history and cultural significance of three saints’ festivals celebrated in Italy and in Italian-American communities.

Naples Pizza Party, Day 4

Monday, Day 4 – Herculaneum and Party over.

Originally the plan was to all take a train to either Pompeii or Herculaneum and then lunch nearby – preferably pizza in keeping with Sharon’s birthday theme. We decided on Herculaneum because a few of us had already been to Pompeii. Before heading to the train station in the mini van the concierge had called for us, Aurel suggested Anna ask our driver what he would charge to actually take us to Herculaneum. He said 70 euros or 10 euros each. The driver then offered to wait while we toured the ruins and then take us to lunch in Sorrento. Anna negotiated 210 euros total  - 30 euros each.

Herculaneum is amazing in ways very different from what I remembered of Pompeii. The area of ruins is smaller and more compact. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was a sea side resort, not a commercial city. Smaller villas – the equivalent of beach cottages. There are lots of tall walls still standing with charcoaled door lintels remaining from the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. Terrific mosaic floors and vivid red walls that are as fresh as yesterday. It had rained that morning and the grass and mosses were an amazing green. The scent of blooming mimosa, oranges and lemons lingered in the air. Spring comes earlier in Naples and the colors, scents and seaside setting reminded me of Selunite’s Greek ruins in Sicily. The recurring Neapolitan theme of Life and Death was heavy in the air.

We drove to Sorrento in a downpour. Eight years ago I traveled from Naples to Sorrento by train – a journey through lots of dreary towns. This time we drove along the winding coast - a route that was a mini and less scary version of the Amalfi Coast drive. We arrived in Sorrento around 3:30 and of course, everything was closed. Monday afternoon in the off-season. We drove around a bit and then found a small pizzeria/ristorante open just on the town’s central piazza. It looked dreadful and uninviting and most likely would have been awful anywhere else, but unlikely places in Italy often reward you with gastronomic pleasures.

Marguerita Pizza as a starter – the brick oven was prominently placed in the front of the restaurant. I had pasta fagiole ( a stew of small tubes of pasta with cranberry beans and plump little mussels.) Vigdis and Anna shared a serving of the pasta fagiole and a serving of cod roasted in olive oil and white wine. Erik and Aurel both had home-made spaghetti with frutti di mare and Sharon ordered gamberoni grillata. We drank a very young (2012) fresh and slightly effervescent white Lacryma Cristi which definitely tasted of the terroir of Vesuvius.

Erik, Vigdis, Me, Aurel, Anna, Sylvie and Sharon
Sharon, Forever Young 

Bay of Sorrento at Sunset

On the way back to Naples we stopped at a belvdere to take photos and to admire the twinkling lights of the Sorrento harbor in twilight. Back to the hotel for a little rest before our final pizza at Gino Sobello, the pizzeria the concierge had recommended our first day in Naples. We ordered three different pizzas: classic Marguerita (with Sharon’s added basil,) pizza with fresh artichokes and one with funghi (porcini mushrooms.) The crust was slightly tastier and a bit more charred than the pizza from Ciro e Mergellina. Both serve such superb pizza but everyone declared Gino Sobello the best. Who am I to argue?

The next morning Sharon and I accompanied Sylvia to one of Naples' market streets for a little food shopping. Then, everyone but Sharon and I dispersed for planes and trains home. She would leave later in the day so we managed our own last minute shopping – for ex voto's – the silver replicas of various body parts that are left in churches after a prayer for healing is answered. Sharon found two silver ex voto displaying eyes. She decided it would be great fun to have one mounted on a silver chain to wear when she next visits her ophthalmologist. She claims he has a great sense of humor and will "get it."

The next morning I went back to the market street, so I could fly home with fresh pastry for my husband - Sfogliatelli, his favorite.

Naples Pizza Party, Day 3

Metro mosaic featuring Vesuvius

Day 3 – January 19

Sylvie”s husband Erik arrived and the plan was for him to settle in and then we would all go to the Archeological Museum before lunch. I took the time to dash off to three nearby Metro Stations that I had read were decorated by various contemporary artists. I had done the same thing in Lisbon a few years ago. I started with the Dante station, near the hotel, then went to Universitá, then backtracked to Toledo and finally back to where I started – Dante.
Talk about sensory overload. So much art in so many colors and textures. So much beauty. At the first level down the escalator at Dante Station was a wall sculpture of lots of old shoes and clothing trapped behind sections of railroad tracks. I went down one more escalator of shiny stainless steel walls with glass panels overhead painted in bold swirls of red, black and white graphics. The walls of the station platform are decorated with tile mosaics of spacey shapes and forms in eye-popping colors: suns, moons, planets and stars in gold and lapis and silver.

