|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.
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.
|Three Tiered Altar with Jesus, Mary & St. Joseph Breads|
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|
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."
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|
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.