Here's a good way to tell if someone has a real connection to Southwest Florida: Ask if we like smoked mullet.
For many newcomers and a distressingly large number of people who might otherwise consider themselves locals, the response will likely range from "What the heck is a mullet?" to "Yech, I would never eat that."
It's different for those who possess a true and abiding attachment to this place we call home. For us, smoked mullet is more than mere food; it borders on the sacramental. Mention smoked mullet and our eyes glaze over, our expressions turn wistful and, OK, we might start to drool.
"Smoked mullet.mmmmm," we'll say. "Where can we get some? Where can we get some right now?"
Therein lies the problem. Sudden urges for smoked mullet are not easily satisfied, at least not nearly as easily as they used to be. Sure, you can smoke your own mullet (see accompanying recipe), but that takes at least five or six hours and that's assuming you can buy fresh mullet at your local seafood store, a chancy proposition at best. Otherwise, you have to go out and net the mullet yourself, and that's a whole 'nother can of worms, which, incidentally, mullet will not eat. That's because they are vegetarians. Just like chickens, mullet have gizzards for helping grind the plant matter that makes up the bulk of their diet.
More mullet background, before we get into the nitty-gritty of supply and demand and general, all-around mullet goodness: Mullet travel in schools, and if you spot a fish jumping in the water around here it is most likely a mullet. There's no authoritative explanation for why mullet jump so much. It could be that a predator has spooked them. It could be that it helps them clean out their gill rakes. Or it could be that mullet just like to jump.
There are several different species of mullet. Silver mullet and black mullet are most common in Southwest Florida, with the black favored for eating. Black mullet tend to have a slightly higher fat and oil content. They prefer to feed on sand and shell bottoms, rather than in brackish rivers and backwaters that can lend a muddy taste to their flesh. Yes, it is true that mullet are a popular baitfish, and that might be why some folks are persnickety about eating them. Too bad, that's their loss. Cooked fresh-and it absolutely has to be fresh because frozen mullet gets mushy and might as well be bait-mullet competes with fish that cost four and five times as much. Fried mullet is great, smoked mullet is heavenly.
But the sad truth is that it's hard to find a place where you can buy good smoked mullet these days. It didn't use to be that way. Eating mullet has been a long tradition down here, dating back to the Calusas, who, when they weren't tormenting Spanish explorers, were offering them salted mullet in exchange for whatever doodads they could get. Until the raging boom times of the late 20th century hit Southwest Florida, mullet was both staple and livelihood. At the end of the 19th century, when the railroad line was extended south to Punta Gorda, the first commercial shipment north was mullet-17 boxcars of them, salted for the New York market. The mullet fisheries of Pine Island Sound and the Ten Thousand Islands might not have created vast fortunes, but they did help pay the bills for hundreds of families. And they created a bounty of mullet for the rest of us. In the not-so-distant past, vendors, who were typically commercial fishermen themselves, sold smoked mullet along the roads in Southwest Florida and many restaurants featured it on their menus.
Tom Wallin, a sixth-generation Sarasotan who owns Walt's Fish Market, remembers when as many as 15 Sarasota restaurants served smoked mullet. Today, he says, he thinks he's just about the only one with it on the menu. And that's a shame, says Wallin, because, "The best mullet, bar none, comes from the west coast of Florida." That's because, he explains, our waters are so much cleaner than the northern Gulf.
I don't know about most people, but I would rather eat smoked mullet than just about anything, even if the bones sometimes stick in my mouth and the aroma-eau de mullet-stays on my fingers for days afterwards. Like most native Floridians, I grew up eating mullet and have made many a pilgrimage to the Mecca of Mulletdom-Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in St. Petersburg. Peters, who died at 91 in February of last year, opened his landmark eatery in 1951, and the menu hasn't really changed all that much since the beginning. Meals are a slab of smoked mullet or smoked Spanish mackerel, served with a side of German potato salad. The beer comes in frosty mugs. If you catch your own fish, you can bring it by and they will smoke it for you.
The smoked mullet at Ted Peters is so good that I can almost forgive Peters for having added smoked salmon to the menu back in the late 1980s. But he did it for good reason. Back then, it appeared as if a mullet shortage were looming. Indeed, alarmed by dwindling counts for a variety of species-snook, sea trout, redfish-Florida voters approved a ban on gill netting that took effect in 1995. It spelled the end for hundreds of commercial mullet fishermen. The upside-fish stocks have rebounded, and in a big way. There are lots of mullet in the water. Even with the restrictions on commercial fishing (mullet can only be taken by cast net or by a seine of no more than 500 square feet, with a two-inch mesh), Karen Bell, who owns A.P. Bell Fish Company in Cortez, says fishermen there still haul in about one million pounds every year. (The Lee County Fishermen's Cooperative on Pine Island expects to haul in more than two million pounds of mullet this year.)
Which begs the question: With so much mullet still getting caught around here, why the apparent shortage of smoked mullet?
One reason is that people up in Georgia are hogging it all. Almost all of that two million pounds of mullet brought in by the Lee County Fisherman's Cooperative is shipped up to Georgia, where it is much in demand for fish fries and can fetch a better price than it does locally.
Plus, many of the people who once smoked mullet commercially just aren't doing it any more. "Mostly, it was mullet fishermen who smoked mullet and sold it on the side. But after the net ban, lots of the mullet fishermen moved on or found other lines of work," says Dan Holloway, manager of the Lee County co-operative.