On to “Toledo” station, where the floors on various levels are tiled in mind-bending Escher-like designs in customary, graphic black and white. The walls are covered in panels silk screened in hot pink and lime green squiggles and swirls. Color variations of the designs included Hot yellow, pink and blue or yellow and orange. The stairs at this station are graced with the portrait of a psychedelic, 70’s style woman. In contrast to the colorful wall graphics, a sinuous, rather sexy Carrara marble bench provides seating for passengers waiting for the trains. 

At “Universita” station I admired a photo montage covering the length of the walls on either side of a moving walkway down a long tunnel of faces staring back at you. Multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-age and compelling faces engaging you and sometimes seeming to stare you down.  Round the corner and you walk a corridor of photos of bigger than life people confronting you. Lastly a wall of pure whimsy and bits of poetry to remind you of the looming presence of Vesuvius. Wow.


The Archeological Museum is famous for having all the good stuff from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The mosaic floors, statuary and richly painted wall panels – all looking as fresh as yesterday, were beautifully presented but as Vigdis pointed out, sadly out of their context. All of this would be research/preparation for our planned trip to Herculaneum the next day.

After looking at all that beauty, we were starved for lunch. We decided to try L’Ello, the restaurant next door to and owned by the hotel. It has the same “contempo/arty décor and design sensibility. It offered a buffet lunch ala NYC salad bar but the menu was fresher, home-cooked Italian specialties. Just like a salad bar it was priced by weight – 2.50 Euros per 100 grams  (about $3.00 per ounce) Lots of vegetable choices: spinach, grilled endive, braised radicchio, green beans, zucchini, sautéed eggplant cubes, roasted pepper, etc. For entrée: fish baked with potatoes, roast pork with rosemary, really tasty roast chicken, riso nero that was really superb, intensely flavored eggplant parmegiano (sliced very thin like a French Tian) veal meatballs, sausages, various pastas lots of cakes for desert. My bill was 12 euros or $16 – not bad for a pretty amazing lunch.

We all went back to our rooms for a little rest and then met for a long walk along the harbor to see the sunset. The weather was pretty raw – windy, cold and totally overcast – a real Turner sky with pounding surf at the embankment walls. The Mediterranean is usually so calm; this was unusual and quite gorgeous. After quite a long walk we all taxied back to the hotel to warm up, collect Aurel (Sharon’s dealer arriving from Berlin) and then re-emerge for Sharon’s big birthday dinner.

Erik,Sylvie,Sharon, Stephanie

Back to Ciro & Mergellina for Sharon’s Birthday party dinner. Seven of us: Sharon, Vigdis, Anna, Sylvie, Erik, Aurel and I. For starters we again ordered the octopus salad and Marguerita pizza (Sharon again whipped out ther package of fresh basil) and a platter of prosciutto and milky mozzarella. I had grilled gamberini ( even better than those from Antiche Ristorante) and a couple of grilled Branzino – soft’ sweet flesh with a terrific char on the bottom. We drank a couple of bottles of a very good 2009 Taurasi. Baba au Rhum for dessert. Of course, Sharon’s serving was graced with a birthday candle.

Naples Pizza Party, Day 2

Day 2 - Saturday, January 18

Sylvie arrived from Paris in the morning and after dropping off her luggage, we headed out for more churches, more art and more pizza. We started out at the Cloister of Santa Chiara to see the lovely majolica covered walls, benches and fountains in the peaceful surroundings of the cloister gardens. Sharon wanted to see a tomb sculpture  - the tour de force “Veiled Christ” at the San Severo Chapel in Via Francesco de Sanctis. The sculpted figure of the reclining, deceased Christ is shrouded with a diaphanous veil – a beautiful example of marble undercutting. Sharon declared it as lovely as the statue of Ilaria del Carretto in the Cathedral in Luca. On the walk back to Via Tribunali – street of pizza – for lunch, we popped into the church of San Gregorio Armeno on that street. I wanted to examine the organ, which I’d been told is constructed of wood and cartapesta (papier-mache.) The center altar is flanked by two wooden organs stalls riotously decorated with papier-mache angels, flowers and baroque flourishes, all gilded with gold leaf. All the signs said “no photos,” but I pleaded with the nun standing guard to allow me a few because I am a “studiosa,” a scholar. She agreed to let me document the lovely artisan work.

