Feasting on the Stories of the Saints

Danielle Oteri

by Danielle Oteri on July 28, 2011

This toddler has come a long way in a short time. This week, Good. Food. Stories. celebrates its second birthday, and Casey and I often marvel when we look back at the range of conversations that have happened here, the number of recipes compiled, and the restaurants we have covered. Thereís also something pretty spectacular about the amount of food that has been consumed in the name of good food writing, a challenge we have never shied from.

The world of new media is ever-changing and nimble, and so a few things will be developing in this space in the months to come. Personally, I will be scaling back to one article a month so that I can focus on a book project that has partially grown out of this blog.


The Feasts of Saints in Italian neighborhoods around the country are a tradition that is quickly fading, and evidence of their once great importance can be found tattered and scattered, often in food.

In February, in an old Italian bakery in the East Village, I found the pastries known as minni di virgini, shaped like breasts in honor of the Feast of Saint Agatha. The girls behind the counter had no idea why those pastries were made that way, but nonetheless they were still being baked and sold.

The shrine of Saint Cono is now in a wood-framed house covered in aluminum siding that stands out like a sore thumb amid the new glass and metal condominiums that dominate Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The annual feastís roots date back to 1261 and even absorb the Roman mythology native to the town of Teggiano. For immigrants, bringing Cono to Brooklyn was like unearthing a piece of the Teggiano itself. About thirty years ago, Cono was a popular name in Williamsburg. But last year, the beloved restaurant OíCono & Sons Pescatore shut its doors, and the street procession in Conoís honor is often just another instance of hipster irony.

Italian Harlem, more commonly known as Spanish Harlem or ďEHaĒ to real estate developers, is a neighborhood that began to vanish as early as the 1950s, and today is held together by a few neighbors, a barber shop, a church, and a miraculous statue. The church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on 115th Street between 1st and Pleasant Avenues was the rock of the neighborhood for the 85,000 Southern Italians that at one time lived in one of the poorest and most overcrowded tenement districts in the country. The annual feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was their collective release from poverty, work, worry, and prejudice.

Today, the feast has been taken over by Haitians, who have been coming to the festa since the 1980ís. Though they are Catholics, there is also a parallel between Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to the vodou spirit Ezili Danto. Three weeks ago, I attended the feast, which only felt Italian when the procession stopped in front of Raoís restaurant, the last culinary vestige of the old neighbodhood. But outside the church I watched dozens of Haitian women cook giant vats of rice, beans, and meat stews on the sidewalk, which would be enjoyed throughout the overnight vigil.

As an Italian, an art historian and a New Yorker, I feel deeply compelled to write this story of neighborhoods, traditions and food. I feel as though I have a treasure box to sort through and piece together these fragments into the larger mosaic from which they all come. And Iím sure Iíll be eating my way through quite an interesting story.

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