Cioppino is inextricably associated with my childhood but not because of my Italian background, for – and perhaps this will be a surprise to some – Cioppino is not an Italian dish. Certamente, there are Italian fish stews and soups but Cioppino as we know it in the US was invented by Italian fishermen who settled in San Francisco many years ago. They used whatever fish they had at hand and, like many dishes that now have a gourmet label, it was essentially an inexpensive dish. That may be one reason my Aunt Judy made it for her church fundraisers.
Aunt Judy lived in California, a sunny paradise of which we dreamed during the long Whiting, Indiana winter. Remember, we had never seen snow or had to wear heavy winter clothes until we left Eritrea and came to America. So when my father decided that he would return to Italy we went to live with Aunt Judy. For a year, our home was a single garage. Two double beds. One for Mama and my sister. One for we three brothers. It was also Aunt Judy’s larder. Kegs of olives curing, fruit being dried, vegetables of all kinds stored, Mason jars by the hundred canned with bounty from the garden and memorably, dozens of homemade salamis and prosciuttos hanging from the rafters curing. No wonder I’m food-crazy.
Aunt Judy was the best Cioppino cook in the church community. Her quarterly fund-raising ‘Cioppino Feed’ was attended by a thousand or so Italians and their families, most of them with white kitchen towels tied around their necks for bibs. Anyone smart enough to figure out that for a few bucks a person they could eat all they wanted, drink all the ‘Dago Red’ they could handle and dance the night away to the music of the local ‘Italian Paisani,’ accordions and all. The same night in San Francisco would cost ten times that, even in the late fifties.
So four times a year, we and a few of our friends would be hired for a few dollars to travel to San Francisco to pick up the sea food, unpack it, set up the tables in the gym, cut up vegetables, stir the pots, slice the bread while Aunt Judy explained the recipe. What a joy, watching the Italian grownups fighting over the open bottles of wine, hiding a few under the table so they could beg noisily for more-remember Italians believe that the more noise you make the better you will be treated, like when Italians in Italy get in a car wreck, whoever yells the loudest gets off and the other guy is at fault-.
Then they would wrap their towel around their throat and eat the pieces of Cioppino, crab, clams, dip the French bread and slurp to their hearts’ delight. After dinner they would dance and all sing loudly while we kids watched and laughed until our supervisors would force us into the kitchen to clean up the mess.
But the best thing of all was when we got to open the wine and, in the paying guests’ interests of course, taste it to ensure it was good enough for them and it usually was, you see, the old world Italians insisted on a good wine, cheap, but good!
I’m still doing just that…