After two rings of the bell, Marie appeared in the doorway. Her pale cheeks and nose were rouged pink, her hair dyed jet-black to the roots. Her curved spine means she must turn upward to look into the eyes of most people. When she says something funny, which happens often, she always looks at you.
It was impossible to figure out just how old she was, but she seemed somewhere between 70 and 90.
Because of her back problems, Marie sort of twisted along as she led the way through her unlit house. In the front sitting room, a small shelf held a collection of miniature saints. She pointed to a portrait farther down the wall. It was her grandson, Christian, wearing a tuxedo and a red bow tie. Handsome, with brown hair and big, almond-shaped eyes. "You'd never know there was anything wrong," Marie said.
She passed through a doorway into a kitchen that was dark and cool and totally quiet, despite an overwhelming smell of cooking garlic. Just beyond the kitchen were the silhouettes of a television, an ironing board and a sofa piled with folded laundry. Marie irons everything -- shirts, sheets, underwear -- to keep from falling asleep during All My Children.
The house felt like naptime.
Marie reached another door and pushed it open. White light, a chorus of voices and a more pungent garlic aroma gushed over the threshold, as if a seal had been broken. "Welcome to my dungeon," she said with a grin.
In 1997, the Fagot (pronounced fah-GO) family built the dungeon -- actually a cheery annex -- for one reason: to accommodate their annual St. Joseph Day altar. The room is white from floor to ceiling, with a full kitchen and a wall of windows that overlook the backyard. At the far end of the room sat the altar, at this point just three lattice-work arches and some pink tulle.
By mid-morning, a dozen of Marie's friends were here, working at a dozen different tasks. In only 48 hours, the altar would brim with fresh orchids and lilies, a small church gilded with royal icing, and dried fava beans as a reminder of the saint's munificence. There would be wine bottles symbolizing the miracle at Cana, breads molded into fish, cakes shaped like the Bible, and breadcrumbs to represent the sawdust of Joseph the carpenter, the earthly father of Jesus and the husband of Mary.
Many visitors would stop by just to note that this year's altar is even lovelier than the last one.
In the yard, more than 400 others would sit down to a traditional Sicilian St. Joseph Day feast (La Festa di San Giuseppe). Volunteers wearing red aprons would serve stuffed artichokes, fried artichoke stems (carduna), vegetable omelettes (froschias), olive salad, string bean and artichoke casseroles, and pasta Milanese aromatic with fennel and anchovy. But that was still two days away. Today was casserole day, and there was a lot to do.
First of all, no one could remember how many casseroles they made last year. What's more, there was no more room for casseroles in the icebox. Donna Gauthier, Marie's oldest daughter, had the job of orchestrating casserole production, but she was at the doctor's with a scratched eyeball, which she sustained while crawling under the altar construction site the night before.
All around the group of friends, backs stiffened; voices mumbled.
Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
Marie's team was tired -- they began production six weeks ago already. They first baked and decorated more than 15,000 cookies, which were now sealed tight in metal garbage cans in a back room. At the beginning, they worked weekdays. Now, as the saint's day drew closer, some were logging overtime at night and on weekends. This is not your usual retirees' schedule, and it was beginning to show.
"All right, we had 10 casserole pans last year," Marie suddenly snapped. She uses the same high-pitched, crackly voice when she's irritated and when she's amused. This time, she was irritated. "The pans are bigger this year. Six is enough!" She's got to run it like the boss, otherwise we'd run all over.
I'm just a little spoke in a big wheel.
With the casseroles declared finished, the group dispersed to the next chores. The noise level resumed as a dozen friends all vied for the same airtime to talk and tease.
When those women talk, give aspirin a headache.
One thing about these ladies, as much as they talk, that's how much they work.
BELIEVERS SAY THEIR ALTARS HONOR St. Joseph for saving Sicily from a deadly drought and famine in the Middle Ages. Altars aren't unique to New Orleans, but many consider this city to be a focal point of the tradition. St. Joseph's Day altars can be an expression of many things: heritage, religion, community, hope, devotion, a love of food. For Marie and her altar, it's all of the above.
Altar participants are neither required nor expected to have Italian blood -- altar traditions also thrive among this city's Irish Catholics and in Black Spiritual churches. Still, there is a certain status to being Italian in the Fagot annex. Marie and Donna, her daughter from her first marriage, are pureblood and proud of it. In comparison, jokes Marie, her husband, Caryl, and the daughter they made together, Caryl Louise, form a "league of nations." Caryl often describes himself as half Cajun, half Metairie.
