Material History of American Religion Project

La Festa del Pane: Food, Devotion and Ethnic Identity, The Feast of San Francesco di Paola, Toronto

Regular visitors to our site know about our interest in the role of food in religious life—it’s the topic of one of our books. In addition to feeding bodies, food also creates identity and community. It is a bearer of tradition—particularly for immigrant populations. In this paper, Enrico Carlson Cumbo describes a food event in a small Italian community, and how it has been transplanted and transformed in metropolitan Toronto. Cumbo’s story is of food, community, and tradition, with a transnational comparative perspective.

Cumbo has a Ph.D. in History and a M.A. in Museum Studies and History from the University of Toronto. He has taught Canadian, American, Italian, and immigration history at the University of Toronto and at York University in Toronto. He has published extensively on the Italian immigrant experience, including the Sicilian notion of fate in Sicily and North America and the immigrant sub-culture of boxing in early twentieth century Ontario. His latest publication is on the Italian immigrant Pentecostal movement in the United States and Canada, forthcoming from the Journal of American Ethnic History.

Every year, on the third Sunday of May, the Sicilian Salemi community in Toronto holds a religious festa in honour of San Francesco di Paola. On average, the celebration attracts five to six thousand people and includes a special Mass and panegyrics followed by a street procession of the saint's statue, a life size-figure draped in ribbons pinned with money as votive offerings. The statue is accompanied by a musical band, church and committee officials, society standard bearers, Third Order members and other devotees. The event is a fairly typical Italian immigrant festa except for two central, unique features, both associated with food: i.e., the pietanze meal just prior to Mass, involving the ritual feeding of thirteen children in a tent enclosure adjacent to the church, and the nearby display of a spectacular "chapel" or shrine (the cena) covered entirely in oranges, lemons and ornately shaped breads of every size.

This paper examines this feast, and its food associations in particular, as a religious and ethnic event. Food, of course, is about more than taste and nutrition. It is also, as Roland Barthes writes, "a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior." The preparation, display and distribution of select foods in the San Francesco di Paola feast have symbolic importance as conduits of social, religious, and cultural meaning. They say much about the Salemitan immigrants' sense of themselves as Catholics and as Sicilian- and Italian-Canadians in modern-day Toronto. The annual, public reenactment of the festa, now approaching its thirtieth year, highlights the significance placed on the presentation of communal (regional, national and religious) identity. This is manifest especially in the symbology and rituals surrounding the display and distribution of the feast's most striking features--the pietanze meal and the cena breads.

The Feast of San Francesco di Paola and le feste del pane in Salemi

Salemi, an ancient walled town in the province of Trapani, is perhaps best known as the first, short-lived capital of united Italy. It is also recognized regionally as an historic centre of religious devotion. The town's honorific title, "Fidelis", points materially to its numerous confraternities, churches, chapels, convents and monasteries. Though comprising just over 12,000 people, Salemi has sixteen churches open for worship and another thirty closed or partially closed due to physical damage caused by a severe earthquake in 1968. Closely associated with these churches are various religious Orders, many dating back to the Middle Ages, among them the Benedictines, Capuchins, Franciscans and the largely Italian Order of Minims (minimi), an austere brotherhood founded by San Francesco di Paola in the fifteenth century.

As elsewhere in Italy, the town also celebrates a variety of religious feste divided along temporal (liturgical) and spatial (paese and district/quartieri) lines. The more important of the temporal feasts include Holy Week observances, several Marian celebrations, and a series of feste devoted to saints connected ritually by a cycle of bread festivities, known collectively as le feste del pane (on which more shortly). The town's principal patrons, San Nicola di Bari and the Madonna Immacolata, are venerated annually in communal (paese) feasts involving all of the town's districts. Each district, in turn, celebrates its own patron saint, among whom is San Francesco di Paola, patron and protector of lu Santu Patri, the "Holy Father" district in the south-eastern limits of the town; the reference is to the saint himself.

Though Calabrian-born, and since 1962, Calabria's principal patron (patrono principale), San Francesco di Paola (hereafter St. Francis) remains one of Sicily's most popular saints. This is due partly to his many miracles but to one in particular. Refused access to a boat near Reggio Calabria, he is said to have crossed the Straits of Messina using only his cloak as a means of transportation. In 1523, four years after the saint's canonization, Minim friars arrived in Salemi and established a community in the town's south eastern section. Local devotion to St. Francis grew rapidly resulting in the district itself being renamed for the saint. This devotion was also manifest in the establishment of feasts in his honour --one annual and the other monthly. The former, commemorated on the third Sunday after Easter, is today a modest affair, a church-based event confined largely to Mass and panegyrics. The feast had once also included an extensive secular program --games, group contests, and fireworks --but, for various reasons, became exclusively "religious" by the mid-1950s.

