Dennis Persica: NOLA feasts blend cultures

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

Anthropologists and ethnographers who track the migration and mutation of folkways for a living can find fertile ground for their research in New Orleans this time of year.

Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day, a special day for Irish-Americans. Two days later is St. Joseph’s Day. Outside of southern Louisiana, it’s probably still not well-known that this day is special to local Italian-Americans, especially those whose family roots are in Sicily.

There was a time when the two days would have been considered competing feasts because of the deep animosity between Irish and Italian immigrants in New Orleans.

The Irish had been here first, while the bulk of Italians came to New Orleans between 1880 and 1910, mostly from Sicily or the southern part of Italy, and generally from the poorer strata of Italian society.

The Irish and Italians were economic competitors, both fighting for a grasp on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Probably the most well-known flashpoint for anti-Italian sentiment came after the murder of New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessy in 1890, when 11 Italian immigrants were lynched on March 14, 1891, 122 years ago today.

In 2013, it’s hard to believe that such animosity ever existed. The traditional St. Patrick’s Day parades you can find just about anywhere in America are staged here too, but the special events related to St. Joseph are almost exclusive to Louisiana.

There is a long-standing tradition of St. Joseph’s “tables” in Sicilian-American communities, honoring the saint they believe saved their island from drought.

In south Louisiana, those modest tables became the familiar altars, overflowing with hand-made food. For a good part of the 20th century, the altars tended to be small affairs, put together in private homes by devotees, mostly women.

But since the late 1960s, the St. Joseph’s Day celebration in the New Orleans area has exploded. A parade was created to honor the city’s Italian heritage, and other parades have sprung up since then for the same purpose. Huge public St. Joseph’s altars can be found at churches, schools and meeting halls all around town, often with long lines of people waiting to get in.

Meanwhile, a lot of cultural cross-pollination has occurred in the past half century.

It’s become fairly common now to see a combined Irish-Italian parade this time of year. There’s been one in Metairie for the past three decades, and there are similar parades in Baton Rouge and Houma.

St. Bernard Parish residents have widened the celebration to include the Isleños — descendants of the Canary Islanders who settled in St. Bernard when Spain ruled the Louisiana Territory.

The Irish Italian Isleños Parade has been a fixture there for more than a decade. In addition to the cabbages traditionally thrown at St. Patrick’s parades, riders throw carrots, onions, potatoes, lemons, limes, oranges, bananas, pineapples and apples.

Actually, the St. Joseph’s celebration in New Orleans has long had cross-cultural appeal. It has been a significant day for the city’s Mardi Gras Indians and it also is celebrated in Spiritual churches with predominantly African-American congregations.

Many Spiritual churches in New Orleans have had St. Joseph altars since the 1920s, and the same fava beans found on Catholic altars honoring St. Joseph also grace the altars in Spiritual churches.

New Orleans is a kind of cultural Petri dish, providing the perfect conditions to nurture these traditions, letting them mingle, recombine and give birth to something new every generation or so.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.