In honor of Queen St. Isabel, who personally served the poor with food from her own table, sopas and sweetbread are served free to the public after the annual parade as part of the Feast of the Holy Spirit. Parade participants and their families are served first and then the public. This year, Lucille Madruga and Gabe Leal, Festa kitchen co-chairs, expect to serve 5,000 people from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 23.
“The tradition is part of what holds the Portuguese community together,” said Madruga, 85, who was the Festa queen in 1940, and who has worked in the kitchen for 37 years. The kitchen crew is made up of many of Madruga’s peers who are in their 70s and 80s.
Leal, 41, a relative newcomer with 13 years as kitchen co-chair, takes two weeks of vacation from his job at Home Depot every year to serve the Festa.
“It takes patience. You gotta listen to everyone,” Leal said. “If you can cook on a tuna boat, you can do this.”
Kitchen duty and the chance to serve others is a coveted honor. In the United Portuguese S.E.S. Hall, photos of past kitchen chairs line the hallway leading to the hall’s original kitchen and its industrial-size add on. On the U.P.S.E.S. website, the women who headed the crews over the years are honored: Conceicao Athaide, Maria Cabral, Angie Goulart, Margaret Madruga, Maria Emilia Monise, Maria Rita Monise, Florinda Neto, Etelvina Neves, Maria Alice Oliveria, Evelyn Medina Silva, Maria Virginia Silva and Conceicao Virissimo.
Because the kitchen crew is sweating it out behind the line all day, they don’t get to see the parade or enjoy the festivities.
“I haven’t seen the parade from start to finish in 19 years,” Madruga said.
Leal echoed this.
“It’s a sacrifice we make,” Leal said.
So, in Portuguese tradition, those who serve are served.
The night before the parade, the Festa queen and her royal court make a candlelight procession from St. Agnes Catholic Church to the S.E.S. Hall’s kitchen, where a blessing is said and kitchen staff are crowned. The staff, in turn, throw rose petals at the Festa royalty, a symbolic gesture commemorating how the Holy Spirit helped Queen Isabel hide the food she was carrying for the poor by turning it into roses when her husband confronted her and pulled open her cape.
After the rain of rose pedals, the all-volunteer kitchen crew sits down to a meal served by the U.P.S.E.S. board of directors.