“B” is for Breaded

If you visit the Kelley House Museum Archives and go down the short flight of stairs into the chilly vault, it’s not hard to imagine you are diving for knowledge—especially where abalone are concerned. Should you chance to don a pair of white gloves and take a look through the old, bound copies of The Beacon, the public’s concerns over the misuse of local natural resources quickly become evident. By 1913, despite prior actions by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Fish and Game, strict guidelines were laid out which covered how and when people could hunt and fish in the county.

Up until this time, abalone was still little known and hardly appreciated by most people. Though writers, such as Jack London, frequented the Carmel and Monterey area and collected abalone for use in chowder, the shellfish might have slipped back into a watery oblivion but for the efforts of a man popularly known as Chef Ernst (Pop) Doetler, the Abalone King.

Around 1908, Pop moved to Monterey and set up a restaurant offering fresh, Toke Point Oysters harvested from San Francisco Bay. Over time, quality concerns drove him to abandon the oyster and search for something unique and local which could be had fresh. He found what he was looking for just blocks away on Cannery Row in the form of the abalone.

Breaded abalone the way Pop liked it

Though abalone was starting to appear on local menus, it was generally boiled in vinegar, steam-canned, or treated with lye to break down the connective tissue. Pop determined that the abalone could be cut into a “steak,” dredged in flour, dipped in an egg wash, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried in oil. The result was a tender and flavorful dish which quickly became a sensation through Pop’s showmanship. With the advent of the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, where Monterey County displayed canned abalone as one of its county’s primary products, the shellfish reached a still wider audience.

Most of the local abalone used by Pop Ernst was supplied from Japanese divers working nearby who were happy to find a new customer within state lines. Always in search of the best and freshest product, Pop became a broker for local Japanese abalone fishermen and restaurants across the state.

Sadly, the rise in abalone’s popularity contributed to the eventual destruction of the fishery. By the late 1950s, the California abalone fishery landed 5.4 million pounds of abalone, of which only 10,000 pounds came from Monterey. Once the epicenter of the fishery, Monterey County was no longer a factor in the abalone market by 1959 and has never fully recovered. The abalone currently available in that area is farm grown.

What was gleaned from Monterey’s experience has led to still greater conservation north of the Golden Gate and strict regulations around every aspect of the recreational and commercial fishery. Had Pop wandered north to Mendocino County instead of south, would we have shared the same fate? You be the judge.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Nov. 16th, 2016 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)

Note: if you visit AllRecipes.com, you’ll find the same basic recipe for abalone first popularized by Pop Doetler. And, if you don’t fancy the risks of free diving, try ordering some legally available farmed abalone at one of these sources:

The Abalone Farm

Monterey Abalone Company

The Cultured Abalone Farm

“A” is for Abalone

Well, I haven’t shared to this blog in almost a year, and the A to Z Blog Challenge is here again, and I’m committed.

For my blog posts this month, I’ll be sharing my love of Mendocino County and of things I like to do here, such as research history, write, tinker, garden, and take pictures.

In October of 2016, I joined the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino as a volunteer where I research and write short pieces for the “Kelley House Calendar,” a column in the Beacon, our local newspaper. I’ll be sharing some previously written pieces and new subjects which come to mind.

I love comments, and promise to respond to any you leave me. If you are visiting from the A to Z Blog Challenge, please leave me your url so I can visit your blog, too.

Thanks and without further ado, here is my post for the letter A.

Abalone Love Part I

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Abalone shells cover an arbor at the Kelley House

What do people and sea otters have in common? Well, for one thing, the love of a particular single-shelled mollusk more commonly known as the abalone.

What many people don’t realize is how Mendocino became a premier location for abalone fishing, nor do they realize how lucky we are that our wise predecessors conserved this resource for us—their future generation.

Delicious and desirable, abalone grew wherever kelp was available. Pomo people collected and ate it and used the iridescent shells for trade. When the Russians settled at Fort Ross in Sonoma, they inadvertently contributed to a future bounty by hunting the sea otter to the brink of local extinction. By eliminating the abalone’s main predator, the shellfish grew unchecked for several decades before Mendocino was discovered by outsiders.

With a growth rate of about one inch per year and a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, it is easy to imagine local tide pools littered with abalone the size of dinner platters, but the first settlers had no interest in the strange and oozing shellfish.

The Chinese are credited with starting the abalone fishery, recognizing a favorite delicacy from home. They began to collect this and other shellfish in massive quantities, drying and shipping them to San Francisco where they were sent on to China. Soon, fears that the area would be irreparably depleted, combined with a series of punitive laws including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, ended all commercial collection in the intertidal zone.

By the late 1800s, as the Chinese were being pushed out of the market, Japanese fishermen arrived, bringing with them the hard helmet and diving suit. With a continuous air supply, divers could reach the ocean floor, and it was not uncommon for them to collect up to 2300 abalone per day. Sam Ware, a student at Mendocino High School, observed the Japanese encampment at Dark Gulch and wrote that the diver “…takes down with him a net-like basket, which he sends up in about twenty minutes, another being sent down while it is emptied. This holds about all four men can lift into the boat.”

Once hoisted from the water, the abalone were cut from their shells, salted, rinsed, and dried in the sun before being packed and shipped in burlap sacks. Shells were sent to England, where they were made into buttons and other fancies, while others were used as inlay in furniture, their nacre (Mother-of-pearl) finish prized. Abalone pearls, when they were found, were made into pendants and other jewelry.

But, by the fall of 1913, in response to ongoing fears that abalone would disappear in the same manner as the sea otter, new and more stringent local laws ended commercial abalone fishing in Mendocino. While recreational fishing continued—sometimes harvesting enormous quantities—the local abalone fishery was spared the fate of Monterey and other central California coastal towns. And who gets the credit for that intervention? Well, that is the subject of Part II of this series.

(Previously published in the Beacon, Nov. 3rd, 2016 and at the Making History Blog of the Kelley House Museum.)