Ellen Hawley Roddick

Ellen Hawley Roddick
Orcas Island, Washington, USA
February 13
An author of both nonfiction and novels, I also am a freelance editor of nonfiction and a freelance writer of newsletters and fund-raising letters. I co-author clients' memoirs and, as a public speaker, address such topics as creative business communication and how to write a memoir.


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OCTOBER 8, 2010 7:41PM

Diving for Abs and Feasting on Seaweed

Rate: 11 Flag

 "When the tide is out, the table is set."

Old Coastal Salish Indian saying

edible seaweed 

 Photo BC Kelp  http://www.bckelp.com/BCKelp-Photos.html

Walking along the ocean shoreline, does your mouth water at the sight of seaweed? Mine didn’t until I met Jesse Longacre, a California naturalist who was intimately familiar with the Sonoma and Mendocino coast and who shared his passion vigorously. The T-shirt he wore on his guided tours of the coast stated that, “The best things in life are slimy,” and when you were with him, you believed it.

Jesse died too young. He was at home in his favorite chair, watching television, and one of those massive events (Stroke? Heart attack?) took him out. He was massively missed not only by his children and their mother but also by the many women he had loved (so many that even his children laughed about it at his memorial service) and his dozens of friends and admirers.

Putting in place a fitting tribute to Jess took years. The memorial was to be a stretch of path on the Mendocino Coast, with a small brass plaque commemorating him. The challenge was that the coastline was under government stewardship, and at that time, coastal features could be named only for Native Americans. (Today they can’t be named for anyone.) Jesse’s friends were not, however, quitters. They obtained a special for-Jesse-only exemption from the tribes who could make that decision and who explained it by saying Jesse had contributed so much to the understanding and preservation of the coast that a coastal path ought to be named for him. The path is not long, but it is beautiful, and Jesse had walked it many times.

The memorial service that marked installation of the new brass plaque on a small boulder at the beginning of Jesse Longacre Walk was informal and loving. We sat in the sea-meadow grasses facing the plaque and the ocean. After those who had fought for Jesse’s memorial told their story and his family members spoke, everyone who wanted to share a memory of Jesse told their stories. My favorite Jesse story was that he had said if he were reincarnated he wanted to come back as a turkey vulture because they keep the beautiful landscape clean. These bald scavengers, with their keen sense of smell and amazing eyesight, have been honored in various mythologies but are not always appreciated now. To this day, when I see a vulture soaring, I sometimes greet it with, “Hi, Jesse!”

Backtracking in time: My introduction to Jesse was through my friend Marsha, who invited a small group of us to hire Jesse to lead us on an edible-seaweed collecting walk along the Sonoma coast near Jenner and then to return with us to her home to cook and eat our seaweed. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea. Having grown up on the East Coast and settled on the West Coast, I appreciated seaweeds as relics from the deep. And my young son, like so many kids before and since, had enjoyed swinging bull whip kelp around in the air. But seaweed is algae. Eat it? Really?

Too curious to refuse, I signed on. Our little group met Jesse at the beach. He wore his best-things-in-life-are-slimy T-shirt. In my mind’s eye, I remember that walk as comprising only seaweed, stones, seashells, damp sand, water, and shoes, because with Jesse as leader, one focused downward. We collected the seaweed he said was safe to eat and left the seaweed he said wasn’t, so I suppose you could say we put our lives in his hands. He warned us that after this walk, we should not collect and eat seaweed on our own, because not all seaweed is tasty and some may be unkind to you digestive system..


My next memory of that day is walking into Marsha’s kitchen and seeing Jesse at her counter pounding an abalone steak with strength that even Samson might have envied. Jesse explained that he had been “diving for abs” and would cut the abalone steak, after he finished tenderizing it, into bite-size pieces. While he pounded, the rest of us rinsed seaweed and cut or tore it into edible pieces. We also sliced onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, to add to the skillet. It was probably wine or beer in which our stew simmered.

When at last we gathered around Marsha’s long table, we viewed the fruits of our labor skeptically. It’s one thing to collect and cook seaweed. It’s another to eat it. After the first tentative bites, however, we wolfed down our delectable seafood-abalone stew, sopping up the juice with crusty French bread from a local bakery. Among memorable meals, I rank this one with the best in Paris, Rome, New York, and Seattle.

I’d like to report that after that novel experience, I learned to dive for abs. But I’m a scuba diver who won’t go near cold water. Abalone diving off the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts requires wet suits for warmth and divers don’t use scuba equipment. On dry land, however, I happily accepted from an ab diver the gift of an abalone shell, which I used decoratively on the kitchen sink to hold sponges and scrub pads, where it cheers me up whenever I contemplate sponging or scrubbing.

  abalone shell

Today, during abalone-diving season, divers may harvest only a limited number of abalone and are not allowed to sell them. Their pay-off is fun and adventure. But the growing number both of legal ab divers and of abalone poachers has reduced the abalone population. The California Department of Fish and Game is among law enforcement agencies cracking down on poachers. And black abalone have been added to the endangered species list.

To return to edible seaweed, what brought back memories of Jesse Longacre’s  expertise was an announcement in the Orcas Island paper, Island Sounder,  that  “Jennifer Hahn, writer, illustrator, wilderness guide, and naturalist will teach how to spot the ‘food at your feet’ as well as the culture and cuisine of shoreline edibles."

