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New Orleans St. Joseph’s Day and its Magic Beans

An example of a homemade Sicilian St. Joseph's altar in the Cataldo family's living room years ago. Photo donated by oral history subject Lena Cataldo.

An example of a homemade Sicilian St. Joseph’s altar in the Cataldo family’s living room years ago. Photo donated by oral history subject Lena Cataldo.

 

There was a package waiting for me on the doorstep last week. It hadn’t travelled a great distance, just from one end of New Orleans to the other. It was from one of my oral history subjects. Now, this was not uncommon. In the 50 or so I interviews I conducted, I gained 50 or so new friends.

I received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to record an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward.  While many are familiar with the Ninth Ward because of the coverage it received during Hurricane Katrina, I chose to explore the community’s rich history extending decades before the storm.  I documented the neighborhood’s foundation and its evolution throughout the years.

My subjects welcomed me into their homes and shared stories about conflicts in the community (desegregation and multiple hurricanes) and cultural traditions (holidays, food, etc.). No matter how difficult or personal, my participants were happy to share stories about their home over coffee, a coke or in one case a homemade Italian vanilla cake baked specially for my visit.

Participants have stayed in touch since the months following the interviews, as more stories come to mind and holidays pass. Which was the nature of the package I received.

Sender and oral history subject Charles Capdepon sent me a small bag of blessed Fava Beans in anticipation of upcoming Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19.  This is a real life example of the customs and kindness I am trying to preserve.

Young Explorer Caroline Gerdes with a blessed fava bean she received in the mail from an oral history subject. Photo by Jake Clapp.

Young Explorer Caroline Gerdes with a blessed fava bean she received in the mail from an oral history subject. Photo by Jake Clapp.

 

Of the 10 or so American cities with St. Joseph’s Day observations, New Orleans boasts the largest. And, in the early part of the 20th Century, the Ninth Ward was the epicenter for the holiday as it was home to a large number of Sicilian immigrants.

St. Joseph’s Day is a dedication to St. Joseph who prevented famine in Sicily. The holiday was observed in the Ninth Ward with altars in churches or homes that were blessed by a priest.  Intricate breads and pastries were baked and decorated for the offerings.

Nativity scene made from bread, as St. Joseph is the Blessed Mother's husband.  This altar is located on the New Orleans northshore at DiChristina's Seafood and Italian Restaurant. Many New Orleans restaurants host St. Joseph's altars. Photo By Caroline Gerdes.

Nativity scene made from bread, as St. Joseph is the Blessed Mother’s husband. This altar is located on the New Orleans northshore at DiChristina’s Seafood and Italian Restaurant. Many New Orleans restaurants host St. Joseph’s altars. Photo By Caroline Gerdes.

 

Oral history subject Russell Guerin explained that while patrons were expected to give a donation (whatever they could), they were also expected to take something from the altar.  One of the most common items to pinch was the fava bean, the shamrock of St. Joseph’s Day.

“The fava beans must have been raised at a time of famine,” Guerin said. “But as long as you had a fava bean in your possession, you’d never be hungry.”

You can hear Guerin explaining the holiday here: 

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