The Abalone of Mendocino County

The much-protected mollusk receives its day in the sun. Or fog, rather.

Keith Wyner

WATERY WONDER: There are many mythic stories surrounding the sea -- mermaids and mermen and scaly beasts of the deep get plenty of play in popular culture -- but few ocean denizens, real or not, boast the cachet of a certain mollusk with the shimmery shell. We're talking about abalone, of course, a delicacy that comes with its own protection (props, Mendocino Abalone Watch). The gathering of abalone is highly regulated, as it should be, and volunteer citizens keep an eye on the waves, the better to help officials and help abalone thrive, too. Months and seasons made for diving are strictly outlined, as are the number of abalone a diver may take. So when a place known for the mythologized mollusk celebrates it in a grand one-day cook-off, bet people pay notice. And so they do: The World-Championship Abalone Cook-Off in Fort Bragg is so popular that there's a wait list to judge (and taste) well over a month in advance.

DATES AND DETAILS: Of course, you may attend the Saturday, Oct. 5 festivities without signing up to judge, but there won't be any tasting. (We know, little tastes are par for the course at most cook-offs, and most attendees can sample if they wish, but given that this is wild abalone, and not farm-raised, the number of people holding a fork is understandably limited.) It's $60 to be a judge, if you're not a member of the Mendocino Area Parks Association. And there's a clue as to where the money raised will go: To helping the county's beautiful parks.

FORT BRAGG FEASTING: If you are not an abalone aficionado, but still are fond of Fort Bragg -- please, who isn't? Hearts, Fort Bragg, you're wonderful -- there is another fall feasting opportunity on land, or, rather, the rails. Make that several feasting opportunities, but we're eyeballing the Skunk Train, which will have a couple of food trains in the autumn (beer & brats and mushrooms & wine are on the roster). Spoiler alert: There are no abalone in the forest, and we're okay with that. If asked, it would be hard to determine whether an abalone shell or a redwood is more beautiful. Mendocino County is fortunate to have a bit of both.

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