Which is not to say that smoked mullet can no longer be found in Southwest Florida. Indeed, there is some delicious smoked mullet out there, but you have to go looking for it. At his fish market, says Wallin, "I still go through about 300 pounds a week, all from local fishermen. The day before Thanksgiving, we sold 150 pounds of mullet spread." When you walk in the door, he's got an open tub of it free for the sampling. "Half the people who taste it walk out the door with some," he says. And the Star Fish market on the Cortez waterfront also sells quite a bit of smoked mullet.
Down in Lee County, The Smokehouse, a tiny roadside joint just off San Carlos on the way to Fort Myers Beach, has been selling smoked mullet since Harry J. Stevens first opened it in 1947, when it sold for 25 cents a slab. In addition to mullet, which now sells in the neighborhood for $6 for a whole fish, the Smokehouse also smokes amberjack, mackerel and blue marlin. "But smoked mullet is number one," says Dan Gilliam, who helps run The Smokehouse with Maria Stevens, Harry's widow. "We probably sell about 5,000 pounds of it a year, most all of it brought in by people who go out with their cast nets."
Gilliam brines his mullet for a couple of hours before smoking. To produce the smoke, he uses oak, sea grape or buttonwood, sometimes citrus. But he won't discuss the seasoning.
"Nope, can't give that out," he says. "Except to say that it's spicy."
And I respect that. I'm not eager to divulge my smoked mullet seasonings either. But Holloway of the fisherman's cooperative was more than happy to share his secret. "I just smoke it as slowly as possible and use lots and lots of salt," he says. "If the mullet is good and fat, then salt is all you need. That and the smoke flavor from the wood you use. You really can't put too much salt on a mullet."
Holloway's handiwork is sold out of a smoked-mullet wagon run on a frequent basis by his wife, Patty, alongside Pine Island Road, just before the intersection of County Road 767 (Stringfellow Road). The smoked-mullet sales usually benefit their daughter's softball team. But they help out other charities, too.
"Couple of weeks ago, a shrimper friend of ours lost his leg in an accident, so we sold smoked mullet to help him out," says Patty.
Then Patty and I get to talking about smoked mullet and just how good it is. "From September through December it is smoked-mullet-eating season," Patty says. "They get so big and good."
That's when my eyes begin to glaze over.
"And they get all that fat in 'em and it drips down in the fire and sizzles while they're smoking," says Patty. "That's what really adds to the flavor."
That's when I begin to drool.
Patty says: "You pick 'em apart with your fingers and you just don't want to stop eating them."
That's when I tell her goodbye and go out to smoke some mullet of my own.
Bob Morris is a fourth-generation Floridian and former editor of Gulfshore Life magazine. His novel Bahamarama, the first in a series of mysteries based in the Caribbean, will be published in May by St. Martin's Press.
The first thing to know is: They have to be fresh. If you can't buy fresh mullet or catch them on your own, then don't bother smoking them because they are no better than bait.
At the seafood market, ask to have the mullet butterflied (taking out the backbone, but leaving the scales on). If you have the option, leave the heads on, too. Some folks think this makes the fish look less appetizing-and I'd have to agree-but the heads do help the flavor. And you can always cut them off when you are ready to serve the mullet.
Make a brine out of one-half cup of salt and a gallon of water. Before placing the mullet in the brine, make sure you scrub away the black, filmy belly liner. Then soak the mullet in it for at least an hour, no longer than two. Take them out and pat them dry. Sprinkle the mullet liberally with whatever seasoning you prefer. Use lots of salt. Pepper, too. You really don't need to get much fancier than that.
Yes, you can spread a little barbecue sauce on the mullet before you stick it in to smoke. Pick your favorite one or experiment. Here's an easy one that works well:
1/2 cup mustard (the cheapest mustard you can buy)
1 tablespoon sweet pickle juice
Mix the two and you've got a fairly credible instant sauce.
Now, get your fire ready. You can use a smoker or a charcoal grill or one of those godforsaken electric things. You just want to keep it burning as low as possible. The longer and slower a mullet smokes, the better. If you're in a hurry-and I can surely understand the urgency in wanting to eat smoked mullet-you can do the deed in two or three hours. It will taste good, but it will lack the gumption of slow-smoked mullet.
Toss on your smoking-medium-of-choice. Again, it's your call. Oak, citrus wood, sea grape, buttonwood-they all work well. Some people even use Australian pine, although I find it pops too much. Whatever you do, don't smoke with melaleuca.
Then cover it up and let whatever is going to happen play out. Don't mess with it too much. Stoke the fire when you need to. Stick on more smoking wood from time to time. Slap on more sauce if it suits you.
It's done when most of the moisture cooks out and it turns a deep brown, but before it becomes mullet jerky. It is OK to pick at it and sample along the way, just to make sure.
If it turns out bad, it's probably your fault, not the mullet's. Try again. If it turns out good, congratulations. Share it with your friends. And if turns out great, well, give me a holler. I'll be right over.
FINDING SMOKED MULLET
Walt's Fish Market
4144 S. Tamiami Trail
Sarasota, FL 34231
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave. S.
Pasadena, FL 33707
Star Fish Company
12306 46th Ave. W.
Cortez, FL 34215
18550 San Carlos Blvd.
Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931