We crowded around him like panting puppies anticipating their daily treat. A small black handled knife cut the strings. The boxes opened. The waxed paper covers flew aside. In each box shimmered the most beautiful display of pastry jewel work: zepolle. Zeppole, wonderful rings of striated pastry, some stuffed with white bursting ricotta others oozing vanilla or chocolate pastry cream and all topped with snowy white sugar and a glistening candied cherry. But the zeppole were not all. For good measure, another set of boxes revealed the phalanx of cannoli, again stuffed either with ricotta or with pudding and all sprinkled in powdered sugar.
In the middle of Lent, two days blew away the doldrums’ clouds of fasting and abstinence: March 17th, and March 19th. March 17th is Saint Patrick’s Day. My mother of Irish descent set out the side board with pans of Irish soda bread and dishes of Irish potatoes. We snuck the Irish potatoes into our mouths as we waited for that sent- from-heaven dinner of corned beef boil. A dinner of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots boiled in beer and garnished with mustard, a dinner we relished only on that day. Two days later we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph. Once again, Lenten restrictions lifted and Saint Joseph’s Day was a day to indulge.
The history of Saint Joseph’s Day celebrations dates to ancient times. In the Roman world, March 17th was the start of the Spring equinox, that time of the year when day and night are equal in length. The Greeks who settled southern Italy in the 8th century BC brought with them the cult of Bacchus whose rites were celebrated on March 17th. At first the rites were limited to women. Eventually, as the cult spread northward to Rome, men also participated. By the second century BC the rituals became so excessive that they were banned by the Roman senate. The outlawing of ritual however, is rarely effective and the celebrations continued. By Christian times, the Bacchic rites were converted to Christianity. The excesses of the pagan gods now demonstrated itself in a new way, the Altar of Saint Joseph: a table laden with every kind of bread and pastry imaginable. While I do not recall ever seeing a Saint Joseph’s day altar in Philadelphia I have found that they are still found among Italian Americans in Louisiana.
How Saint Joseph became associated with pastries depends on which legend you know. One version recounts that Joseph, having fled his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents, found himself without employment. To earn his living he sold small fried pastries. In another tale, that I found recounted in verse, Mary wants to invite friends to their home to eat. The problem is that she cannot come up with anything worthwhile. Then after three days of futile attempts wonderful pieces of fried dough miraculously come from the stove. Joseph becomes somewhat upset. He says that miracles must be reserved for important things and not for simple daily comforts. Suddenly, the baby Jesus speaks up and says that these little cakes will bring a little bit of happiness to all people in their harsh lives. In a third version, Mary finds that she has no food for her family. A voice tells her to go to Joseph’s workshop and to ask him for the chips that have fallen to the floor. She is to take the chips and fry them. Lo and behold, the chips become wonderful fried dough. Whichever story you prefer, it’s the end result that counts: fried dough, what we call “zeppole.”
The word “zeppole” itself is of ancient origin. Carol Field’s indispensable Celebrating Italy notes, “The term zippola used in Sicily is thought to come from the Arabic zalabiyha, which means a soft doughy made from other ingredients and fried in oil; sfinci comes from the Arabic sfang, a fried pastry. (p.399) While the correct Italian word is “zeppola” ( singular) and “zeppole” (plural), among Italian Americans the pastry is usually called “zeppoli.” As often happens as languages evolve the vowel sound of the Italian feminine, plural ending “e” (ay) shifted to the masculine plural “I” (ee). However you say it doesn’t change the delight in eating.