by Ian McNulty
St. Joseph Day altars, those wonderful, edible, spiritual Sicilian emblems of faith and thanksgiving, are customarily built by families and church communities. Family and community are two words often invoked when describing the good feelings around the Crescent City Farmers Market, so it seems fitting that this year the market is joining the long-running New Orleans tradition with its own altar.
It’s not quite your orthodox St. Joseph’s Day altar, but rather a locavore rendition on display in space attached to Bittersweet Confections (725 Magazine St., 484-0780), a one-time market vendor with a new storefront just across the street from the market’s Warehouse District site.
The unveiling of the altar is a ticketed event that doubles as a party and a fundraiser for the market, and it will be held March 18, the day before St. Joseph’s Day. In a way, it serves as a primer for people to learn about the tradition, which was once far more prevalent around the New Orleans area. At the event, you can pick up a listing of altars that will be open to the public on St. Joseph’s Day and plan your own visits on the feast day.
“It’s a wonderful thing to do. It really brings people together to celebrate and at the market we have a lot to celebrate and be thankful for,” says market vendor Kathleen Cooper, who runs her Forte Grove Bakery in the upriver town of Plaquemine, La.,
Cooper is one of several bakers contributing to the altar, which will also feature fruits, vegetables and other items from market vendors and chocolates from Bittersweet Confections. She has a great deal of experience helping to build altars for her church and for many years with her family, so the market tapped her to help plan its own.
“It’s all about what your family could provide and what sacrifices they were making,” she says. “As many different Italians as you talk to around here, you’ll hear that many different stories about what goes into them.”
Traditional elements include breads shaped into Christian symbols, artichokes, fennel, fig cookies, cakes, fava beans and pasta Milanese, with the dish’s breadcrumb topping representing wood shavings from the work of St. Joseph the carpenter. Altars around Louisiana typically also feature seafood, especially whole fish.
The restaurant Domenica will supply pasta Milanese at the market’s event, and Italian wines will be available. Oran B. Hesterman, a Michigan-based leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, will also be on hand to sign copies of his new book “Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All.”
The party is from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are available in advance online for $30 (or $35 at the door) and include pasta and two drinks. Kids under 12 get in free.