Keeping The Tradition Of St. Joseph's Day Altars Alive

Mar 17, 2014

A St Joseph's Day altar, with cakes.
Credit Billy Brown

Growing up, Nick Scramuzza’s childhood home never had its own St. Joseph’s Day altar.

“It didn’t need one,” said the co-owner of the Lost Love Lounge in the Marigny. “There was one on each side of us, one across the street, and one on the corner," he says.

"On my block alone, Kerlerec and Chartres, there were at least four or five altars on that one block.”

When Scramuzza went to live in New York City for three years following Hurricane Katrina, he missed a lot of things from back home — but what he realized he missed the most were the St. Joseph’s Day altars. “There was a whole bunch of New Orleanians on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, and we went to celebrate St. Joseph’s, and we went into Little Italy and no one even knew what it was.”

Scramuzza decided to build his own altar upon returning to New Orleans.

And that’s what he did — at the Lost Love. The response he got from the community was surprisingly strong.

“I didn’t expect it,” Scramuzza said. “I wasn’t really doing it for everybody; I was just doing it for us, and tradition. And then next year it kind of doubled again, and this year I’m actually going to put some tables and tents outside because now the overflow is unbelievable now.”

St. Josephs’ Day honors the patron saint of Sicily, and came about centuries ago after a drought wiped out most of the crops, causing a famine. The Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph, and eventually the rains came.

“Then the crops were able to flourish, and in honor of that, they created these altars in his honor,” said Carl Schaubhut, executive chef at Café Adelaide in the Lowe’s Hotel.  “And they kind of took on a life of their own.”

Chef Schaubhut grew up in a Sicilian-American household in New Orleans and has his own St. Joseph’s Day memories.

“In the spring and this time of year, my grandmother and all her friends would get together and they would start preparing what was like this endless feast, this endless task,” he said. “It was a very secretive kind of thing — you couldn’t see the altar before it was done. And being a little kid, you’re kind of tugging at your grandmother’s coattails, or aprons I should say in that case, and you’re always interested in what they were doing, because they were always cooking something.”

Schaubhut is planning the first ever St. Joseph’s Day altar for the café and hotel.  The idea is to carry on this tradition, “but to do it in kind of our own way, and really be able to showcase it for people, for locals, for tourists who might enter the hotel as well and say ‘Wow, what is that?’, and to be educated on how things are here, and different things that we do."

Typically, a St. Joseph’s Day altar is three-tiered. Beyond that:

“Memorabilia, some things that are tied to the Catholic religion, a lot of things are tied to the Italian heritage as well, flags, things like that.”

Boiled crawfish, lemons to symbolize new love, dried pasta, tomatoes and olives also typically adorn the altars, “just different things that really symbolize the Sicilians, their struggle in that time,” said Schaubhut. “And then there’s some more personal items I’m going to feature, like my grandmother wrote a cookbook, I’m going to have that on there, some pictures of us together, some dishes that she liked, things like that.”

At the Lost Love Lounge, the whole back stage becomes the altar. “I use everything that’s on the stage,” said Scramuzza. “If you’ve ever been in here, I have big speakers and a piano back there, and that’s the foundation.”

Scramuzza keeps to the traditional three-layer design.

“St. Joseph is on the top, Mary and Jesus each have their own plateau and stage area,” he said.

Scramuzza covers his altar in Italian and Sicilian flags, along with candles, food flowers, statues, pictures and, of course, the main staple of St. Joseph’s Day, the fava bean. Back during the famine in Sicily so many years ago, the fava bean was one of the few crops that survived the drought.

“They’re kind of the sign, the symbol of these altars and of the St. Joseph’s Day feast,” said Shaubhut. “You carry one around and it’s supposed to be good luck and good fortune for anyone who carries it."

Schaubhut is planning a four-course menu to go along with the altar. Because St. Joseph’s Day falls during Lent, there’s no meat. “It’s definitely a seafood-focused menu. We have a calamari dish with fresh homemade pasta, we have a little stuffed flounder dish with a fava bean purée to tie in that aspect of it, and the we’re doing kind of a citrus cured tuna as like an antipasto course.”

And for dessert? “A play on our cannoli with creole cream cheese and fig marmalade.”

Schaubhut says he’s getting much of the ingredients and help locally, from Rouses and the Italian American Cultural Center that literally abuts the hotel.  

Likewise, Scramuzza is staying very close to home for his St. Joseph’s Day feast.

"I have a whole bunch of Sicilian ladies — my mother and some other people who cook traditional dishes like Milanese baked fish, cookies, all kind of pastas, lots of salads and dates and fruit and other sorts of vegetables — and we put it out there and everybody comes and has a big feast.”

Scramuzza calls St. Joseph’s Day the happiest, most laid back day at the bar each year.

“Having grown up in this neighborhood, there’s not a lot of us left, and most of us are really old and you would be shocked at the number of older folks who come out of the woodwork who you don’t even realize live here any more,” he said. “It’s a big thing for them early in the day, and the different type of people that are in here is unbelievable, and it’s fantastic.”