detail of an angel on organ

papier-mache decorated organ

Lunch at Decumani – another pizza restaurant Tony and I ate at 8 years ago.  Sylvie and I had the “Buffalino.’ Sliced cherry tomatoes, basil and covered with slices of especially creamy mozzarella di buffalo crowned with a small ball of cheese - a “buffalino” - in the center. A good crust but I wanted more char on the bottom. – what you usually get if you eat a later rather than earlier lunch because the oven is hotter and can give the crust a proper char.  Sharon wanted salad because she had gained two pounds – horrors! She asked for a salad of arugula and tomatoes – no pizza. The very earnest and lovely young waitress asked if Sharon wanted prosciutto. I think she couldn’t imagine a lunch of just greens and tomatoes. At the end of the meal Sharon asked for a coffee.  The waitress apologized – no caffe – and asked if we would like limoncello (an unctuously sweet lemon liquor – a specialty of the region.) At which point even Sharon had to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion.

We headed off down for a long walk on Via Toledo to see the Teatro San Carlo Opera house because I thought I’d been told that it too was decorated with papier-mache. Before our tour of Europe’s oldest opera theatre, we fueled ourselves with coffee and dolci at Caffe Gambrinus, the elegant literary café across the piazza from Teatro San Carlo. We ate Naples’ supposedly best baba au rhum and sfogliatelli, the other pastry specialty of Naples. Delicious.

Teatro San Carlo is a scarlet and gold confection – each upholstered seat a separate arm chair with ample leg room. I was a little disappointed to discover that the impressive decorative work adorning the walls is stucco or plaster, not papier mache. The harpsichord was being tuned – by an American musician, originally from Detroit - while we were admiring the surroundings. He suggested we should come back that night to see “Barber of Seville” and I was tempted but we had dinner plans. He told me he really wanted to go to New Orleans to hear traditional jazz and just soak up the atmosphere of a great city. As I joined the others for the rest of the tour, I heard him playing Ellington’s “Take the A Train” on the harpsichord – an interesting and amusing rendition of a jazz classic.

Vigdis – the other friend from Brooklyn – arrived around 5:00. Sylvie and Sharon decided to have a little rest, so Vigdis and I strolled the “crèche” street and stopped in a local wine bar/enoteca on Via Tribunali. I had a glass of the local Aglianico and she had a Proseco - an aperativo before collecting Sharon and Sylvie and heading off for dinner. Sharon had asked an Italian friend to recommend the best pizza in Naples and was told Ciro e Mergellina, at the waterfront, “has the best pizza in the world.” 

So, off we went, and what a dinner! We started with a very delicious Margherita pizza: luscious cheese and beautifully charred crust – the best so far. The waiter brought a plate of focaccia: slivers of chewy, tangy toasted pizza topped with salt and oregano. This was served with Sylvie’s octopus salad appetizer – definitely the best I’ve ever tasted: lemony, sweet and tender.

I ordered the pasta alla vongole – home made spaghetti, perfectly chewy al dente, with sweetly succulent clams in a simple garlic wine sauce. Often garlic is the dominant flavor but here it was a well-played note.  Sharon and Sylvie decided to share a grilled branzino: lovely moist white flesh atop deeply grilled, crunchy skin. Vigdis seemed a bit confused or overwhelmed (jet lag kicking in?) but ordered spaghetti carbonara. When the waiter brought her dish, it was clearly not what she wanted. The waiter was extremely helpful, suggesting other dishes in his limited English and was visibly relieved and happy when Vigdis decided she actually wanted spaghetti Bolognese. Bolognese! We all applauded and Vigdis was very pleased with her dinner. We all were.

Neapolitan drama of operatic proportions played out at the table behind us. Shortly after being seated, a young, attractive couple, in a lightning flash, had some horrible disagreement. They were behind Sharon and I but in full view of Sylvie and Vigdis, who gave us a blow-by-blow account of the action. Tears streamed down her cheeks as they silently and stonily sat looking away from each other. They were sitting side by side but their bodies stiffly angled out at 45 degrees. We very mature ladies were somewhat relieved such palpable passion was behind us, but we were also a little envious.