Caryl was confirmed Catholic 55 years ago to marry Marie, then a young widow, in the Church. Marie is a devout Catholic. She attends mass twice a week and, as a Eucharistic minister, visits disabled and elderly people at their homes to administer communion.
The social intensity of St. Joseph's Day seems to drive Marie. You sense that she would find a way to entertain her friends, and to make them feel needed, even if St. Joseph had never answered her prayers. He has, though, and that's the main reason for her annual devotion.
Christian, Caryl Louise's 24-year-old son, is mentally retarded. Marie dedicates her work on the altar to him. Christian can communicate -- he gave Marie's dog the name Poochie -- but his motor skills have deteriorated since childhood. He lives at home and spends his days with a trained caretaker. Like the rest of the family, Christian has a good sense of humor. He loves people and the festive energy of St. Joseph's Day. "Christian's condition could be so much worse," Marie says.
Christian is always the first to eat on St. Joseph's Day, along with Jesus, Mary and the angels -- parts played by kids of varying ages dressed in robes and halos. By tradition, this miniature Holy Family commences the feast with a tupa-tupa ("knock-knock") ceremony, recreating the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph knocking on the doors of Bethlehem asking for food and shelter. At the Fagots' home, different kids play the other characters every year, but Christian is always Joseph.
Marie rarely stops moving -- except during the moments immediately following the tupa-tupa. That's when she sits beside Christian and helps him eat. Last year on St. Joseph's Day, she didn't appear to notice the crowds gathered at tables around the backyard waiting to be served, or the restless children pilfering cookies from the altar. For a few minutes, her world grew suddenly small and quiet. She wiped Christian's mouth, pointed out the many visitors he knew, and talked to him, all the while looking directly into his eyes.
RELIGION IS A REGULAR TOPIC while hands are busy around the production tables in the annex. I'm worried about the Pope. He didn't look good last Sunday.
My grandchildren think I'm so holy, one of them asked me to pray that she would pass her history test.
I gave up popcorn for Lent. We pop a bag every night, so it's a real sacrifice.
Food is as integral to celebrating the holiday as faith, and Marie is a demanding head chef. She always eyeballs how much almond extract to pour into her biscotti dough, and always gets it right. She inspects all 180 artichokes to make sure each of their leaves is stuffed. The workers take turns making lunch, which is served with Italian or French bread, and butter.
Marie had a life before the altar, but no one can remember it. During February and March, the annex is home, while the forgotten house holds their real lives in suspension.
The Fagot's altar originally belonged to Ms. Foto, their now-deceased neighbor who every year for more than 50 years thanked St. Joseph for saving her three young children from a house fire in the French Quarter. In 1956, Ms. Foto taught Marie to make her first fig cakes. That was the beginning.
"I had no intention of taking this altar," Marie claimed. "But like Ms. Foto used to say, If you put your hand in here to make something for St. Joseph, watch out.'"
My hands were buried in string bean casserole when she said this. It crossed my mind that she was talking directly to me. I had originally come here intending just to observe the altar preparations. Almost immediately, though, I began spending less time on my notebook and more on the food.
"You're stuck," Marie said. "Once St. Joseph wants you, you can't get away from him."
At least, that's how it happened with Marie. Ms. Foto died at the age of 86. "Next thing you know, here comes her children with wheelbarrows," Marie recalled. They delivered several religious statuettes, including the yard-high Blessed Mother draped in blue and holding Baby Jesus that Marie says sat on Ms. Foto's very first altar, in 1929.
None of Ms. Foto's children or grandchildren wanted to carry on her devotion. That's a fact that resonates with Marie's daughters. Caryl Louise shares her parents' home, and Donna lives next door. Both work full-time, and they commented on the stress of preparing an altar.
"I think the altar is going to die here," Donna said. "This is her project, her passion. She's very devoted and she does it for a reason. As family, you need to embrace it."
But it can be overwhelming. Both daughters take a full week's vacation leading up to St. Joseph's Day, to help with production, to run last-minute errands and to decorate the yard with flowers. When I asked the sisters to whom they devote their work on the altar, Caryl Louise stopped cracking eggs. She poked Donna in the ribs and smiled, as if about to reveal a secret. "To her," they said in unison.
Marie is blessed with those two girls.
