Cioppino — ‘The Whole Mess… Almost’


The the­ory is this: go to Cali­for­nia and mar­vel at the fresh pro­duce, the cre­at­ive cook­ing, the invent­ive com­bin­a­tions. But some the­or­ies dis­ap­point; ask the Amer­ic­an women per­suaded to wear wooden-slat bathing cos­tumes in the 1920s — they could have told you a thing or two about dashed expect­a­tions. Aside from mar­vel­ling at a plate­ful of ched­dar tapioca in Yosemite — not in a good way — I didn’t encounter any­thing that struck me as par­tic­u­larly deli­cious or ori­gin­al. It seemed that eat­ing on the West Coast was more of a roller­coast­er than a dead cert.

By the time we reached Los Angeles, we’d schooled ourselves to mar­vel at the views rather than the plates.

There were, how­ever, two major excep­tions: oysters in Mar­shall, and ciop­pino in San Fran­cisco. We were intro­duced to both by a very old friend who now lives in the city and whom I hadn’t seen for more than twenty years.

The rules at The Hog Island Oyster Com­pany in Mar­shall are charm­ingly simple: heap oysters on plastic tray, request com­ic­al left-handed or right-handed rub­ber glove, find table, start shuck­ing, eat. Order some more. (There will always be more — a team of work­ers armed with base­ball bats bash away at oyster frames all after­noon, knock­ing new sup­plies into trays ready to be tipped into the mouths of greedy cus­tom­ers.)


The second excep­tion to the rule of Cali­for­ni­an food was a bowl­ful of ciop­pino at San Francisco’s McCormick & Kuleto’s sea­food res­taur­ant. Sud­denly, the city wasn’t just about the Golden Gate Bridge and Alc­a­t­raz — it was about the food too.

Ciop­pino is messy to make and messy to eat, but noth­ing that a large plastic bib and a relaxed atti­tude to stain-remov­al can’t solve. Ciop­pino is as closely iden­ti­fied with San Fran­cisco as the Beat poets, and both defy con­ven­tion. As Her­ac­litus might have said, you can’t eat the same bowl of ciop­pino twice — it will taste dif­fer­ent every time, depend­ing on what you have to hand. Ciop­pino was the early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury cre­ation of Itali­an-Amer­ic­an fish­er­men in San Francisco’s Bay Area, who simply added the trim­mings of their daily catch to a pan of tomato and gar­lic broth.

I like to think that Gregory Corso, the Itali­an-Amer­ic­an Beat poet, would have enjoyed ciop­pino. Corso had a child­hood and adoles­cence that should have wrung all humour out of him, like water from a dish­cloth: aban­doned by his moth­er, lied to by his fath­er, beaten by foster par­ents, imprisoned sev­er­al times, abused — and all before the age of twenty one. But, inspired by Shel­ley, he began writ­ing poetry in his pris­on cell, and he nev­er lost his sense of life’s comed­ic qual­it­ies. The title of his poem ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’ could so eas­ily describe try­ing to wade through a giant-sized bowl of ciop­pino but admit­ting defeat before the spoon quite hits the bot­tom. (It’s abso­lutely noth­ing to do with ciop­pino by the way, but I like the asso­ci­ation.) In the poem, Corso aban­dons everything: Truth, God, Love, Faith, Hope, Char­ity, Beauty, Money, Death — but he holds on to Humour.

Went back up those six flights

Went to the money

there was no money to throw out.

The only thing left in the room was Death

hid­ing behind the kit­chen sink:

I’m not real!” It cried

I’m just a rumor spread by life…”

Laugh­ing I threw it out, kit­chen sink and all

and sud­denly real­ized Humor

was all that was left-

All I could do with Humor was to say:

Out the win­dow with the win­dow!”

Extract from ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’, Her­ald of the Autoch­thon­ic Spir­it, 1981, Gregory Corso

And in his poem ‘Columbia U Poesy Read­ing -1975’, Corso attrib­utes the Beat poets’ suc­cess, in part, to that ‘divine butcher’, humour. You could do worse in life than arm your­self with a bowl of ciop­pino and a will­ing­ness to laugh.


’16 years ago, born of ourselves,

ours was a his­tory with a future

And from our Pet­roni­us­i­an view of soci­ety

a sub­ter­ranean poesy of the streets

enhanced by the divine butcher: humor,

did climb the towers of the Big Lie

and boot the ivory apple-cart of tyr­an­nic­al val­ues

into illus­ory obli­vi­on

without spill­ing a drop of blood

…blessed be Revolu­tion­ar­ies of the Spir­it!’