Sylvie announced, “Something happened because now they are in full lip lock.” Sharon and
I could no longer refrain from peeking as we whipped around to finally get a good look. They were all but pawing each other as they engaged in full “kiss & make-up.” They shared a pizza, argued a little over the check, but left arm in arm. Ah, romance and love! And to be young and have it all matter so much.

Naples Pizza Party, January 2014

Day 1 - Thursday/Friday, January 16/17

I went to Naples, Italy for a pizza party - a bang-up celebration for Sharon’s 70th birthday. Four days of pizza and maybe a little of splendid Neapolitan seafood is my idea of heaven. No direct flight to Naples so I flew to Paris and then connected to a flight to Naples. On the overnight flight to Paris, my seat companion was a lovely young man - a jazz guitarist - on his to Lyon for a gig. We talked music and theater - I had just seen the Duke Ellington review, “After Midnight,” which I highly recommended: a fabulous jazz orchestra, great singing and splendid tap dancing. I mentioned I had been to Lyon and he asked if I could recommend any restaurants. I was in Lyon maybe 10 years ago but I said oysters at the oyster bar in the market and duck and quenelles pretty much anywhere. In Lyon, go for duck and quenelles.

I dozed a bit waiting for my connection at Charles De Gaulle Airport, and then dozed some more on the flight to Naples. I woke like a shot as we began our descent and there looming outside the window was Vesuvius. I love flying into Naples - there’s the beautiful bay and that majestic volcano - still active but thankfully, quiescent.

We landed, of course the taxi overcharged me and after a wild ride, I arrived at the very lovely Hotel Piazza Bellini, located in the historic center, across from Piazza Bellini. The hotel's décor is contemporary but filled with warm and whimsical artistic touches. I decided to take a little nap before the arrival of Sharon, the birthday girl. She woke me an hour and a half later and then we were off for pizza - I was truly starving - and then a walk through the historic center to see churches and the art therein.

The concierge told us we would find lots of pizza restaurants on Via Tribunali in the nearby historic centre, but she said the best is Gino Sobillo. Everyone has a favorite and we were more than willing to try hers. We ended up at Sobillo - a relative of Gino [kind of like all the Ray's Pizzas in New York.] Supposedly not as good as Gino's but I thought it was fine, although the crust could have had a bit more char. Very good cheese and sweet tomato flavor.

We had amazingly good coffee at the corner of Tribunali and S. Gregorio Armeno. I hadn't had any coffee that day - just won't drink airplane swill - so I really appreciated the great coffee at the corner cafe. Then we walked down via S. Gregorio Armeno - the street of crèche or in Italian, presepio (mangers) Terribly kitch but I love the stuff and Sharon generously tolerated my need to take it all in.

On Via San Biagio we encountered the baroque madness of the church of Gesu Nuevo.  Sharon’s comment: "If it ain't baroque, don't fix it." After getting through so much sensory overload with our sense of good taste still intact we entered the Capella Della Visitazione, which is totally devoted to ex voto. The mostly silver representations of body parts (arms, legs, torso, eyes, hearts, lungs, backs and heads covered the walls from floor to ceiling and the ceiling as we'll. Ex voto, a kind of Catholic voodoo, are left in chapels by supplicants who have had their prayers answered and received their cures.

Further down the street we stepped into Sant’ Angelo a Nilo, a church that promised a Donetello sculpture, It turned out to be second rate work by his students but directly opposite in the chapel of Statuaria Sacra was a spectacular sculpture - a tomb monument - of a skeleton climbing from a grave. Expressive and delicate, it was another example of Neapolitan fascination with death and mortality. Among all the kitchy mangers on the street of presepio, are statues of sports figures, politicians and other notables, all engulfed in flames. We saw lots of glass enclosed street shrines with flaming figurines and much of the iron work fences are decorated with brass skulls, worn away with constant rubbing. Maybe it's about living at the foot of a volcano.

We had dinner at Antica Trattoria on via Tribunali,near S. Gregorio Armeno. My husband Tony and I had a lovely dinner there eight years ago. Sharon, who is a perennial “weight-watcher” decided after a pizza lunch, she wanted a dinner of salad or vegetables. From the antipasto buffet: braised artichokes, spinach, and sautéed peppers - all perfectly cooked. I also had the artichokes and big fat grilled shrimps that were sweetly succulent.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Greetings from West Gilgo Beach

I'm still winding down from 10 days at the beach in a friend's house. West Gilgo is a community of homes sited between the ocean and the Great South Bay inlet on Jones Island. Head to Jones Beach, turn left and West Gilgo is just past Tobay Beach. There is no easy access to the beach for the public because the parking is in the gated community. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid July - a perfect beach day - there were maybe 50 people on the beach. (There is a public parking lot down the road at the next town, Gilgo, and definitely more crowds.

