The year was 1994. My new boyfriend was due to return from spring break to his one-room bachelor pad just off campus. I got back to school a day earlier and promised to cook a nice dinner upon his arrival. We were about eight weeks into our giddy courtship so the reunion on his doorstep felt like a secret rendezvous with a teenage crush. Only instead of hearts and flowers, I showed up holding a brown bag from Wegman's filled with all the fixings for cioppino—the Italian-American seafood stew.
At the time, I lived off campus with three other girls who all had varying degrees of self-sufficiency when it came to cooking. There were cases of instant ramen and canned soup, but also homemade pesto in the freezer and the occasional trio of stuffed artichokes simmering on the stove. Our fridge was stocked with actual food like hummus, vegetables, cheese, milk, and eggs. In contrast, I was lucky to find half a package of Lorna Doone cookies in my boyfriend's cabinet and maybe a Boboli pizza crust in the fridge with some remnants of jarred tomato sauce, ketchup, and mustard rattling around in the opened door. So for me to walk into his apartment with a sack of shellfish was a shock to the system.
"I can't believe this is happening in my kitchen!" he said as I plunked down the bags of mussels, shrimp, and fish onto his square foot of counter space. I don't even remember what he had for pots and pans, but I must have made do because before he had time to decipher what was going on, I was sweating onions and garlic in olive oil and peeling and deveining fresh shrimp. In went the hand-crushed plum tomatoes, the white wine, the clam juice and the biggest variety of seafood I could find in an upstate New York grocery store. His Pier1-furnished kitchenette was soon anointed with the briny, funky aromas of a San Francisco fisherman's supper.
I don't know if it was because of the cioppino, but 6 years later that boyfriend and I became husband and wife. I have made the dish countless times since—for the two of us as a young married couple in New York, for our 12 and 9-year-old kids, for a bunch of tweens in a Boston University-hosted cooking class, and most recently for a recipe and photo that was published in The Boston Globe—and it always reminds me of that period in our lives when we barely knew each other but were filled with eagerness and anticipation. Our busy lives make the romantic rendezvous a little less frequent, but we both still get excited when I bring home a brown paper bag from the fish store.