Rituals of Charity and Abundance: Sicilian St. Joseph's Tables and Feeding the Poor in Los Angeles
AbstractThis essay explores the mid-Lenten Tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Table) in Los Angeles, situates this tradition within its historical and geographic cultural contexts, and seeks to interpret its various meanings. The custom of preparing food altars or tables in honor of St. Joseph is an expression of Southern Italian (conspicuously Sicilian) folk religion, which had at its core, on the one hand, a propitiatory sharing of abundance (as a rite of spring), the cultural exorcism of hunger, and on the other, within its Italian Christian matrix, an affirmation of the patriarchal family and an intertwining practice of hospitality and caritas. In its diaspora manifestations, the tables are a symbolic representation of the migration narrative itself (transposed in the Josephine dramatization of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt), along with an immigrant success codicil. This essay reconstructs the cartographies and stratified meanings of this food ritual in Los Angeles, largely employing the methodologies of oral historical and ethnographic research, but, as this narrative moves into the twenty-first century, it also considers the Sicilian-American tradition as it confronts further demographic shifts, diverse recontextualizations, and extends the analysis to encompass contemporary initiatives of inter-ethnic understanding and social advocacy. While building on previous writings and their analysis of abundance and gastronomic utopias, food practices among Italian immigrants, and the capital role played by food in Italian cultural identity, this essay on food altars and communal rituals of charity also seeks to integrate a newly embraced “ethnography of compassion” that bridges academic discourse and social engagement.