The following is a reprint of an article from Carol Barbieri which first appeared in the AHHerald on March 20, 2003:

For almost thirty years now, I’ve been buying St. Joseph’s Day cakes every March 19th, and I have absolutely no idea why.

At first, I bought the cakes for my husband, whose name is, Joseph.  When our first son was born, we named him, Jonathan Joseph.  Our second son is named, Christopher Joseph.  When I would bring home the three little St. Joseph’s Day cakes for each of them, my sons would sometimes forget and say, “Mom, why did you buy those cakes for us, too?  We’re not named Joseph!”  I’d have to remind them that their middle names entitled them to be the recipients of the cakes.  And I’d bet every maraschino cherry in America that not one of those three “Josephs” have a clue about why they received St. Joseph’s cakes every year.  I’m sure that not one of them ever researched the history of the day and the history behind the cakes.  Then again, neither did I.  And I was the one buying those cakes every year. 

My mother-in-law introduced me to the St. Joseph’s Day cakes tradition.  And if she knew the tradition behind the cakes, she departed this world without imparting that information to any of us.  Until I met my mother-in-law, I had no idea that there even was a St. Joseph’s Day.  I mean, I knew who St. Joseph was (Mary’s husband), but I didn’t know that he had a day set aside for him and an Italian cake for a namesake.  Even though my father is named, Joseph, my mother never bought him St. Joseph’s Day cakes.  But as far as my mother-in-law was concerned, it was a mortal sin to forget to buy St. Joseph’s cakes for someone whose name is Joseph.  She even used to send my husband a St. Joseph’s Day greeting card and put a dollar bill in it. 

Every year, I would get “The Call.”

“Did you buy the St. Joseph’s Day cakes yet?” she would ask.

Some years I was way ahead of her.  I would proudly exclaim, “I not only bought them, but they already ate them!”

Other years I would have to rush out at the last minute and pray that I could find a bakery that still had some cakes left.

One year, I was sick with bronchitis – too sick to get out of bed.  By the time I surfaced and went out into the world, it was March 22nd.  The first thing I did was stop at an Italian specialty store to see if I could get some of those cakes.  I asked the man behind the counter if they had any more St. Joseph’s Day cakes left.

“St. Joseph’s Day was three days ago,” he replied coolly. 

“I know,” I told him, “but I was sick three days ago and couldn’t get out to buy them.”

He said, “Who do you buy them for?”

I told him, “my husband and two sons.”

The guy felt so bad for me that he told me to come back the next day (Saturday).  He was going to stop by “a place in Brooklyn” to get them for me.  (And he did.)  That was the only year that I almost shirked my St. Joseph’s Day cake buying obligation.

This year, I decided to find out what was behind the whole St. Joseph’s Day cake tradition.  Thirty years is long enough to be doing something without really knowing why.

Some say that the tradition of St. Joseph’s Day began in Sicily, during the Middle Ages.  There was a severe drought.  The people prayed for St. Joseph, their patron saint, to intervene.  They promised him that, if he answered their prayers and brought rain, they would prepare a big feast in his honor.

Their prayers were answered and the rains came.  True to their word, the people of Sicily prepared a banquet and placed huge banquet tables for the poor of the town to enjoy.  The day is a day of generosity and kindness.  It was not only a way for the people of Sicily to thank St. Joseph for answering their prayers, but a way to share their good fortune with the poor of the town.

Today, the St. Joseph’s Day Altar is still adorned with special foods, flowers, linens, statues, holy cards, candles, medals, wine, and specially prepared breads and cakes.  The breads sometimes take the form of fish, because the tradition began in Sicily, where shellfish and fish are more plentiful than meat.  Also, no meat is allowed on the table, because the feast day falls during Lent.

The St. Joseph’s Day cake is called, Zeppoli, an Italian bread dough that is either fried or baked.  The filling is usually a custard, but some bakeries use cannoli filling.  I’ve actually read about some Italian grandmothers who filled the cakes with ricotta cheese, pureed chick peas, oil of cinnamon, and grape jelly!

But, I learned that St. Joseph’s Day isn’t just about cakes.  Apparently, there is a special soup that many Italians eat on this day, too – a minestrone.  But, no cheese is allowed to be used on top of the soup.  So, instead of using grated cheese, St. Joseph Day devotees use breadcrumbs instead.  Others make a pasta dish with sauce, also using the breadcrumb topping instead of cheese.

This year, when I purchase our St. Joseph’s Day cakes, I’ll feel a little wiser.  I may even taunt the poor man behind the bakery counter to see how much he knows about the history of St. Joseph’s Day cakes. 

And as far as my husband and two sons go, they’re going to get a lecture called, “The History of St. Joseph’s Day Cakes,” before they’re allowed to take a bite!

My mother-in-law would be proud.

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Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...