My daily routine included lots of long walks along the surf, in the morning and evenings with Franny, my sweet terrier mix, otherwise known as "Stevie's Mutt." I swam laps in the bay and then headed to the beach for body surfing and sunbathing. And naps.

Franny (Stevie's mutt)
I read lots of cook books - pouring over Italian and Sicilian recipes and commentary for a research project. I brought books from my collection and then was delighted to discover my friend's books. I also really enjoy the improvised, somewhat haphazard cooking one tends to do while on vacation. My "Italian frame of mind" led me to lots of pasta dishes: delicious, easy and fast, because who wants to slave away at a hot stove after a hard day at the beach?

I sautéed some Italian sausage removed from the casings. Then I sautéed escarole (I didn't have any broccoli raab) with some minced garlic. Added some cherry tomatoes, salt & pepper. Splashed it with a little white wine and let it simmer for a few minutes - for the flavors to mingle. Added cooked pasta and plenty of parmesan.

Another night:

I sautéed some chopped onion and garlic. Added chopped fresh tomatoes and broken up grilled sausage (because I had some.) Then added the cooked pasta and some diced fresh mozzarella. Let the mozzarella soften and add lots of parmesan. Fresh basil is nice, if you have it. Sort of Pasta Caprese.
Served it with some grilled zucchini drizzled with olive oil. 

I discovered in The Thomas Jefferson cookbook that he introduced macaroni to the new United States in 1790.  

On my last day I made a lovely tortilla - a recipe from a Spanish cookbook in my friend's collection. A great way to use up eggs, potatoes and half an onion. Franny agreed it was delicious. Home again, Brooklyn.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Feasts - Part 2

          After celebrating the Festa dei Gigli, at the end of June, I flew to Salemi, Sicily, a medieval hill town of steep and narrow cobble-stoned streets, located an hour’s drive south of Palermo’s airport.  I had come to see old friends and revisit St. Joseph’s feast, celebrated throughout Sicily but most quintessentially in Salemi. 

Salemi Street
Salemi with Castle in Background

The giglio feast is about sacrifice and homecoming and St Joseph's feast is about sustenance and survival. It honors Sicily’s patron who, according to legend, ended a severe drought that devastated the island during the Middle Ages. Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph and after the rain finally came and the drought and hunger ended, Sicilian villages prepared banquets to thank their saint, who is also patron of the home, family, carpenters and pastry chefs – truly a multi-tasking saint. Sicilian immigrants brought the feast traditions to New Orleans, when they settled there in the 1870’s. St Joseph altars are still created and banquets are served in many churches, community centers and private homes throughout New Orleans.

At the top of this hill town of 12,000 people, at one end of Piazza Alicia, sits an imposing 12th century Norman castle. At the opposite end are the ruins of the “Mother Church” destroyed by an earthquake in 1615 and now used as an open-air theater. Gaetano Scomegna, community liaison, walked with me through the areas ruined by the 1969 earthquake and pointed out what had been the thriving Jewish ghetto when Salemi was an Arab outpost. “These were the houses the mayor wanted to sell for one euro as a way to get people to rebuild the ancient town center,” he said.  It was the idea of Vittorio Sgarbi, a former cultural minister and former mayor of Salemi. Many houses have been renovated and those houses had sweeping views of the valley below and the rugged hills beyond.

Altar Festooned with Laurel and Breads

(Unbaked) Roses & Grapes
Fava Beans
Nadie Vultaggio

          Women organize and make this feast. They prepare the foods and create the signature folk art of this feast - bread, crafted in myriad designs, shapes and forms, that decorate the altar and banquet table. Six years ago, when I spent a month working with several Salemi women, learning to make the simpler ritual breads, I asked master bread-makers Anna Catalanotta and Nadie Vultaggio who had taught them to make the incredible designs. Anna answered, "You learn from your mother or by doing it with other women." Nadie nodded in agreement. Now I was back at family dinner at Nadie's house, reminiscing  as we looked at photos from this year’s celebration.

