Smitten by a snail

No baloney, it’s abalone!

No baloney, it’s abalone!

The cream-colored, rubbery-hard flesh of the red abalone is almost flavorless, yet thousands of men and women risk their very lives to pursue this huge sea snail of the West Coast.

The hunt takes them mostly to Sonoma and Mendocino counties, into frigid, rough waters strung dangerously with kelp. Already, two divers have died in the 2011 season, which began April 1. Though neither was a local, Sacramento has a strong presence of abalone divers. There is even a phenomenon called “Sacramento syndrome,” which describes the irrational thinking of a diver who has awakened at 3 a.m., driven four hours, discovered that the water is dangerously surgy and decides to dive anyway to salvage the day. Sacramento syndrome is a recipe for tragedy.

The minimum legal size limit for an abalone is 7 inches across the shell, but 10- and 11-inchers are the beasts that attract trophy hunters, who polish the shells and hang them on their walls. A website called AbaloneTen is a gallery of the brazen machismo and obsession that drives divers to risk their lives for trophy “abs.”

In the kitchen, abalone is as finicky as seafood gets. To render the foot palatable, one must pound the living daylights out of it. Once it is flabby and pulpy, the meat is benignly tasteless—and, indeed, it’s largely the mystique of abalone that draws family and friends together for feasting in the days after the hunt.

For others, abalone diving is an illegal profit-pulling scheme. Though wild abalone cannot be sold, many divers sell them anyway, often for $100 per snail to restaurants. Such poachers, if busted by Department of Fish and Game wardens, can expect jail time and property confiscations.

Tasting your first abalone, you may wonder, “Why the fuss? Why the risk?” Or you may catch the fever, find yourself driving at 3 a.m. to the North Coast and jumping into unforgiving waters to hunt your own abs. And the fever is a fine thing. It’s Sacramento syndrome that kills.