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.




  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.

    1. 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….

    1. 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!

    1. 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.

    1. 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!

    1. 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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