LUNCH ON CASSEROLE DAY was Conchetta Lavene's Eggplant Supper Soup. Afterward, a few of the women discussed making the lamb cakes, which weren't perfect last year. Someone didn't grease the pans enough. Donna pulled a pineapple upside-down cake from the oven only to have it stick. Marie climbed up onto the altar to arrange the tulle, frightening everyone. Then Father Ian from St. Anthony's called to say that he'd be here tomorrow at 6 p.m. to bless the altar with holy water.
The priest knows they're never ready on time.
It doesn't matter if everything isn't on the altar it's automatically blessed!
Now the countdown was in hours. But this was not a young group, and there was a low ceiling on speed. Marie Salvant (there were actually three Maries in the annex), had hung a set of measuring spoons from her collar so as not to lose them in the commotion. She plugged in a small waffle iron that turned out to be perfect for making cannoli shells.
Caryl and an old friend, Ralphie Deceurs, headed to DeSalvo's Bakery for the Italian bread, which would total between $250 and $300. Caryl's diabetic legs and sore back cause too much discomfort for sitting in one position for long, and he's always saying that he doesn't help much with building the altar: "I don't do a damn thing around here." But he holds a few key positions within the group. He makes the crucial Milanese sauce every St. Joseph's Day. He's also the coffee maker, historian and dry goods commissioner.
Caryl gets tightened up at least once a day, when reflecting on how much his family means to him. He can also recite the history of nearly every building in New Orleans, and he knows exactly when and where his family bought what, and for how much. (His passion for goods is perhaps a holdover from his long career as a federal customs officer.) Years ago, the Fagots purchased an industrial mixer for less than $1,000 at a greasy salvage house on Rampart Street. A new one would have been at least $2,500. In 2004, a case of fig paste cost $52.80. The financial details are important: whereas some altars are funded by sponsors, this one is mostly paid for out-of-pocket.
Meanwhile, out in the back alley, on a bench constructed from a piece of plywood set over two trash cans, Billy Russel was using a fillet knife to dig the blurry eyes out of a 12-pound redfish. A friend's donation, the fish would eventually have olives for eyes; ice packs would keep it cold as it rested on the altar.
At 68 and retired just five years, Billy is the group's heavy-lifter. "These people are older than I am," he explained, "and they don't have the strength or stamina to do everything anymore." He wondered what will happen when they can no longer do it at all. "I'm not going to knock young people, but young people don't do this."
Marie won't reveal her age. "I'll tell you how much I weigh, I'll tell you I dye my hair, but not that," she said. So it seemed unfair to ask any of the other women, and no one offered. The years are marked in other ways. Marie often pulls out the photo album she has maintained since her very first altar, back when the annex was just a carport. In every picture there is someone icing cookies, arranging flowers, or serving dinners, who is no longer alive.
He used to help every year.
She had cancer.
We offer up the altar in memory of everyone who isn't with us anymore.
THIS YEAR, WHEN I RANG THE Fagot's doorbell, Donna answered. We traversed the dim house quickly. Not much had changed, except that now it was the smell of baking cookies that warmed the house. Marie met me at the entrance to the annex, tilting her cheek up for a kiss. "You here to work?" she asked. "I saved some painting for you."
There were many familiar faces, but not as many as I had expected. "You remember Rosie, Ralphie's wife? We lost her this year," Marie said. She pulled out a chair for me to sit across from Ralphie. He looked up from a big silver bowl. His job today was stirring almond biscotti balls with purple icing.
I asked about Rosie's sister, also an enormous help last year. She hadn't come yet this year. She's in deep mourning.
Too many memories.
For a moment, every head in the room seemed to bow. Then the familiar pandemonium resumed.
"You don't work, you don't eat, and I cooked today," Ralphie joked.
After Rosie died, he said, it took him three days to learn how to work the dryer. He'll probably never figure out how to set the clock on the microwave. This year, he brought a new friend from his neighborhood, Gilbert Pevler, who sat beside him stirring biscotti in green icing. Ralphie has been spending a lot of time with Gilbert's family.
Marie carried over the work she had saved for me: the final sheet of wreath-shaped fig cakes, flavored with anise seed and whole oranges. It was an honor: these cookies will decorate the altar, as opposed to the square fig cakes, which are for eating. I could hear Rosie's sister last year, telling me how it's possible, after a while, to pick out your cookies on the altar. "It's like your signature," she had said.
