Anna Maria Island, December 11, 1986

Don’t underrate mullet

By Gib Bergquist

This Cracker loves mullet! Since we are now at the height of our local mullet season, I would like to share with you a little mullet adventure I experienced in Puerto Rico.

Lake Guajataca glimmers like a diamond set high in the mountain. Its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean is Rio Guajataca which, for most of the year, is a dry river bed. During the dry season, the ocean builds up a beautiful sandy beach across the mouth of the river bed — effectively disguising the river’s existence to the casual visitor.

I awoke one morning to meet the dawn and greet the sun, as is my custom. As I walked the beach I observed an awesome thing. Torrential rains during the night had caused the lake to overflow. The resulting flood flashed down the mountain and washed away a section of the beach. What had been a quiet beach was now the mouth of a raging river abounding in fish. I’m not sure whether the fish were trying to go upriver or out to sea — they seemed to be swimming in both directions. My guess is probably some of both.

As soon as word of the bounty had spread the local country folk appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with their castnets and washtubs to harvest the bonanza.

I climbed to a small promontory in order to get a bird’s eye view of this phenomenon. Much to my surprise, below me, swimming in the quiet water of the instant flats created in the flooded low areas surrounding the river’s mouth, were large schools of mullet. Having left my castnet in Anna Maria, I thought I could best serve as mullet spotter to the castnetters below. In my best “Spanglish,” I shouted out and pointed out the swarming schools to the netters. To my utter dismay, I was completely ignored.

By now I was in a mullet frenzy. Believing there must be some sort of communications gap, I tried again.

The netters below were beginning to wonder about that shouting gringo above them who kept madly pointing to the water beyond their nets. But they continued to throw their nets into the swiftly moving water and pull them in full of small sardine-size fish. Each time, the fish were dumped into the washtubs and the netters turned around for another throw. One of the netters finally realized what I was shouting about and said “no senor, ese pescado no sirve.” (Those fish are worthless.)

I, for once, was speechless. Could he possibly be referring to my noble vegetarian delicacy?

Yes, it is true. Mullet are not eaten there, having the stigma of saltwater catfish here.

The fish they were netting are called “pesetas.” And they are eaten head, scales and all in a delicious fish chowder. Some of my non-cracker friends have expressed the same attitude about mullet as my Puerto Rican friends — suitable only for bait. How sad.

Now I don’t want to set off a run on the mullet like chef Paul Prudhomme has done with his blackened redfish, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you my cracker recipe for fried mullet. Here it is:

Cut fresh boneless mullet fillets into nuggets of about two mouthfuls. Set-up three bowls in assembly-line fashion leading to a frying pan. Put flour in the first bowl, evaporated milk in the second and cornmeal seasoned with a little paprika, salt and pepper in the third. Place enough oil in the frying pan to cover the nuggets and preheat to about 375 degrees. You may have to set the temperature higher to keep your frying temperature during the cooking process.

The morsels are quickly rolled in the flour, dipped in the milk, and rolled in the cornmeal before they are dropped into the hot oil. Quick-fry the delectable chunks until they are golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve with cheese grits and cole slaw. To prepare cheese grits, cook grits according to the package instructions — then stir in butter and your favorite freshly grated cheese. Cheddar works just fine.

Enjoy!

From Cracker's Crumbs, 1995 Gib Bergquist

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