The monthly celebration involves the lay district community more directly. In keeping with vows made to the saint, every first Friday of the month, select families prepare small banquets (pietanze) to which thirteen children (virgineddi, innocents) are invited per household. The families and the children, all dressed in the brown sackcloth of the Minim Order and holding large, round loaves of bread especially made for the occasion (cuccidati), parade solemnly to the church of St. Francis for Mass, special prayers and ritual blessing of the bread. After Mass, the group parades back to the devotees' homes where the children are served a thirteen-course meal, all of it meatless. This is in keeping with the Minim's strict dietary rules, i.e., observance of a "perpetual Lent, with abstinence not only from flesh but also from eggs and anything made with milk".

The banquet begins with a sliced orange, symbol of community and sharing, and ends with a course of pasta and fava beans, the banquet's "indispensable" dish symbolizing --in final, summary form-- simplicity, humility, essential sustenance, and in the form of the broad bean, fertility, generosity, and luck. The remaining eleven courses comprise, similarly, local, everyday foods --omelets, fish, potato, and pasta and patty (polpette) dishes of various kinds. The meal is witnessed by family members and neighbours. After the children have eaten or, more usually, sampled the pietanze, the remainder of the meal is shared communally with one exception. The cuccidati remain uneaten, and are given to the virgineddi after the meal to take home with them.

Though a district celebration, this ritual is an ancillary part of the town's cycle of bread feasts connecting the feast days, especially, of Sant' Antonio Abate, San Biagio (St. Blaise) and St. Joseph. Special breads are made on these occasions commemorating some aspect of the community's relationship to these saints. Two types, for example, are made on the feast of San Biagio on February 3rd. The first, cuddureddi ("little throats") are small, round (Eucharist-shaped) breads representing the throat. They are eaten by the saint's devotees as a spiritual guard against throat ailments, San Biagio's specialty. The second, cavadduzzi ("little grasshoppers"), are equally small, but intricate and delicately shaped breads. They commemorate the town's liberation from an invasion of locusts in the sixteenth century, and anticipate future relief in their votive preparation and (mass) consumption each year.

The feast of St. Joseph on March 19th is especially important and the focal point of the entire bread cycle. The day is commemorated in Salemi and throughout Sicily with Masses, special prayers and two central votive rituals. The first is a St. Francis-like table, though older in origin (late Medieval) and far more elaborate. The banquet, prepared at home by families as a special devotion to St. Joseph, comprises upwards of 101courses, all of them meatless, in this case because of Lenten obligations. Traditionally, three poor children, representing the Holy Family, are invited to the feast. Referred to as li santi or santuzzi ("little saints"), they are treated with solemn respect. Among his many attributes, St. Joseph is the saint of Providence and the patron and protector of the family and of the poor, both embodied in the invited guests. In their dual capacity as surrogate saints (in need of propitiation) and, at least nominally, as the poorest of their paesani, the santuzzi are expected to eat what they can from each of the dishes offered; the rest is shared among those present and others in the immediate district.

The second related ritual is the devotees' construction of a chapel-like structure adjacent to the tables of food, known collectively as la cena. This consists of a three-tiered altar and a surrounding, overhanging wooden canopy framed in myrtle and laurel, and hung with lemons, oranges, and hundreds of small, ornately shaped breads. The altar contains candles, crosses and other religious objects, flowers, select foods, a jar of wine, and three large, more intricately ornate breads (cudduri) intended for li santuzzi. Placed prominently at the centre of the altar is a large framed print of St. Joseph or of the Holy Family.

The numerous, smaller breads in the overhanging canopy are the most visually arresting, and, collectively, the centre point of the entire cena. Not only do they stand out in their sheer number, but literally frame the ritual in their central "message": they symbolize and embody plenitude, abundance, the fruits of Providence; a message also underlying the "101" dishes of the meal itself. In their rich symbolism, both shaped and overlain, they also convey basic Christian teachings and values, as well as the history and associational meanings of the festa itself. The symbols comprise: (i) universal Christian images --the image of the fish, for instance, representing Christ, love and charity, or the Easter lamb symbolizing Christ's Resurrection and regeneration; (ii) folk Christian traditions --the rose representing Mary and virginity, St. Joseph's staff adorned with a lily symbolizing loyalty and purity; (iii) local folk and religious traditions --the broad bean, as seen, representing fertility or the horse, signifying intelligence; (iv) pre-Christian symbols "re-interpreted" or coopted along Christian lines --the peacock, symbol of beauty and immortality, fruits and the myrtle and laurel themselves as symbols of harvest and fertility; and (v) civic and otherwise secular images --as in the case of the eagle, a ubiquitous image, at once Salemi's heraldic emblem, but also a universal symbol of strength and, more locally, of justice.

