End of the Line

Mullet Tales

An appreciation of an under-appreciated fish

Illustration: Barry Blitt

Frankly, I have never attended a mullet festival myself, and cannot know what passions such an event engenders. Still I find it troubling that someone at the 2014 Boggy Bayou MulletFest in Niceville, Florida, threw a full beer can that hit a featured attraction, the country singer Dustin Lynch, in the face. On YouTube you can watch Lynch, undaunted, peering into the crowd and saying, “I want to come to your workplace and throw [stuff] at you, man.”

You can see where that could lead. “Mommy, Mommy, why is the man in the big hat throwing [stuff] at the Jiffy Lube man? Can I throw [stuff] at the Jiffy Lube man?”

And here’s what people will be thinking: That’s about the kind of trend you’d expect from a celebration of the mullet. The “lowly” mullet, as it is so often called, the “humble,” the “much maligned” mullet. Time for reassessment, folks.

Traditionally, of course, what people throw during a mullet festival is mullet, and not at anyone, but for distance, and charity, and an occasion to drink beer. Famously, the Flora-Bama Lounge & Oyster Bar, on the Florida-Alabama line, draws some 35,000 people annually to its Interstate Mullet Toss. The all-time record, 179 feet, could be seen as a tribute to mullet aerodynamics.

But no, the preferred way to toss a mullet is to wad it up and throw it like a softball. Does anybody toss trout? No. Or tilapia, even? In recent years tilapia has become the fourth most popular fish in America, even though it is no less of a bottom feeder than mullet—and indeed many tilapia imported from China have been fattened up on chicken doody. Yet when I mention to people that I am writing about mullet, so many respond by saying, “Does anybody ever eat one?”

You damn right. A specialty of the very nice Spring Creek Restaurant in Crawfordville, Florida, is a very nice dinner of fried mullet, caught in local waters from the establishment’s own boat. In St. Petersburg, Florida, Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish has been largely mullet-based since 1951.

And yet here is one of the first things I learned from elder relatives, fishing for croakers and whiting in North Florida. One of us accidentally caught a mullet (it can happen, although mullet, essentially vegetarian, aren’t big biters). Can’t eat that, I was told. Good only for bait.

It’s not a pretty fish. Its face is too small. Where you can almost imagine a redfish breaking into a smile (not in a boat, though), a mullet’s face amounts to big bug eyes and little squinched-up sucky lips. A mullet’s body is sleek but also swarthy. Generally its colors (mullet comes from the same Indo-European root as melanin, dark pigment) resemble those of the old, piratical Oakland Raiders.

And we must not fail to mention the mullet hairstyle, short in front, long down the back—inspired, conceivably, by the little-face-long-body look of the fish. The New York Times recently reported that the mullet coif had become fashionable, but come on: These are highly modified versions. The fish’s image is never going to be improved by that of the ’do. At one point the state of Florida, which officially changed the name of the dolphinfish to mahimahi so potential eaters wouldn’t associate it with Flipper, tried to change mullet’s name to the Spanish, lisa. Didn’t catch on. A mullet doesn’t look like a Lisa.

It doesn’t need to. It is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Because it doesn’t eat other fish, it is low in mercury content (and lots of game fish eat it, so it’s good for them). It reproduces rapidly, so it’s sustainable. A fish (a Mediterranean staple for thousands of years) for the twenty-first century!

And it inspired Man and Mullet: An Elegy for a Lost Way of Life, by Alan Ryle Frederiksen. Michael Swindle in his own good book Mulletheads calls Frederiksen “the Melville of mullet.” This vertiginous portrait of old-school gillnetters grappling with a school of running mullet—a great knot referred to collectively as he—indeed evokes Moby-Dick. To appreciate it is to dive in and get lost, but here is the knot:

“Fish on the move; surface appeared to come alive with escaping mullet…fused into a mass…like acrobats leapfrogging one another but with this difference: now hundreds in the air formed a solid wall of lunging bodies. The conglomerate melded…”

And here, inside one mullet: “…deftly one removes the black membrane covering the fatty belly, then greases hands and fingers in the oozy substance reborn of the leafy detritus—black mangrove (gopherwood)—ancient tree planking Noah’s Ark…”

Try to find a copy. I also recommend Googling “mullet gizzard.”