Essay and Recipe: The Great Fall of the California Abalone Industry and How I Saved the World
By Adam Gnade
Monday, August 10th, 2009

I grew up in the fishing industry. My dad owned seafood restaurants and fish markets and worked as a commercial diver, brine shrimper, and rock cod fisherman on an endless array of skiffs, dingies, bass-boats, cabin cruisers, Bayliners, and small charters. A full white-trash fleet. Boats rotting in the weeds. Boats on blocks like dead cars.

He finally hit his stride when he got out of the restaurant side of the business, hired a crew of abalone divers as independent contractors, and set up a processing plant that served as the midpoint between the divers and the restaurants. The company was called Ocean Floor Abalone.

photo from malibudivers.com

photo from malibudivers.com

In the plant, my dad, a small crew of Mexican men, and myself (on summer break) shucked the abalone from their shells, removed the gut sacks, cut off the lips, and ran the bodies through a meat slicer. Next step–a very physical but delicate step I was never allowed to take part in–was beating the steaks with custom-made pounding mallets until they were tender enough for the snooty chefs at the pricey French bistros and upscale Manhattan and San Francisco seafood joints we delivered to.

photo from abalonediving.com

photo from abalonediving.com

Then came the Withering Foot Syndrome (aka Withering Abalone Syndrome), a bacterial disease which hit local abalone and caused the senate to impose a moratorium on commercial harvesting along the California coast in the late ’90s.

In a 2004 retrospective, California Diving News’ Michael Doran wrote, “According to catch data available dating back to before World War I, the huge numbers of abalone being taken during the 1930s through the 1960s were dropping off precipitously starting in the 1970s. Withering Foot Syndrome in the 1980s and 1990s was like the straw on the camel’s back, in terms of decimating populations that were already dramatically reduced due to commercial fishing and sport diving.”

The supply choked off, abalone became a delicacy and priced itself out. With California out of the picture you could still get product imported from Mexico and Australia but no one could afford to eat it. At 70, 80, 90 bucks a plate abalone dropped off the map as pop-cuisine.

Compounding this were the Japanese corporate processors who got into the game, mariculture-farmed their abalone, and undersold the Americans with a smaller, inferior product freed up of commercial size restrictions. Abalone, at that point, was more or less done. At least for us, for my family.

For a while we experimented with a faux abalone steak my dad created called “Wavalone” (meat from the California Turban Snail or “wavy top shell”) but the jig was up. Within months we would sell our walk-in freezers and warehouse, give up our license, and close the doors on Ocean Floor Abalone.

I don’t think my parents were sad to see it go but, in a way, I was. Abalone was all I knew growing up. As a man you became an abalone diver and you were tough and you wore a big sun-bleached beard and hung out dockside all day drinking beer and talking about sharks and otters and guns with your pals. You lived off the sea and you took no BS from anyone and you earned your way honestly.

photo from latimes.com

photo from latimes.com

As lives went, it was better than most.

photo from thejohnharding.com

photo from thejohnharding.com

Of course everybody involved lost their livelihood after the moratorium. Some switched to sea urchins. A lot moved inland and disappeared.

photo from the thejohnharding.com

photo from thejohnharding.com

Now, I won’t romanticize California abalone divers as epic figures or heroes or even noble savages. There were a  lot of mean, misanthropic bastards in their number, real evil characters, but there were also a lot of good ones and I miss ‘em.

I’m sure my dad misses them more.

photo from fotothing.com

photo from fotothing.com

Coinciding with the basic time-line, but not at all related to the fall of the California abalone industry, I had a bit of a crisis of mortality and took a vow of self-described “unharm.” No more hunting, which I did a lot of, no fishing, and, most importantly, no eating animals. It was hard on my parents, since seafood was the nutritional cornerstone they’d raised me on, but they dealt with it okay and now things are cool.

But I’m getting away from myself. What I want to end with here is how I saved the world by accidentally synthesizing a vegan abalone recipe last week.

Long story short, I was cooking supper, I went into the basement for a sec, got distracted by a magazine, and came up later to the smoke alarm going off and a burning meal on the stove. And that’s where the whole thing blossomed. Spontaneous miracle. Vegan abalone. Stumbled into it. Tastes fantastic.

photo from biojobblog.com

photo from biojobblog

Okay, preparation. This is a weird one because there’s no real cooking here beyond basic heatin’ up. It’s just a little careful frying and then the placement of the proper proportion of ingredients to make the chemistry correct.

I don’t know what it is about the following ingredients but put ‘em together and you have the closest non-abalone abalone I’ve ever had. Oh, and don’t deviate from the ingredients and directions. I’ve varied the recipe and general preparation design a couple times and it doesn’t have the same magic. Stick with the S.O.P. Which is …

Ingredients:

Traditional picnic-style hamburger buns (nothing fancy)
Annie’s Goddess Dressing (8oz bottle, original flavor)
Spinach
Tomato
Lemon
Boca Original Chik’n Patties

17_chicken_patty_swap

Directions:
Easy as it gets. Fry the bun and patty in a pan greased with vegetable oil (cheap stuff, not olive oil or anything good) until the bun is golden and the patty starts to blacken. This is important. Burn it for a second or two. The bun will only take a minute, but you need to cook the hell out of the patty to make it work. And it should be greasy. A dry patty might be healthier but the taste will be wrong.

When the patty is nice and fried up, serve with a couple pieces of spinach, a thin slice of tomato, a squeeze of lemon (onto the patty itself), and a generous dose of salad dressing.

photo from Uncle Henry's online

photo from Uncle Henry's online

Now, sure, that sounds like a faux-chicken sandwich–and it is. But it’s also abalone. The difference is in the chemistry. My theory is it’s the breading tanged up by the lemon and tahini in the salad dressing then offset by the spinach and tomato. Though the flavor of the bun helps for some reason. Whatever it is, it tastes like the real thing–and I grew up on the stuff . We were neck deep.

photo from esterobayabalone.com

photo from esterobayabalone.com

Maybe I’m off base. It’s been years since I’ve had real abalone but the taste stuck with me … mild, slightly buttery, almost tough but not, brightened up by the breading (Progresso), and usually served on sourdough with lettuce (which for whatever reason doesn’t work as well as the hamburger bun and spinach for this version.)

Oh, and drink recommendations. Very important. Domestic beer. Nothing fancy.

Post-script: This piece is dedicated to abalone diver Elwin O. “Win” Swint, killed off the coast of Santa Rose Island while diving. Banjo player, bronze artist, ex-Navy Sea (underwater demolitions), classical literature enthusiast, Win was a good man. He made a lot of enemies, but he also had friends and I am proud to count myself and my parents in the latter. This one’s for you, Win…

photo from the Santa Barbara Independent

photo from the Santa Barbara Independent

BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: adam@asthmatickitty.com

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