In Salemi especially, the interior home chapels are complemented by a larger, external version of the cena built annually in one of the public squares. The chapel is similar to the home structures, but is built under auspices of the civic authorities. Devotees and "publicly-minded" men, for various reasons, help prepare, display and dismantle it. This outside cena, in addition to the home-based feasts, have become the object of extensive media and general public attention over the last thirty years, making Salemi's St. Joseph feast and its feste del pane one of Sicily's most famous celebrations.

Though a far less elaborate affair, the St. Francis table shares some key features with the St. Joseph feast. Both are premised on the fulfilment of vows, grazie received or anticipated, and assume a level or quality of penance in time and effort expended. The rituals are not normally initiated by the well to do; traditionally, middling and even poor, though not the poorest, families organized the pietanze. Part of the penance, usually on the part of women, entailed begging door to door for the money (questue) or resources needed to cook the multi-course meals; this is obviously a more arduous and humbling task in the case of the St. Joseph feast. The feasts underlie the central virtues of humility and of charity to the poor, attributes closely associated with St. Joseph and St. Francis, whose core tenet and the Minim's motto is charitas. It is also a realization of the injunction in Matthew 25:35 ("I was hungry and you gave me food…."). There is another side to this injunction, less immediately altruistic. In giving to the needy, one also gets back in return. In the logic of popular belief, the more given the more obtained, the greater the offerings, the greater the (expected) recompense. Similarly, the more attention paid to the saints' spiritual "wards" (the poor and humble), the greater, presumably, the saints' attentiveness to their devotees' pleas. Thus, while devotional, the feasts are also a practical means for advancing the family's material and spiritual well being.

Another important similarity in the feasts is the communal associations and local, paese or quartiere identities that sustain them. This is especially the case with the St. Francis table. Because of its greater frequency --sometimes less than once monthly, and smaller, district focus, the feast has become a cultural fixture and an important part of communal life in the Santu Patri quarter. The district's narrow lanes, the close proximity of the houses, and the communal sharing of the meal itself necessitates cooperation in the preparation and presentation of the festa. The well-known Sicilian proverb "tend to your neighbour first [u vicinu] and then to your relatives" is nowhere more applicable than in the St. Francis district.

Yet another common feature, of course, is the feasts' focal concern with bread. This focus is rooted in its actual and symbolic importance as a biological, economic, religious, and social "necessity". The first of these is the food's ancient association with essential nourishment and health. In Salemi, as elsewhere in Italy and the Mediterranean, bread was and remains "the primary, …fundamental element, the absolute food." To be "without bread" is to be poor in the extreme. In Salemi especially, the food's ritual importance was also tied to the town's historic status and economic importance as a regional "bread basket", an ancient site of grain production, and still today, a land of agricultural abundance ("richezza agraria d'ogni intorno"). Bread, in this sense, represents health, fertility, and local pride in the town's history and agricultural resources.

The religious dimensions of bread are clearly conveyed in both a liturgical and folk Catholic sense. In the first case, Christ is worshipped as "the Bread of Life" and embodied as such in the Eucharist, Catholicism's central rite. Because of its Eucharistic and essentialist connotations ("give us each day our daily bread"), bread is deemed holy -- the sacred food throughout the Catholic world. In Salemi, the ritual importance of bread is heightened because of the town's clerical history and strong liturgical presence, as noted. The holiness of bread is equally felt in folk Catholicism. Until recently, Sicilian peasants revered bread as a scarce, sacred, and magical or near magical substance. A loaf of bread was never broken without first being crossed. On falling to the ground, bread crumbs were immediately picked up, kissed and blessed with the sign of the cross. Throwing bread away was considered a sacrilege. In severe thunderstorms, an older informant recalled, a loaf of bread, already blessed, was placed before an open window in an effort to ward off harm. Bread was endowed traditionally with explicitly religious, talismanic, and poetic-symbolic properties. "In peasant mythologies," as Piero Camporesi writes, the oven had a magic dimension, and ritual propitiators presided over the rising and baking of bread… The oven was where food passed from the raw to the cooked state, and like all transitional places (chimneys, doors and so on) it held a powerful magic: the rising of dough was associated with the rise and growth of the solar orb in the sky.