Anna Catalanotta

Three Tiered Altar with Jesus, Mary & St. Joseph Breads
A wonderful cook, Nadie served breaded pork cutlets, potatoes mashed with cheese and then baked, salad from Nadie’s garden and home-baked bread. I told her as delicious as the meal was, I was sorry it wasn't pasta with sardines (pasta con le sarde) a dish she and Ann had taught me to make. She reminded me that meal had taken all of a Saturday morning to prepare. But what a lovely family lunch that had been.

 Looking at photos of the town-sponsored altar, I remembered how I was first stunned by the artful creation made by Anna, Nadie and the other women.The St. Joseph banquets of the Middle Ages were simple affairs; tables set up in the town squares, laden with food provided by the landed gentry to feed the peasantry. Today’s celebration has evolved into an elaborate mise en scene. In Salemi tall arches (errected by men) festooned with laurel leaves, citrus fruits and decorative breads in the shapes of spring fruits, vegetables, birds and animals framed the altar (three-tiered to represent the Trinity) overflowing with flowers, prepared foods, wine and pastries - representations of fertility and abundance.

Orange & Breads on Laurel Covered Altar Frame
 On each tier were three large breads, each decorated with iconography (made of bread) of the members of the Holy Family. St Joseph's bread was decorated with carpentry tools, Jesus' bread with the cross, crown of thorns and other symbols of the Passion and on Mary's bread were seamstress' tools and roses. Interspersed were bowls of breadcrumbs to represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the carpenter.

St. Joseph's Bread

Jesus' Bread

            Three children portraying Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were served a multi-course meal, each course announced with a drum roll. No meat is served because St. Joseph's feast falls mid-Lent, a time of fasting and meatless meals for observant Christians. After the three children were served, dishes were passed to the clamoring townspeople - a reenactment of hunger. The children's meal ended as all good Italian meals do, with cafe. In this case, I beleive the children were served mostly milk touched with coffee. Finally, everyone was served a traditional meal of spaghetti, olive oil and cinnamon, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs. Although some breads are saved as souvenirs, most are eaten and new breads and new altars are recreated each year. Like the gigli this feast’s folk art is also ephemeral.

            Although I spent a month, six years ago, watching and helping the women make the hundreds of breads needed to decorate the altar, I never became adept at it. But then, they spend their lives learning to make these breads. Mostly I cut circles that they fashioned into roses and I rolled little balls of dough that became clusters of grapes. When I downplayed my contribution to the final effort, Anna pulled me to the altar and pointing out every rose and grape cluster, said, "Stefania, those are all yours."
Anna's Hands
Anna & Nadie's husbands applying the Laurel to the Altar Frame

Now there is a Bread Museum with an altar, banquet table and vitrines displaying examples of the breads and descriptions of their significance to the feast. There is also a display altar at the new Hotel Villa Mokarta, located just outside town on the road to the Villa Mokarta archeological dig – site of a Bronze Age village dating to 1250 B.C. The hotel has spacious rooms, wifi, a pool and a superb restaurant where I ate the best meal of my trip: spaghetti with sautéed zucchini and shrimp, a salad of local tomatoes, grilled swordfish seasoned with thyme, ripe melon drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a glass of a very good Nero d’Avola (€25 or around $33.)

Doric Temple at Segesta
Within a half hour’s drive are lovely beaches, a Greek theater and temples to rival any in Greece. To the south is Selinunte, where five temples in varying degrees of ruin sit on a high plain overlooking the crystalline sea. In spring one walks through fields of fragrant wildflowers to reach them and in summer you can cool off at the golden beaches below. North of Salemi, Segesta’s massive Doric temple is sited on a hill in the midst of rolling green countryside. Hike up or take the tram to the top of nearby Monte Barbaro to reach the Greek theater, now a venue for plays, concerts and other events. Its back-drop opens onto a sweeping vista of the vineyards and rolling hills of the western Sicilian countryside. 

Sicily and Campania, the region of Naples and Nola, are still quite agrarian and as my Salemi friend Gaetano reminded me, “The feasts aren’t celebrated like this in the big cities. Here they are remnants of a time when it was easier and necessary for people to work together.” Standing on the stage of that 2000-year-old theatre, I reflected on my path from the raucous festivities of the giglio feast honoring sacrifice and a very good deed done for a widow to a grand Sicilian feast where I  was allowed to play a small roll.