Recently, my friend, Button, and I were talking about our fondness for fresh fish. We discussed our shared opinion that fish is best prepared fried, not baked, smoked, grilled, blackened, or en papillote. (I enjoy eating fish that has been prepared in all these ways, but in my opinion, there is nothing quite as good as freshly caught fish that has been fried.) Button said he was going to fry some grouper a friend had caught earlier that day, prompting me to ask whether he liked mullet. His eyes opened wide and he said, “Well, I could eat mullet if I was real hungry, but I’d rather not.” Much to his surprise, I explained that mullet is my favorite fish. And, of course, fried mullet is my preferred method of eating it. Fried mullet brings back many great memories of family reunions in Wakulla County, Florida; my days in graduate school, when my cousins Venice and Asa would “fry a mess of mullet” on Saturday afternoons; and my dad, who loved mullet as much or more than I do. Button and I went on to discuss our opinions of the side dishes that must accompany a good fried fish dinner. We agreed that fried fish, whether it’s his grouper or my mullet, should be accompanied by cheese grits (real, stone ground grits, not the instant junk kind), homemade coleslaw, and hush puppies (or, as Venice used to say, dough boys). And, if we get amazingly lucky, after dinner, we would have a slice of key lime pie or a big piece of coconut cake. Now that’s a good dinner! There aren’t too many restaurants that have mullet on the menu, although The Farmers Market Restaurant in Fort Myers still serves it. I told David about my discussion with Button and pretty soon, David surprised me by buying some wonderfully tasty mullet at a fish market. That’s the way to my heart! I happily fried the mullet, we had a fabulous dinner that couldn’t be beat (to quote Arlo Guthrie), and I decided then, and there, to compose this ode to my favorite “Florida Cracker” fish.
Mullet – now that I can relate to indeed! I was probably about 10 when I met my first mullet. We lived near the St. Johns River and my brother and I liked fishing. Our neighbors lived on the river and had a dock. Dale and I spent hours, almost daily, and definitely on the weekends, catching them. Most mullet are caught in nets. Some of ours were, with our neighbor Mr. Goedert, throwing a big 12 foot cast net, and once we went ocean seining. But it was via cane pole, hook and line that we caught thousands. While mullet, especially the small “fingerling” sized ones make wonderful bait, our target was edible mullet. Mr. Goedert figured out how to catch them on hook and line. He rigged a floating feeder that dispensed bread. Scrap bread was bought in bulk and put in the feeder. That bread was in 50 pound bags; it was old, stale, sometimes had mold, but it worked great. Schools of mullet would appear when they were “running” in the area and we’d sit with our poles, baited with bread balls or sometimes worms, waiting for the bobber to go under. A swift tug on the pole swinging toward the dock and the washtub was all it took to land the fish. When they quit biting, usually on a tidal change, we switched into fish cleaning mode. We cleaned and fileted tons of mullet. It became a dinner staple at our house. We had so much that we froze it and gave it away. Some weekends we’d catch 150 to 200 dinner size fish! We occasionally supplied the fish for a fish fry. I’ll never forget the fish fries at church, with our school band, or with Dad’s work colleagues. It was a big event; someone was the cook with a big cauldron of oil to cook the fish and hush puppies. At our house, french fries usually replaced grits; Melissa never ceases to tell me this was wrong. Other fish did get caught, bream, bass, catfish, and others, but mullet were the bulk of our catch and they filet up very nicely! Other parts of the mullet, after the filets were secured, ended up as bait for larger fish or for the crab traps. Nothing went to waste. My Dad told me that, in the 1970s, an attempt was made to expand the commercial sales of mullet by renaming it something more appealing, kind of like what happened with Patagonian toothfish, now called a sea bass. “Lisa” was the name chosen, but alas, the effort was not a success. A few years ago, I was fishing, casting a gold spoon in the Fort Myers area. I threw the lure into a school of mullet and amazingly, one of them grabbed it. I was able to reel it in and that one got fried too. It was the recent discussion about mullet, I decided it was time for some and it was just as delicious as I remembered it.