Folk poetry in Salemi is replete with references to bread as a holy object and a purveyor of symbolic meaning. Litanies are also sung to the saints before baking bread, the qualities required (firmness, colour, texture, etc.) enunciated in the litany to the saint. The symbolic importance of bread not only lies in its religious and poetic associations, but in its physical property as dough, i.e., in its ability to be shaped into virtually any form desired. This is an important attribute in folk devotional piety given the centrality of the physical (the "materially spiritual"), and of clear iconic and ex-voto representations.

Not least of all, bread symbolizes community, its ritual sharing a medium, ideally, of sociability and cooperation. The collaboration required in the preparation of the St. Francis pietanze and St. Joseph cena is symbolized collectively in the defining role played by bread in the town's feste del pane.

The bread feasts have played an important part in defining Salemi's communal identity. What of this identity did Salemi's emigrants in Toronto retain? What was kept of these rites and what was changed? What elements were considered "indispensable" and what extraneous in their redefinition as ethnic Salemitani in post-war Toronto?

The Pietanze and Cena Celebrations in Toronto

As elsewhere in Italy, Salemi has been a source of extensive out migration throughout most of the twentieth century. For all of its historic claims, the town's population has fallen steadily from over 19,000 in 1921 to about 15,000 in 1961. The 1968 earthquake accelerated this process; the quake resulted in severe damage to the town with some quarters, the Santu Patri among them, worse hit than others. Between 1967-71, nearly 3,300 Salemitani left the town permanently.

Emigrants left for Northern Italy and Europe, and overseas for the United States, Venezuela, Argentina, Australia, and Canada. In the latter case, the majority arrived in the 1950s and 1960s and settled primarily in Montreal and in Southern Ontario, Toronto and vicinity especially. By the early 1970s, the Toronto population of emigrants from Salemi and Vita, a nearby town with a longer history of immigration to the city, comprised about 8,000; the total number of (provincial) Trapanesi in Toronto at this time exceeded 10,000. The group's social life at this time was largely informal; there were few organized social clubs or ethnic-based religious societies. The situation began to change in 1971 with the establishment of the Associazione Trapanesi di Toronto, a social and cultural society of Trapanesi, and the organization of the first feast of St. Francis.

According to oral tradition, a Santu Patri devotee of St. Francis, Leonardo Craparotta, dreamed that the saint appeared to him and ordered that a popular feast in his honour be inaugurated in Toronto. An ad hoc committee of Salemitani was formed led by Craparotta. The committee approached the Capuchin priests at the church of St. Philip Neri in Downsview, Toronto, a centre of post-war Italian immigrants, regarding assistance in the establishment of the feast. Impressed by the clearly devotional nature of the celebration and the universal appeal of the saint, the priests accepted the request. As with all such feasts, however, the lay committee –and not the church-- organized and financed the festa itself. For practical reasons, the committee decided to hold the feast annually on the third Sunday of May, the Victoria Day weekend, "the first long weekend of the summer"; the weekend also coincides, incidentally, with the liturgical feast day of St. Philip Neri.

A formal committee comprising fifteen Salemitani was then organized and named the "Comitato di San Francesco di Paola da Salemi". The reference to Salemi was important as it not only established its paese identity but distinguished it from at least three other Toronto-based festa societies, all of them Calabrese, devoted to St. Francis. As a committee member recalled, "We emphasized [in the title] that we were from Salemi and not from Calabria. [Because of the association of St. Francis and his native region], some people [in the early years of the festa] actually thought that Salemi was in Calabria." While the Calabrese feste societies interlaced popular faith, regional identity and "heritage" with the "great Calabrese" saint, the comitato made a distinction between its devotion to St. Francis --though still a Salemitano and, to a certain extent, Sicilian patron-- and its ancillary functions through the feast as an organizational forum for the dissemination of paese and Sicilian traditions. Already more than a district celebration, it became a Salemitan and regional (Salemi hinterland) festa, incorporating another Salemi district feast (the Madonna della Confusione) and, by the mid-1970s, the cooperation of Toronto’s Vitese community.

