Friday, June 26, 2009

snapshot • live abalone

Abalone are pretty scarce around our coast these days. Native people apparently ate a lot of them, and they were quite abundant along the California coast until fairly recently. The sea otters love their abalone. During the latter 19th century, European hunters drove the California sea otter nearly to extinction (their fur is incredibly dense - up to 1 million hairs per square inch - and soft), and so the abalone flourished once again, since their main natural predator was nearly wiped out. Carmel-by-the-Sea, the town next door, was developed by a visionary man from the bay area, who wanted to build a community that was family-oriented and retained its natural splendor. Many who populated early Carmel were artists and writers who bought up inexpensive lots, including the poets George Sterling and Robinson Jeffers. (For an interesting taste of Carmel's history, check out the entry in Wikipedia on Carmel-by-the-Sea.) Artists and writers, including Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and many others, had big parties on the beach with bonfires, booze, and - you knew it was coming around, didn't you? - abalone. By the early 20th century, when Carmel as an artist colony flourished, the abalone was quite abundant; one could simply walk out in the intertidal and pluck them off the rocks, although they didn't give up their hold on the rocks without a fight. Abalone are essentially large sea snails, and reputed to be quite tasty; their meat sells for as much as $75 a pound. Today, thanks to over-harvesting, the abalone is scarce, and 50-year-old abalone are nearly non-existent. (If you would like more history of the amazing abalone, you have but to ask, and I will be happy to oblige!) As part of my presentation on abalone for a recent job interview, I visited (with Sarah and Ginny) an abalone farm in Monterey, under the commercial wharf. Abalone eat primarily kelp, and can grow to be quite large, although they are generally harvested when they are about 6-8 inches. OK, enough about abalone, already! I know you are dying to get to the abalone song, with lyrics by George Sterling and Sinclair Lewis, amongst others. Picture a bunch of drunken artists on a gorgeous white sandy beach, belting out this simple song around a fire. Here's one of Sterling's lyrics:

Oh some drink rain and some champagne,
And whiskey by the pony
But I will try a dash of rye
And a hunk of abalone.

Here's a verse by Lewis:

Some stick to biz, some flirt with Liz,
Down on the sands of Coney
But we, by hell, stay in Carmel,
And nail the abalone.

But my favorite is by some guy named Anonymous:

Some live on hope and some on dope
And some on alimony
But bring me in a pail of gin
And a tub of abalone.

More than you ever really wanted to know about abalone, but I've had a lot of fun studying them; I've even found a couple of abalone shells! 

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