In an era when we demand that our food has a story behind it, the abalone's tale weaves together cultures and continents 5,000 miles apart. The Chinese and Japanese have harvested the animal from Asian waters for at least a millennium and a half, and the Indians along the Pacific Coast of North America have probably relied on it for just as long.
It wasn't until near the end of the 19th century, though, that a commercial fishery for the shellfish took hold in California, pioneered by Japanese and Chinese laborers who had originally come to build railroads. For decades afterward, the sole market was Asia, where abalone, often dried and ground into powder, are coveted as both a culinary status symbol and an aphrodisiac.
The abalone's eminence in the gastronomic firmament is not, to be sure, universally acknowledged. When fresh, it is extremely rubbery. "If you put enough garlic and butter on it," said one skeptic, "you could eat an inner tube, too."
But sometime in the early 1900s, a fez-wearing German chef Pop Doelter discovered that a vigorous assault with a mallet would make abalone tender enough for the Anglo tooth. Still, abalone cuisine is a lesson in balance. Too much pounding turns it to mush, but an instant too long in the frying pan will, perversely, turn it right back to rubber.
With Doelter's breakthrough, however, abalone became a signature dish at white-linen establishments on San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf. It also caught on among the proletariat, and survives to this day in the Sunset-style fare that includes dishes like abalone roll-ups, abalone relleños and cheesy abalone balls. Around nightfall after abalone season opens every April 1, practically every state park campground on the North Coast is packed with aficionados hunched over picnic tables, slicing, pounding and frying up fresh-caught abalone. For those with a more discriminating palate, there is awabi: abalone sliced and eaten raw, sashimi-style.
"It's just such a great North Coast culture," said Brooke Halsey, an abalone diver and former Sonoma County deputy district attorney. "It's so particular to this place. And then you put a great bottle of chardonnay with it, and it's unbeatable."
In 1953, a visiting protozoologist named Eugene Bovee praised the abalone as "a giant amongst gastropods," and raved about its "proteinaceous tang" and "tasty, sarcoplasmic juices." But, he noted, much of the abalone's allure lies in its elusiveness. "Harmless vegetarian though it is, (the abalone) is a formidable antagonist for the man who hunts it," Bovee wrote. "Abalone diving is not for sissies."
With little more than a wetsuit, weight belt, swim fins and an "ab iron," divers battle wild surf, intense currents and extreme cold to pry the stubborn animals from Neptune's realm. The enterprise pits man against slug, but it is a full-contact sport. "Abalone do not have red blood," counsel the authors of Abalone: From Sea to Saucepan, "so if you see any, it's yours."
This is not berry-picking or urban foraging. Abalone divers risk shark attacks, shallow water blackouts, riptides, and underwater entanglement in forests of kelp. Last year on the North Coast, five abalone divers perished. Yet the danger only makes the taste seem sweeter. "It's the thrill of the hunt," Halsey said. "You're fighting the elements, and you're fighting the sea."
Last May, after Don Powers had spent a couple of hours belly-crawling through brambles and thickets along the seaside cliffs, the unglamorous part of the job caught up with him. He stood up and groaned: "I gotta get my underwear out of my fucking throat."
Three months earlier, Powers helped lay the groundwork for the biggest sting of the year, against a Chinese national named Qiong Wang, who goes by the English name Jimmy. Wang grew up in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin, and emigrated to the U.S. in 2000. He worked a series of construction jobs in L.A. before moving to San Francisco; soon after, he started collecting unemployment and playing bass in a band called Space Coke.
"Before I came to San Francisco, I'd heard about abalone but I never ate one," said Wang, who turned 33 in February. "It was an expensive delicacy." Then, he said, "Somebody mentioned it to me at the time I needed some quick cash."
According to Wang, he had never dived before. But he bought two sets of scuba gear on Craigslist, and taught himself to use them by watching YouTube. He made a test run off Oakland: "I thought: ‘That's easy. I'll go tomorrow.' " Sitting in jail five months later, Wang allowed that his method had its flaws: It was "wutou cangying" -- like a headless fly scurrying around. In fact, the enterprise was probably doomed from the start.
On Feb. 2, 2011, Wang and a buddy were returning to San Francisco with five poached abalone, when a Petaluma cop stopped them while searching for a robbery suspect. When the officer -- a sport diver himself -- discovered the abalone, Wang told him he was "going to have his mother make soup with them for Chinese New Year's." But abalone season didn't begin for another two months.
Wang was arrested but quickly released. Undeterred, he returned to the North Coast 10 days later. This time, a sheriff's deputy pulled him over on his way home for speeding. When the officer discovered 36 abalone in a duffel bag in the back seat of Wang's Toyota Camry -- along with four scuba tanks in the trunk -- he radioed Fish and Game for backup. Don Powers took the call, arrested Wang, and seized his car, dive gear and two cell phones. But Wang himself, much to his surprise, was released the next day.
One week later, he was back at it. At 5:40 on a Saturday morning, Wang's buddy Michael Trevors pulled up to his house in southeast San Francisco in a VW Jetta. Eighteen minutes later, the two men left for the North Coast. This time, though, they had company.
From the moment Wang left jail the week before, undercover officers from the fish and game department's Special Operations Unit had been tailing him. They dubbed the case Operation Karma. "Hey, it's karma that this guy gets caught," said the lead agent in the case. "He's not smart enough to stop."
After a three-and-a-half hour drive north, Wang and Trevors pulled into a dive shop in Fort Bragg, rented scuba gear and a kayak, and then drove 10 miles back down the coast to Van Damme State Park. For much of the next nine hours, wardens hid on the bluffs above, watching and videotaping as Wang dived for abalone and handed them to Trevors, in the kayak. Wang took 55 abalone, worth roughly $5,500. That brought his total over a two-week period to 96 -- four times the yearly limit -- and abalone season wouldn't even open for another month and a half.
About an hour after sundown that day, Wang and Trevors drove back to Fort Bragg to return the rented gear. When they pulled into the dive shop parking lot, two wardens arrested them. To avoid a three-year prison sentence, Wang took a plea bargain that put him in jail for eight months, cost him $20,000 in fines and barred him from ever again fishing in the state of California. After Wang finished his jail term, he faced deportation, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement released him in December.
Wang maintains that although he knows "a lot of people buying" abalone, he merely sold to friends. But Dave Bess, the lieutenant in charge of the Special Operations Unit, has his doubts. "The volume the guy's getting doesn't match the story that he's telling," he said, adding that it's extremely rare for Asian poachers to give up their buyers, even after they've been arrested. "These guys," Bess said, "don't roll over to get less time."