Stuck to the edge of my tray was a yellow paper with the number "74" written on it. Fig cakes and pignolatti (fried dough balls stuck together with melted sugar and formed into pinecone shapes) are counted by the piece; the other, smaller cookies are counted by the trash can. So far, Marie estimated, they have made 10,000 cookies this year.
Marie schooled me in fig cake painting and then took her stool at the mixer, where she would remain long after everyone left. "My job is to keep them in dough," she said, occasionally tossing a lump of it onto the production table.
Around the room, the conversations of last year resumed.
You been eating crawfish this season?
Chetta, tell us again about the siestas in Italy.
Boy, they talk a dog off of me.
Caryl walked into the annex, moustache groomed, eyes sparkling, leaning on a cane. "It sounds like the French Market in here!" he said, pulling up a chair and retelling the story of how he and his boyhood friends used to take the bus from Metairie to Chalmette to buy root beer for a nickel.
After I finished the fig cakes, I moved over to an area where four women were rolling coconut biscotti dough into balls and arranging them on sheet pans. "Roll the dough around in the palm of your hand," instructed Marie. "If you use your fingers you'll wind up with cracks." The first one I rolled landed in my lap. That's OK, honey, we do it, too.
As usual, everyone told a story about how "JoJo" has helped them, or how they hope he will help. Family members have recovered from illnesses. Empty parking spaces appear when they're most needed. Marie Russell, Billy's wife, prays to the saint about her aortic aneurism. Josie Arata hopes that when she reaches heaven, her namesake will orchestrate a meeting between her and her mother, who died just two weeks after Josie was born. This year, Marie Salvant will send a box of cookies to her grandson, who is stationed in Baghdad. He is a father of four and now carries a St. Joseph prayer card in his breast pocket.
This last story reignited a memory of one year when Lindy Boggs, a Fagot family friend, served as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Distressed that she couldn't find a St. Joseph altar, she called to request that a package of cookies be express-mailed to Rome.
Out of the blue, Marie Salvant asked softly, "Do you have children?" I didn't hide the disappointment in my face when I answered no. She promised to bring me a prayer to St. Joseph that will solve that problem, too.
This year, even Marie Fagot stepped up her requests for the saint's help. Aside from losing Rosie and her sister -- both hard workers -- home repairs forced her to start production three weeks later than usual. We were behind before we started. Marie was way down in the dumps. "Ms. Foto always said that if anybody leaves your altar, one way or the other, St. Joseph will always provide new help," she said.
One evening about a week ago, the doorbell rang. It was a younger woman who had known about the altar since Ms. Foto was alive. She told Marie that she wanted to help, and that she would bring along four additional sets of hands. That means there's a younger night shift working twice a week this year. It's a small glimmer of hope for the future of this altar. "Our children -- especially Italian children -- need to realize how important this is for our heritage," one of the workers said.
Donna and Caryl Louise might have been too overwhelmed to agree. Once again this year, they've been pitching in every moment they're not at their jobs. They've made sure that the seed cookies don't burn, that the staff meal is hot by 12:30 p.m., and that the night shift has wine if they need it.
Marie's the Energizer Bunny, said Donna, but she can't escape the limits of age. Her daughters worry about the knot in Marie's back from when she fell on the front stoop, and about how one arthritic index finger sometimes keeps her awake at night. Just a few days ago, Marie underwent an MRI for an unfamiliar pain.
Not that any complaint will be heard on St. Joseph's Day, when the workers' individual devotions coalesce into a moving whole. From noon until bedtime, cars will pull onto the lawns along Orleans Avenue. The elderly will find the backyard with walkers and canes. Children's pockets will jingle with quarters for the donation plate.
In the back alleyway, beside a sign that reads "Parking for Italians," a propane burner will keep huge pots of spaghetti at a boil. Marie's sister will bounce in, maybe again wearing a 1000 lira coin around her neck. Donna and Caryl Louise will hug their once-a-year cousin. Each volunteer server will play host to friends and family, who will show up to eat, submit a hand-written petition to the saint, and take home a goodie bag containing cookies, a prayer card, a lucky fava bean and a piece of stale blessed bread to ward off hurricanes for another year.
At this point, though, it is still biscotti day. By 4:30 p.m., most of the work force has left until tomorrow. As for those who call the annex home, Marie is still at the mixer, finishing up the last batch of coconut dough. Caryl Louise is sweeping up seed candies. Donna is making more icing. For a few moments, no one talks. "Eighteen days to go," sighs Caryl, sinking into his easy chair.