An important component of the feast from the beginning was the reestablishment of the St. Francis table, the thirteen pietanze. Like the Old World, the table involves thirteen children dressed in the brown robes of the Minim Order. The children are the sons and daughters of the Salemitani and Vitesi immigrants, and increasingly, their grandchildren. The selection is based on their willingness to participate in the ritual and not on their parents’ economic circumstances; poverty is no longer the pervasive condition it was in the past. Also like the Old World, the pietanze are founded on familial vows (voti). Rather than distinct, family-based tables, however, the pietanze now comprise a single, communal table. Each of the thirteen dishes is prepared separately by a Salemitan or Vitese family and gathered collectively on the day of the feast. The votive list is printed (on photocopied sheets) with the family's name appended next to the offering. The festa president, the collective "master of the house", serves the dishes to the children. As he does this, the presiding priest announces each food item and the family responsible for it. The announcement serves partly as a public witness to the vow. As a religious act, the rite is both a family and collective, paese appeal to the saint for the spiritual and material welfare of the emigrant community as a whole. The familial, home-based, quartiere feast held monthly in the Old World has become a communal, committee-based, paese-wide feast held yearly in conjunction with the local Vitesi community.

The table itself has also been modified. The traditional thirteen pietanze are similar. They are all meatless; the two indispensable courses --the orange and pasta dish-- retain their symbolic importance; the subsequent eleven dishes are familiar, "everyday" foods; and the thirteen cuccidati breads remain a central part of the ceremony. There are, however, important differences in the preparation, content and meaning(s) associated with the New World table.

Table preparations, first of all, require less time and far less expense per family. This has eliminated the traditional need for begging --a practical (and perhaps social) gain, but a religious loss for some because of its explicit associations with humility, charity and personal sacrifice. What may have been lost in humility, however, is gained in the increased sociability of the New World table. The cuccidati (along with hundreds of smaller, ornate cena breads, as will be discussed) are baked by groups of women at a central location a week before the festivities. Though each of the pietanze is cooked separately, the festa committee and the families themselves coordinate the order and presentation of the table. Commensality is not only evidenced in the table's preparation, but in the public witness, and in the final, public sharing of the food items at the end of the rite.

Some of the pietanze have also, of necessity, changed. The quantity, cost and seasonal availability of foods bear directly on this change. Prickly pears and figs, common fare in Sicily, for example, have been replaced by apples and strawberries, the latter virtually "unknown in Sicily in the old days". This has resulted, at once, in a somewhat more Canadianized and more broadly Italian table. The former, a function also of more "modern" tastes, is witnessed more recently in the presence of french fries as a pietanza, listed in Italian as patatine fritte. The availability of Italian ethnic foods in Toronto and the presence of non-Sicilians at the festa have also resulted in the addition of more generally Italian fare, like Neapolitan pizza, never a part of the Old World table. Over time, as well, generational considerations necessitated change. The pasta and fava dish, for example, normally served at the end of the meal, became the second course. Practical concerns overruled the ritual sequence and summary symbolism associated with the dish. As Alberto Scalisi, the festa president explained, "the children are no longer poor…. They're not going to be hungry after eating twelve courses. [Because of the importance of the dish, and to save face]… we had to put it at the beginning. That's the only way they'd eat it". Similarly, fish in the form of baccala`, an important part of the table in the early years, disappeared entirely by the mid-1990s. "There's no point serving fish", Scalisi continued, "it's just wasted on the kids, they won't eat it." Further catering to changing tastes, the patatine fritte in 1999 were, in fact, McDonald's french fries. The ritual consumption of the meal is as important as the meal itself. Because the table is intended for the children, the continuation of the pietanze, ironically, depends on these changes.

Change was not only manifest in the introduction of new foods, but in the cultural reappraisal of old ones. Old World dishes like cauliflower patties (polpette di cavalfiore), artichoke and asparagus omelettes (frittata di carciofi and frittata di asparagi) and arancini dumplings have taken on new meanings. What in the Old World were commonplace, everyday dishes have become "traditional", "authentic" Sicilian cuisine in need of preservation and public display. The festa provides the occasion for the cooking and presentation of these dishes. The "older" pietanze serve a nostalgic purpose in evoking memory of the Old World feast and providing a forum for the celebration and distribution of traditional dishes. Augmenting the first generation's nostalgia, as the committee's pamphlets make clear, is the increasing need to direct the second and third generations ("la nostra trascorsa gioventu`") to an appreciation, however gradual, of their religious and culinary heritage. While primarily a religious rite, Toronto's St. Francis table is also a social and cultural event bringing Salemitani and other immigrants together in celebration of established ("authentic") and necessarily adaptive traditions. Notwithstanding its ethnic and commercial compromises, the St. Francis table and the festa surrounding it are advertised locally as faithful adaptations of the original (in "form, scope and character"). The feast is also described as the most important Salemitan event in Toronto :"l'avvenimento del anno per coloro che ascrivono le loro origini a Salemi".

