I grew up eating my Italian grandmother Mimi's homemade cioppino. She served the delicious seafood stew (with a huge loaf of garlic bread) whenever a group of us gathered at her house for dinner. All it took was one pot to stuff us to the brim.
So I started my quest for the stew's truth at a restaurant aptly named Cioppino's, located right on Fisherman's Wharf. There I met Mia Harriman, Cioppino's general manager.
She tells me cioppino is one of those dishes that has no exact recipe -- something that I actually did know from watching Mimi in the kitchen. As long as you start with a tomato-based broth, you can throw in any kind of seafood you like: snapper, crab legs, mussels, crabs, shrimp, calamari ... you name it, you can add it.
Considering San Francisco is surrounded by fishable waters, it makes sense that the city was the birthplace of this iconic seafood stew.
As we look out her office window onto the bay, Harriman explains that the origin of cioppino -- and its name -- derive from the Italian fishermen in the early 1900s, when Fisherman's Wharf was still called Meiggs' Wharf.
Picture San Francisco more than 100 years ago: Meiggs' Wharf jutted into the water near Powell Street and extended nearly 2,000 feet offshore. It was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, but until then, it was where Italian immigrants -- mainly from Genoa -- made their livelihoods as fishermen.
Harriman says it was these fishermen who invented what we know now as cioppino sometime between 1850 and 1880.
"One fisherman would toss a nice fat fish into the bucket, and another would drop in a succulent Dungeness crab, and others some herbs and vegetables," Harriman says of how the soup first started.
And as for its name?
"The cry that prompted each contribution was 'Chip In! Chip In!' But coming from an Italian throat, this American slang had to end in a vowel, so 'cioppino' was born."
When I meet with Peters at her home, one of the first things she tells me is: "There’s a lot of fake lore in food history."
She admits "cioppino, chip in" is a nice story, but adds, "Linguistically, it makes much more sense to think of it as coming from the Northern Italian dialect 'ciuppin,' which obviously does not mean 'chip in.' It refers to making a soup from fish."
She notes that while Italians had been making ciuppin for quite some time, it was the San Francisco fishermen's addition of spicy chili peppers that makes cioppino uniquely Californian.
While reporting this story, I talked to several other foodies and restaurateurs, and people argue for both stories. The "chip in" theory may be fake, but it’s lasted as long as the dish itself.
What’s not up for debate is that Italian fishermen in San Francisco definitely invented cioppino. While doing research for her book, Peters found an article from 1901 by a journalist with the San Francisco Call who went out on a fishing boat with a bunch of fishermen.
The article reads:
If you go out on a fishing boat, if you have the good fortune not to be sick, you should insist on having a dish of chespini... This is how you make it: Put into kettle half glass of sweet oil, one clove garlic, two large tomatoes, two chili peppers, one glass of white wine, prepared fresh fish cut into small squares. Drop into the sauce and cook three minutes. Serve hot. It really tastes much better than it sounds."
Peters calls this article "the moment of invention" because of the last line.
"I love that line because it means she thinks the readers of the San Francisco Call won't know what she's talking about; this is a new dish to them. Of course the fisherman had been doing it for months or years, but this is the moment when Anglo-Americans, people who were not Italian fishermen, got to hear what cioppino is," she says.
And it wasn’t that much longer until Americans could make the dish themselves. After the 1906 earthquake, there was a fundraising effort for San Franciscans displaced by the disaster.
One of the things they did to raise money was to put out a cookbook called "The Refugees’ Cookbook" ... and one of the recipes included was cioppino.
"And I think that is the first time that San Franciscans could buy a cookbook that had cioppino in it as an official recipe that they should be making at home," says Peters.
Today you can get cioppino at Italian restaurants across the United States. But it’s extra special to try it at Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can still hear the boats clanging, smell the salty ocean air, and taste a little bit of history.
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