Saint Joseph’s Fava Beans

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Served the Tuscan way

Today is Father’s Day in Italy. Much of the Catholic world honors fathers on this, the feast day of Saint Joseph/San Giuseppe, husband of the Virgin Mary and father (well, technically step-father) of Jesus Christ. Throughout Italy the traditional treats prepared today will be frittelle di riso (rice fritters) or zeppole (small pastries filled with egg cream), recipes that call for fresh eggs and as such mark as well the time of year in which hens return to egg-laying. In southern Italy and Sicily, however, many meals today will feature fava beans, likely in the form of macco di San Giuseppe, a fava-bean-based minestra named for the saint who saved some starving Sicilian farmers via a miraculous crop of favas. Catholics commemorate Joseph by decorating his altars with symbols of abundance and renewal: bread, flowers, fruits and vegetables, and fava beans. 

Fava beans are symbols of good luck, in Italy and other parts of Europe. I’m still trying to figure out why, precisely, but surely it has to do with those Sicilian peasants who averted death thanks to the hitherto lowly fava. If you went to mass today with a fava bean in your hand, or if you know a farmer who carries a fava bean in his pocket to encourage a good crop, then you definitely know more about this tradition than I do (and I’d love to hear from you).

Tuscans love fava beans, but they call them by a different name: baccelli. In the Tuscan dialect, you see, fava is a slang word, and not a very nice one. Depending on context, ‘fava’ can refer to a certain part of the male anatomy, or be a rather mean slur: to call someone a ‘fava’ in Tuscany means to label them slow, or dim-witted; while a fava lessa, a boiled fava, is even dafter—a real idiot. (‘Fava lessa’ is one of the preferred curses of angry Tuscan drivers, by the way.) Come springtime, Tuscans eat baccelli pretty regularly, raw and with a good Pecorino cheese (pictured). They reserve their favas, on the other hand, for special occasions.