The second unique feature of the festa, closely associated with the table, is the bread chapel, the cena. Unlike the table, the cena did not become a part of the Toronto feast until 1984. As seen, the St. Francis celebration in the Santu Patri district did not, and does not comprise a cena. In Salemi, as elsewhere in southern Italy, the chapel is associated with St. Joseph's day and is erected annually for the March 19th celebration. The cena played no part in the early years of the Toronto celebration as it was never a part of the original. This began to change by early 1980s. With the feast already more than a narrowly religious, district celebration, the festa committee felt that it should incorporate the cena as a natural extension of the St. Francis feast because of its paese-wide appeal, its ritual similarity to the St. Joseph table and the committee's cultural priorities. The first chapel, a wooden structure, was completed in time for the May 20th celebration in 1984. Since then, the cena has become the most prominent feature of the feast. In 1993, a new and more elaborate metal structure was built. The material was donated or paid for by devotees, and the work done entirely by volunteers. The structure, about 25 feet high and 18 feet in circumference, was constructed over a period of several weekends at a metal works shop in Toronto owned by a Salemitan immigrant and festa participant. Since 1995, the chapel has been displayed inside a large tent accommodating several hundred people at a time.

In incorporating the cena, the Toronto feast redefined the role and standing of St. Francis among the Salemitani immigrants. St. Francis became the primary (communal) saint of the emigrant Salemitani replacing not only St. Nicholas, effectively, as town patron, but St. Joseph himself as the central influence and pivot of the town's all-important bread cycle. The incorporation of the cena introduced the bread cycle into the Toronto feast. The cena encapsulates the diverse elements of the cycle and conflates the yearlong celebration into the span of a single weekend. The breads in the cena include the cuddureddi of San Biagio, the many, ornate breads associated with St. Joseph and other saints, in addition to the 13 cuccidati of St. Francis. In the interior of the structure itself, the traditional print of St. Joseph and the Holy Family are replaced with that of St. Francis, and the 3 cudduri at the centre, representing the Holy Family, with that of the 13 cuccidati. Normally, a figure of St. Francis and a plaque inscribed "Evviva San Francesco di Paola", both sculpted in bread, are prominently displayed above the chapel entrance.

These are not minor adaptations. To a certain extent, the transformation of the cena can be read as a form of celestial raiding, a sort of saintly one-upmanship or even district (festa) colonialism. None of the participants, however, would share this view as neither St. Joseph nor any of the other saints are displaced in the emigrants' devotion. The Toronto festa simply coalesces the various bread feasts into a single, public event, albeit under the auspices of St. Francis. The devotions and culinary practices associated with the other saints continue privately as lay, home-based celebrations, much like the popular, private devotions associated annually with Santa Lucia (the penitential eating of cucia, a type of boiled barley).

The reintroduction of the cena has revitalized the symbolic importance of bread in the life of the community. Like its Old World prototype, the cena is a religious, cultural, and social artifact, in this case, however, reflecting the immigrants' experience as Sicilian Catholics in modern day Toronto. Though no longer the primary, absolute food nor the magical element it was in the past, bread is still revered as holy and a symbol of nourishment and health, spiritual and otherwise. "Bread is very special", a festa organizer explained. "There's always that reverence, that mysticism [to bread]…. Even when it's old and stale, you don't discard it like old doughnuts or yesterday's salad." "Throwing bread away is a sin", a festa participant concurred, a sentiment reinforced in the countless, symbolic images framing the cena, and in the explicit Eucharistic associations (the bread and wine) at the centre of the chapel. The images are a combination of the traditional --the icons and symbols normally associated with the St. Joseph's chapel, as noted-- and the new. Among the latter are sculpted bread images of a cloak, lamp, and water spout representing some of St. Francis' miracles, and through them, the saint himself.

The chapel is a public articulation of religious belief, a symbolic, sacred text shaped by female cooks in the form of bread. It acclaims the community's Catholicism in public form and affirms its beliefs, its hopes and expectations in the spiritual materialism of popular piety. The cena exhibits --or more appropriately, embodies the full panoply of this belief. As one man observed, "There are all kinds of symbols here, many are very ancient. The star represents [Christ's] light, the `M' represents Mary, the fruits represent thanksgiving and the harvest…. There are so many symbols, I don't know them all." A devotee in the feast noted similarly, "the breads represent all of God's creation, everything that God made". At the end of the feast, the cena breads, already blessed, are given away to the faithful as sacred souvenirs. Like Holy Week palms, crosses, icons and other sacred objects, they are hung up at home and often, as in the case of a woman who kept her "St. Joseph bread" for 40 years, lacquered and preserved. They are, at once, nostalgic, aesthetic, sacred and talismanic objects.

