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Talking St. Joseph’s Day altars with Arthur Brocato 

Angelo Brocato’s grandson talks fig cookies, pigniolata and other St. Joseph’s delicacies

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Arthur Brocato is the grandson of Angelo Brocato, who opened his namesake ice cream parlor in the French Quarter more than a century ago. Arthur speaks at a panel about New Orleans St. Joseph's Day traditions at 5 p.m. Saturday at the International House Hotel (220 Camp St., second floor).

  Arthur sat down at Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionery (214 N. Carrollton Ave., 504-486-0078;, which he runs along with several siblings, and spoke with Gambit about fig cookies and St. Joseph's Day altars.

Why are fig cookies so prominently associated with St. Joseph's Day altars?

Brocato: Well, they keep. So you can put them on the altar for a while. They're made with dried figs, and they are easy to make into different shapes. Even people who make them at home can make them into religious shapes — a palm, the chalice, sandals, the monstrance.

  All the cookies that go on the altars are traditional Sicilian cookies. You have to have pigniolata. It's fried dough coated with either honey or caramelized sugar. (Brocato's) pignolata are covered in sugar. The cookies stick together so the look like pine cones, because supposedly Jesus played with pine cones when he was young. That's the story anyway.

  We also put biscotti, which come in different colors. People put sesame seed cookies on the altars, and scadalini or ossi di morte, "dead man's bones." These are cookies we make year round, but they go on the altars, and they're popular at this time of year.

Traditionally, what else goes on a St. Joseph's Day altar?

B: Breads are important, and cakes. Some people put a lamb-shaped cake on their altar. And there are dishes people put out. In Sicily, people might put out seafood, like mussels or swordfish. In Louisiana, you might see people put out boiled crabs. It's easier in Sicily because of the climate. Here you might put out the seafood for the viewing of the altar on St. Joseph's Eve, the night before. Then you might put it in the refrigerator. But everybody's tradition is a little bit different. There's no strict rules. Just no meat, because St. Joseph's Day always falls during Lent.

How has observation of St. Joseph's Day changed?

B: My family grew up in the French Quarter. It used to be an Italian neighborhood. My grandparents always had a big altar in the store.

  A lot of people used to build an altar in their home. You'd put a palm branch on your front door to announce the altar, and people would come to visit. On St. Joseph's Day, you'd have a feast, and you'd make pasta Milanese. St. Joseph's Day marks surviving a drought, so you'd be giving thanks for food and rains. You never refused people who came to the door. That's what the fava beans are about. It's not a good luck charm. It shows you are fortunate — you have food.

  In the last 30 years, fewer people are setting up altars. More people are having a family dinner, either on St. Joseph's Day or the Sunday before or after.

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