Yesterday, March 19th, Catholics happily celebrated the Feast of St. Joseph. Today’s post is slightly different from those previous in that it will discuss an Italian pastry in relation to a symbol found in Catholic sacred art. We are breaking new ground here!
A little history is in order. In the 1800’s, a creative baker in the city of Naples, Italy made, for the first time, a pastry known as the zeppola (plural, zeppole). Through the years other areas created this delicacy, too, such as the islands of Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta. This traditional pastry travelled with the Italian immigrants to America and Canada, and, I am happy to say that it continues, and finds its apogee, in the southern New England area of America.
But first things first. This blog normally talks about Gospel truths, Catholic and Orthodox sacred art, iconography, the relationship of art to Catholic prayer, saints, etc. This is my first venture in discussing pastry cuisine (!), but, in this case I think it is important. Why? Because in my opinion, the noble zeppola reflects a Catholic religious symbol. Obviously I am not sure the original baker (Pasquale Pintauro from Naples) desired to reflect this in his magnificent creation, but, in my opinion, it is there. More on that in a moment.
First, a quick overview of the artistic symbolism associated with St. Joseph. Many sacred images of St. Joseph either alone, or with the child Jesus, usually has him holding a rod with a flower or flowers at the top. In one hand he holds the rod, in the other, he is holding the child Jesus next to his chest. A simple example of this is found in the statue below.
There are variations of this basic model and many portray the artistic emotion and sentimentality that was popular during times past. Yet, what does the symbol of the rod mean? Does it have any basis in history? What does it have to do (in my opinion) with the noble zeppole?
Catholic tradition in this matter starts with Jewish custom. Rev. Maurice Meschler, S.J. describes the legend associated with this image in his excellent book on St. Joseph. He mentions that an ancient book entitled De Ortu Virginis, explains an occurrence in the city of Jerusalem in the first century AD, he writes, “...the Jewish priests in accordance with a special revelation received from the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem, are supposed to have ordained that, in a manner like the one in which Aaron had been chosen by God to be high priest of the Temple, all the young men of the family of David were to place a branch or a rod on the threshold of the Holy of Holies; and the one whose rod should become green and blossom, and upon which the Holy Spirit should visibly descend, was to be the spouse of the most Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Joseph alone, whether from a motive of humility or love of virginity, did not present his rod; and thus no decision was arrived at. When the priests had instituted an inquiry into the affair, God answered that the rod of a man of the family of David was still missing. Joseph therefore [because he possessed the virtue of obedience] brought his rod, and lo! it blossomed. The Holy Spirit descended upon it, and Joseph became the spouse of Mary. It is for this reason that Saint Joseph is often depicted with a blossoming rod in his hand, while upon its crown, even in very early representations of art, rests the Holy Spirit.” Rev. Meschler explains in his chapter on the espousals of Joseph and Mary that the sacerdotal purpose of their mutual virginity sealed the marital bond between these two people, chosen by God, to be instruments of His work in redeeming His creation.
So what does that have to do with custom of eating zeppole on the Feast of St. Joseph? It is my opinion that the 19th century Neapolitan baker, Pasquale Pintauro, would certainly have known of the symbol of the flowering rod held by St. Joseph, after all he would have seen it in churches and statues found throughout Naples.
With this in mind, the creation of the zeppole pastry was his way of expressing the branch or rod and flower portrayed by sacred artists. This is especially seen in its presentation by a Rhode Island bakery by the name of DeLuise (it is found on Oaklawn Avenue in the city of Cranston and on Chalkstone Avenue in the capital city, Providence. By the way they make the finest zeppoles in southern New England. We drove down from Massachusetts to buy them at the Cranston store). Notice the photos below of the mini zeppole I happily consumed last night.
So, here comes my critical analysis (!): the rough textured spiral side represents the branch or the rod of the family line of King David. The red cherry on the top of the pastry indicates the descent of the Holy Spirit which is represented by the miraculous flower. The cream filled center represents that the unique family line of King David would again flower – and be fruitful – through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The desire of God to redeem His creation was made possible because of the care of His Son, as a babe and youngster, by Joseph and Mary – both members of the Davidic family line. Every year on March 19th Catholics throughout the world celebrate this fact by consuming the noble zeppole – the the staff and flower – of the Feast of St. Joseph .
Thanks for reading! It was fun to write, but even more joyful to eat!
Copyright © 2011- 2018 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Photos of the zeppole by the author.