Red Sauce America - Food, Culture, and Italian American Experience






The Feast of San Gennaro Returns to NYC This Week

By on Friday, September 15th, 2023 at 7:39 pm | 1,046 views

sausages grilling at the Feast of San Gennaro in 2022

The Feast of San Gennaro kicked off last night in New York City. One of the largest celebrations of its kind in the United States, the feast has been celebrated since 1926.

The feast corresponds with a tradition in Naples whereby a vile of blood said to belong to St. Januarius I will liquify. The capsule of blood is stored in the Naples Cathedral. On September 19 and December 16th, and on the first weekend of May, the blood is presented to waiting crowds. When dried blood turns liquid, people believe good fortune is upon them. When it fails to liquify, it is seen as bad omen.

There is some science behind this miracle. Certain compounds can turn to liquid when agitated, as happens with the capsule each year. Those compounds are also frequently found in volcanic soil, something in abundance around Naples. However, these theories can’t be tested as the Catholic church has refused to allow the relic to be tested.

The New York festival started as a result of immigrants from Naples. Last year I wrote a extensive history of the festival for Whetstone Magazine looking back a the foods on offer during the festival, that explores some of this history.

One tradition that continues today is the donations giving to the statue of San Gennaro. He is paraded around the festival in ceremonies throughout the feast. One depiction of this precession can be seen in the opening scene of The Godfather Part II.

The statue is kept on the street throughout the feast and people can leave dollar bills pinned to it. These are donated, presumably to the Shrine of the Most Precious Blood, a church located around the corner from the festival and has often been the recipient of the feast’s largesse. Throughout the years, it has also served as a casino for festival, although the legality of games of chance has often been a gray area.

Januarius I of Benevento, Bishop of Benevento

Perhaps one of the most recognized foods at the festival is the sausage and pepper sandwich. The classic festival food has been served from some of the earliest feasts. They are often talked about in the news and media, including this essay from 1981 by Calvin Trillin. He spends the festival agonizing over the search for the perfect sausage and pepper sandwich.

A pile of peppers at the feast of San Gennaro

Fried treats have also always had a place at the festival, like zeppole. These small donut-like creations are fried and covered in powdered sugar and are a staple of any Italian American festival.

Last year, the festival hosted the 3rd Annual zeppole eating contest. I covered the story over at America Domani. The contestants were each supplied a tray of zeppole and given six minutes to chow down.

The sponsor of the contest is Danny’s On the Corner, a stand run by Danny Fratta who cooks all the zeppole from the contestants. In addition to Zeppole, Danny also deep fries tri-color Italian cookies.

Zeppole fried at the feast of San Gennaro

The Zeppole eating contests aren’t the only food-related competitions at the feast. The cannoli-eating contest has been going on for twenty-four years, but there has also been pizza-eating, spaghetti-eating, and other contests throughout the history.

At one time there was even a pole-climbing contest, although that has been discontinued years ago over safety concerns. But Philadelphia continues to to have the pole-climbing contest. Philadelphians have a lot more practice climbing slippery poles and do so whenever their local sports team wins (or loses) a championship.

Each year the lights of San Gennaro are strung across the road. The pattern is meant to look like the Bishop’s hat in honor of the saint who served as Bishop of Benevento.

The lights of San Gennaro

The annual festival is of course also a celebration of Italian American culture, and the green, white, and red flags are often on display.

Italian flags at San Gennaro

The feast opened on Thursday, September 14 and runs through Sunday, September 24. It is the 97th feast and the organization’s website has a schedule of entertainment.