They are also cultural artifacts and historic markers, bearers of a distinctive --and distinguished-- identity. As in the Old World, the cena reaffirms the community's pride in the town's history as a regional breadbasket. The variety and profusion of breads convey abundance, the fruits of Providence, St. Joseph's special domain --and, by extension, St. Francis' as well. In its sheer "profusion", the cena is an aesthetic, visual feast, a spectacle, an elaborate work of (folk) art. Its craftsmanship points to the town's distinguished past as an artistic centre, a place of "monuments and works of art" from ancient to modern times, as witnessed recently in an Italian television (RAI-3) presentation of Salemi's folk traditions, culminating in the cena. Art and religion, history and faith are intertwined. The end result is a folk aesthetics of popular piety.

Though most of the breads are religious in nature, a few are secular. Some are symbolic of Salemi itself, chief among them the double-headed eagle, the paese emblem; and the town's Norman tower, the remains of a 12th century castle. Others have a broader, ethnic significance, pointing to pride of place beyond Salemi and environs. These include sculpted bread images of Sicilian carts, the trinacria, the historic symbol of Sicily, and --apparently unique to Toronto-- a large "map" of Sicily placed directly above the figure of St. Francis at the top of the cena. Though honouring a Calabrian-born saint and welcoming Calabrian Canadian devotees as participants, the festa is, primarily, a Sicilian celebration; there is no formal connection between this and the other, Calabrian-Canadian feasts honouring the same saint in Toronto. The miraculous cloak on which St. Francis crossed the Straits of Messina to Sicily --his first venture outside Calabria-- is a central motif in the "telling" of his story. This landing is recounted annually in the Mass panegyrics and festa literature; it also figures prominently in a series of large panels depicting the saint's life mounted near the chapel.

The festa's "sicilianness" is displayed further in the distribution of oranges and lemons throughout the cena. As in Salemi, they are meant to be decorative, but also serve a strongly symbolic purpose for the immigrants. "[They] remind you of Sicily", a woman explained. "Sicily is famous for its oranges and lemons.". The interweaving of nostalgia, culture and religion is most clearly evidenced in the recent publication of a book by the festa committee, entitled Da Salemi… A Toronto. The book commemorates the 25th anniversary of the feast but is also a celebration of Salemitan and Sicilian history and culture. The book has chapters on the "Sicilian language" and on Sicilian poetry, parables, proverbs, stories, and foodways ("arte culinaria"), among other themes. The book's primary purpose was to advance ("portare avanti") the devotees' popular traditions in the New World, to instill in them a sense of pride in these traditions, and to foster in the "new generations" an appreciation of their elders' customs and heritage.

The cena, and the feast in general, is not only a locus of religious and cultural display, but a forum of sociability and communal "solidarity". The cena itself takes many hours to assemble. The workers are committee members and community volunteers, all of them male, in keeping with traditional gender distinctions in the division of physical and spiritual labour. The work is a cooperative effort and involves reassembling the metal frame and decorating it with foliage, oranges, lemons, and bread. The men's role in the preparations is primarily physical and directional, in the "ordering" and distribution of objects in the cena. The role of women is somewhat different. Every year, two weeks before the feast, about 100-120 women gather at Commisso Brothers and Racco Bakery, a well-known Italian bakery near St. Philip Neri Church in Downsview; the premises and kitchen facilities are made available to the women free of charge. There they shape, prepare and bake the cuccidati and cena breads, pass on their skills, and with them, the folklore and symbolic meanings of the breads. They exchange information and gossip, and generally gather in a common solidarity of language, devotion and communal origin. They gather again the day before the feast to string the breads for the men to hang up.

Unlike other Italian feste, the centrality of food in this celebration, normally a female preserve, allows for greater female participation in the organization and celebration of the feast. Their many hours of work do not accord them equal standing with the men; there are no women, for example, at the committee level. Still, in their capacity --literally-- as "shapers" of tradition, in their role as cooks and culinary artisans, in their knowledge of the symbolism of the breads, and in their desire and opportunity to pass on their skills, the women are, in essence, the real guardians of the feast. The pietanze and the cena define the women's primary role in this unique festa. A committee member, commenting on the unofficial, but "vital" role of women in the organization of the festa, noted rhetorically, "How far do you go without your wife?"

