Posted by: acooksca | 05/08/2009

The Central Coast and Abalone

The Central Coast is uniquely suited to promoting a calm disposition. Mild climate, fertile farm lands and a scenic sea coast beckon us to drift down the Pacific Coast Highway as if on permanent vacation. Heading south from the rugged Big Sur one spills out onto a gentle coast and threads their way past San Simeon to Morro Bay. A relaxed drive in this part of the California coast has changed little in the past 40 years.

Morro Bay

Morro Bay

Sam King, a professional chef and fourth generation Californian, vividly recalls the Central Coast and abalone. “My mom’s family is originally from the Central Coast. During my childhood summer vacations, we would gather together at my Aunt Susie’s beach cottage in Cayucos. My grandmother, Ella Anderson and I often cruised to the Morro Bay pier to pick up big, huge abalone steaks which she was famous for cooking. I’ll never forget the whole experience.

She’d pound the hell out of them, dredge them in flour and seasoning and fry them up in bubbling hot Crisco. (It was made clear to me by my mom that Crisco was only used for two things, frying Abalone and making pie crust, and was never a substitute for butter). We squirted fresh lemon on the gorgeous steaks and devoured them with pure pleasure!”

For millions of years this coast line has been particularly nurturing to that true Californian native, abalone. The Abalone Book tells us that an ancestor of today’s abalone evolved near Point Loma, California. “About 80 million years old, this half inch (1.3cm) fossil is the oldest known species in the world and, interestingly enough, differs little from its modern counterpart”. Abalone spread south to Baja California and north to Alaska, but it was along Californian coast that it seems to have been the particularly successful.

California’s temperate, nutrient rich ocean supports vast kelp and algae beds. Shellfish, sea urchins, fish and sea mammals thrived. This was a land of abundance for coastal dwelling native tribes. Abalone, clams and mussels could be taken easily from shallow tidal shelves. Kitchen middens, vast heaps containing millions of discarded shells, up and down California document abalone consumption. Even so, historical numbers of abalone have much to do with the fate of California’s sea otters. Although octopus, sheaphead fish and crabs are known to take abalone, their principle predator is the cunning sea otter.

Otters can consume a quarter of their body weight daily and abalone is a favorite food. They dined well here for thousands of years, undisturbed, until English, American and Russian traders discovered them. Otter pelts are particularly fine and in the 1700’s and 1800’s were prized in Europe and Asia. Russian ships came to Northern California to collect otter furs using the Aleut Indian hunters they brought with them from the Aleutian Islands. In 1817 Fort Ross (Russ), 60 miles north of San Francisco, was established as the southern outpost of the Russian traders. By 1828 the northern sea otter herd was decimated and by the late 1800’s otters up and down the California coast were close to extinction.

At the same time, native tribes were also on the brink of disappearing from California. But a new threat to abalone emerged. Thousands of Chinese immigrated to California in the later half of the nineteenth century. Abalone was a great Chinese delicacy and it could be dried and shipped to China. They were so successful in harvesting abalone that by 1879 annual catches exceeded four million pounds. In 1900, ordinances were passed that made it illegal to take abalone in waters less than twenty feet deep. This law was intended to eliminate the Chinese abalone industry, and it did.

Japanese fisherman, trained to free dive to depths below twenty feet, took over the harvest of abalone. They used old rice wine casks as floats to rest on between dives, catching their breath and warming in the sun. “Sake barrel diving” was not very efficient and it was replaced by innovative diving equipment from Japan. In the 1920’s a helmeted diver would harvest the ocean floor while being supplied with air from a pump man on the surface. The catch was sent back to Japan.

Commercial abalone fishing in California was dominated by the Japanese until around 1929, when the abalone began to gain in popularity domestically. A small restaurant opened on the main street of Monterey in 1900. “Pop” Ernest Doelter offered the unusual dish of pounded abalone steaks dipped in beaten egg thinned with a little dry sherry and fried quickly in butter. In 1915, at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, “Pop” introduced this Californian delicacy to people from around the world.

The demand for California abalone grew steadily. In the 1959 issue of the travel magazine The Big Sur-Morrow Bay to Monterey, the Central Coast was noted for “deep- sea fishing, clamming and abalone. The smaller hamlet of Cayucos, up the coast from Morro Bay by a few miles, is a Mecca for fisherman who are lured by the abundance of abalone and halibut.”

By the time Sam King’s family made the drive along the coast for abalone there remained only a few commercial fisherman licensed to take abalone. Demand from a world market and the regeneration of the sea otter herd depleted the population of this slow glowing shell fish to being endangered in the wild. Commercial abalone fishing closed in 1997. Sport fishing is highly regulated in the allowable limit, what months it can be taken and use (it must be for personal consumption only.) Abalone can no longer be taken south of San Francisco Bay.

Today, if Sam and her family return to Morrow Bay, they can dine happily on abalone once more. In 1968, a small band of researchers developed a method of farm-raising California red abalone. The Abalone Farm is the oldest fishery of its kind in the United States and now the largest in the world, harvesting over a million shells annually. It lies just north of Morro Bay in Cayucos, the very town where Sam’s Aunt Susie had her beach house. I can just see Sam, a regarded professional chef, continuing her family tradition by placing an order with The Abalone Farm and following her grandmother Ella’s method for perfect abalone steaks.

The following recipe, called Abalone Steaks, gives tips on cooking and purchasing farm raised abalone from sources such as The Abalone Farm:


The Abalone Book: author Peter C. Howorth, Naturgraph Publishers, Inc. Happy Camp, CA  1978

The Big Sur- Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Emil White publisher and editor: Vol 5
Library congress cat. Card 54-6244

History of California Abalone

Monterey Bay Aquarium abalone fact sheet

April/May 2008 Edible San Francisco Magazine


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