Extract from ‘Columbia U Poesy Read­ing -1975’, Her­ald of the Autoch­thon­ic Spir­it, Gregory Corso, 1981

The Beat poets devised two lit­er­ary devices which, if you’ve read my post about lit­er­at­ure and maths, you’ll know are exactly my cup of tea: the cut-up and the fold-in. The cut-up is the pro­cess of chop­ping up poems, either your own or a com­bin­a­tion of yours and someone else’s, and then reas­sembling them to make a dif­fer­ent piece of work alto­geth­er. The fold-in entails fold­ing two prin­ted pages down the middle, align­ing the type, join­ing the two halves togeth­er, and read­ing across the line. Ciop­pino is a bit like that: take a little of someone else’s recipe, add a bit of your own, guess, and see what hap­pens. This is my cut-up, fol­ded-in ver­sion.


Cut-up, fol­ded-in Ciop­pino for Gregory Corso

Serves 4

  • 2 car­rots chopped finely
  • 2 sticks cel­ery chopped finely
  • 1 medi­um onion chopped finely (no need to get too nerdy about any of this — it’s a fisherman’s stew we’re talk­ing about)
  • 6 cloves gar­lic — again, it is a fisherman’s stew
  • Large tea­spoon fen­nel seeds ground in a pestle and mor­tar
  • 300ml white wine
  • 500g fish stock
  • 700g pas­sata
  • 50g tomato pur­ee
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 500g raw firm white fish
  • 500g clams
  • 500g raw tiger prawns
Saute the onion, gar­lic, cel­ery and car­rot in extra vir­gin olive oil on a medi­um heat for around ten minutes with a little salt and black pep­per. Once the veget­ables have taken on a little col­our, add the ground fen­nels seeds. Pour in the white wine and scrape any residue from the bot­tom of the pan. Sim­mer gently for around fif­teen minutes to reduce the wine. Add the stock, pas­sata, tomato pur­ee and bay leaves and sim­mer for anoth­er ten minutes to reduce the liquid a little. Add all the fish and allow it to cook in the sim­mer­ing broth — around ten minutes is about right. Just before serving, check the season­ing and add hand­fuls of torn up basil leaves — the idea is to add an extra hint of ani­seed to take the stew back to its Itali­an roots.

Eat star­ing out to sea if you can, but really a blank wall and a bit of ima­gin­a­tion will do.








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15 thoughts on “Cioppino — ‘The Whole Mess… Almost’

  1. Well worth the wait. I’m not famil­i­ar with ciop­pino or Corso but you’ve woven them togeth­er ter­ribly well and the extra-gen­er­ous help­ing of won­der­ful pho­tos is a bonus. Alto­geth­er fas­cin­at­ing.

  2. A recipe I will def­in­itely be try­ing! It looks deli­cious, and the accom­pa­ny­ing prose is, as always, won­der­fully witty and inter­est­ing.

    • Witty and inter­est­ing — that’ll do for me! Thanks so much for leav­ing a com­ment, which I always appre­ci­ate

  3. Love this — refresh­ing and funny and, for a few minutes, tempt­ing my mind hap­pily away from my work on a foggy Monday morn­ing. Am mak­ing your Ciop­pino as soon as the fishmonger’s opens again, Nonx

  4. Your pic­tures are divine — love that one of the flag in front of the island in par­tic­u­lar. Thanks for intro­du­cing me to Gregory Corso too — would like to read a lot more, while dig­ging into your ciop­pino. That last line.…

    • You’d def­in­itely enjoy Corso, Sally — he’s fallen by the way­side since his death in 2001, but he’s worth read­ing.

  5. These are your best pic­tures yet! I was lucky enough to try ciop­pino when i vis­ited San Fran­cisco a few years ago, and I totally get where you’re com­ing from, it’s deli­cious. Will have to try your recipe and com­pare!

    • Do let me know what you think. Recipes for ciop­pino vary so much and I’d be curi­ous to hear how this com­pares.

  6. Loved read­ing this post and see­ing the pic­tures. Your com­bin­a­tion of food and lit­er­at­ure always “turns me on” as the beat­nicks would say.…besides everything tastes bet­ter with a pinch of humor.

    • I’m very happy to hear that, Karin — thank you so much. How right you are about humour. We could all do with a bit more of it.

  7. Ah, I am back catch­ing up on missed posts and am just as enchanted and enter­tained by your writ­ing as always. I love your way with words and ideas, always sur­pris­ing, intel­li­gent, won­der­ful. Beau­ti­ful pho­tos and oh ciop­pino! And I did not know the his­tory of this dish!

    • I hope you enjoy it as much as I did — poetry and stew. San Fran­cisco is one of my favour­ite cit­ies.

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