In addition, more so than other feste, the intensive labour and large gatherings prior to the feast and the large Salemitan attendance during it --comprising, as noted, the singular diaspora event of the year-- have resulted in an enhanced sense of community. The importance of neighbours , "li vicini", in the original Santu Patri feast is equally felt in the New World. The difference is that "li vicini" are scattered throughout North America. They have become, literally, members of a global village. The Salemitani and Vitesi in the feast derive mainly from Toronto, but are also from other parts of southern Ontario, as well as Montreal, upstate New York, New England and elsewhere. Commenting on this diversity, a Salemi-born woman from Boston observed, "We all show up and help in the feast because we love St. Francis, he's a saint of miracles. We all come from the same area [in Sicily]…. We're all together, we're all the same on the day of the feast".


A typical Italian festa in many respects, the Sicilian feast of St. Francis in Toronto is unique in its ritual attention to food. A composite celebration incorporating elements of the St. Joseph and St. Francis feasts in Salemi, the festa is a public statement of religious, cultural and social identity, with food--the St. Francis table and the cena--its central medium.

The pietanze meal, in its ritualized order, its symbolic text and votive context, provides a sense of continuity and connection to a past, a place, and a sacred cosmos still important to the majority immigrant/first generation participants. The participation of second and third generation children in the actual repast has necessitated changes to the Old World prototype. While not all of these changes have been welcomed --the presentation of commercial foods, for example, is a contentious issue-- the notion was widely held that preservation is only possible through adaptation (as witnessed in the very composite nature of the feast itself).

The pietanze not only connect the immigrant generation to a particular place and time, but to a variety of values and historical associations reflecting an idealized view of "heritage". The table is a platform, a dinner performance in and through which these sentiments are expressed. "The simplicity of the food…. The poor man's [fare]" in the Old World, for example, elicits, for many, memories of past hardships and sacrifice. "Eating a full plate of pasta and fave in the old days was a privilege", an informant explained. "In hard times, you'd eat what you could…. It wasn't like today." The food's simplicity --even its plainness-- points, at the same time, to the "resourcefulness" and resilience of Sicilians, their ability, as the informant noted proudly, "to make do with whatever's at hand". The combination of ancestral hardship and resilience --symbolized in the dishes' hearty simplicity-- is thus preserved as heritage in the pietanze themselves. The polpette di cavalfiore, the frittata di carciofi, the arancini dumplings are more than "traditional dishes". They are cultural artifacts, and have become, literally, food for thought. The "performance" is a conduit of other values as well. Among them: the importance of family and of children; the centrality of the saints in the life of the community; the core value of charitas --and with it, of cooperation and communal sharing; indeed, even the need to adapt, to "make do", to be flexible in ensuring the survival of the festa itself.

The cena serves similar functions. It affirms the holiness of bread, an emotive, historic symbol for the Salemitani especially, and evokes Salemi's festa bread cycle. In their sheer quantity, and in the time and effort required to bake, string and place them, the breads are a testament to the immigrants' religious faith and their communal solidarity as paesani, whatever their current paese. More than mere symbols, the breads underscore the spiritual materiality of the immigrants' popular Catholicism; popular (Mediterranean Catholic) belief is rooted in the transcendent potentiality of the material. The cena is also a work of art, a cultural trophy -- a testament, in this case, to the paese's aesthetic achievements, yet another variation on heritage. Here, the evocation is to a place and a past of magnificence, and not of poverty and want.

For nearly thirty years, Toronto's St. Francis feast has been a central part of the communal life of the city's Salemitan immigrants. "We've done quite well… so far," a committee member observed. "It takes a lot of work to put it together and all kinds of expenses, but we've never been in debt, not once". However successful in the past, the future of the feast is less certain. The first generation is passing and their memory of the paese with them. Still, there is little discussion of the festa's imminent demise at the committee level. The committee expects upwards of 20,000 people to attend next year's 30th anniversary celebration. The feast is not simply a hearkening back to the past, but a vibrant, living and evolving "tradition".

Claudia Roden, a culinary expert and historian, writes: "[food] is that part of an immigrant culture which survives the longest, kept up even when clothing, music, language and religious observance have been abandoned." This is arguable at best, but is pertinent here because of the special significance of food in the festa. The pietanze and cena are public performances, communal signs addressing very real needs and convictions, core values and expectations --all of which extend beyond the festa itself.

Return to the electronic journal page

Return to the project home page