Jennifer Hahn, edible seaweed

Jennifer Hahn, contributed photo


Hanh is the author of Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging Cuisine  and  Pacific Coast Foraging Guide: 45 Wild Foods From Beach, Field and Forest. She says bull kelp can be pickled and that Turkish towel seaweed thickens Chocolate Ocean Pudding. News to me and perhaps to you.

Even if we don't cook with seaweed, we can enjoy it in Japanese restaurants. Living in Santa Barbara a few years ago, I discovered that Whole Foods sold wakame seaweed salad, which I’d first encountered in my favorite Japanese restaurant there. And all around the world, some coastal peoples have made seaweed a regular feature in their diets.

A word of caution. Before collecting seaweed, check local regulations. In Washington you’ll need a recreational use permit. If you want to dive for abs on California’s Mendocino coast, you’ll need a fishing license with an ab sticker and an abalone report card. And watch out for sharks!



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Have you ever cooked and eaten food you foraged for? My son, his father, and I once spent all day driving to and from the shore where we spent hours digging for razor clams. Then we drove home and spent the rest of the day preparing the clams, cooking, and eating them. Very satisfying, but it brought new respect for hunters and gatherers who can spend all day on one meal.
This was fascinating. I haven't tasted either seaweed or abalone, but I do have a gorgeous pendant made of abalone shell. How can you tell the edible seaweed from the other kind? Is it by sight? Thank you. ~R
What a lovely stroll along Jesse Longacre Walk. Sounds like a great guy.
It would be a tragedy if we lost the abalone. I was privileged to once eat them and they are indescribably delectable.
Thanks for this post from Orcas Island. (Sailed about those waters myself.)
Call me an Okie, but I went to a much touted private Abalone barbque--in the Bay Area "oh the abalone! The Abalone!" I didn't know what all the fuss was about taste wise. Maybe it was me, I was still figuring out where they hid the Velveeta.
Very neat. My father and his wife were naturalists ( hobby) and I was not...I used to dream of foraging for my food while eating a bag of Funyuns...I refused to go on an Outward Bound trip because I knew I would starve....I wish.
Wish we were just one ferry hop away instead of four (I think it's four) because I would love to attend Jennifer Hahn's talk. I love to go crabbing and dig for clams and mussels. Foraging in the forest for mushrooms is a new passion, chanterelles only!

Funny how, out here on the West coast razor clams are prized, but on the East coast no one cares much about them.

Snorkeling for scallops in Nantucket was some of the most fun I ever had, and in Australia in the Whitsundays we scraped rock oysters off the sides of giant boulders (and into our tubs) on the beach.

Interesting that anthropologists are certain that indigenous man was exclusively heating his oysters up over fire to open them. All of the giant (some many stories high) midden (shells) piles that have been found are sans any implement that would have opened a raw oyster. They roasted them.
FusanA, as far as I know, it as risky to try to tell edible from inedible seaweed as it is to make the same call about mushrooms - unless you have a knowledgeable guide. Better to eat seaweed in restaurants and markets.

o'stephanie, if you sail this way again, will you let me know and come ashore for lunch or dinner?

Okie, did you find the Velveeta?

Snarykychaser, I'm happy to sit on the shore with you munching on Funyuns, whatever they are, until the ab divers emerge with lunch. Then shall we, rested and fortified, cook it?
That was a delightful read. How fortunate you are to have known Jesse. I can be glad he went out in a "never knew what hit him" sort of way.

The seaweed part of the story makes me wish I was a more adventurous sort :-)
In New Brunswick Canada they collect a type of seaweed called dulse. It's dried, and used to flavor things. Very high in nutrients. You can see people collecting it along the shore.
Kellylark, thanks. As for seaweed, the best place to start is at a Japanese restaurant where it should be delicious.

Lea, it must be nice to have a tasty, nutritious seaweed be yours for the taking at the beach.
Jesse sounds like he was quite a character.

I love abalone, but I had no idea some seaweed was lethal.

My wife and I lived in Southern California for years after we met and married. There was a little burger place right on PCH on the southern edge of Oceanside, just north of Carlsbad where we lived that sold abalone sandwiches. It's almost impossible to find now, but I still remember my first taste of it in 1973, there's nothing that tastes as good or remotely like it.
Boomer, I wish I'd had an abalone sandwich. One certainly can eat well along PCH.

As for lethal seaweed, I blush to admit that I mis-remembered. I just Googled and then edited that part of my post. Some seaweed is lethal if it is rotting or if it has absorbed man-made pollutants. I guess what Jesse must have said was that one needs an experienced eye to know what seaweed is tasty and fresh enough to eat.
I tried seaweed salad once in a Japanese restaurant, and it tasted like, uh, seaweed. But I enjoyed reading this.
A very interesting post. Thanks. R
I'd like to say yum, but I'm not quite there yet. I like just about all kinds of shellfish, however.
Patrick, taste is, after all, a matter of taste. And seaweed salad may be better in some restaurants than others.

Sheila, you're welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

Hey, Con, abalone is a shell fish, isn't it?
I have a few abalone shells in my kitchen and bathroom collected many years ago. Great post.