This Thanksgiving, keep your turkey. Keep your savory stuffing and tart cranberry sauce, keep your fragrant sweet potato pie, topped with a graceful wisp of whipped cream. Those festive foods are fine indeed, and they come with a vaguely historical flavor that lends a little dignity to us all just stuffing our faces on the fourth Thursday of November.
But when I think of gratitude – of that honest-to-goodness, deep-down-in-your-soul satisfied feeling that a great meal can give you – I dream of the humble mullet.
And I’m not talking about the hairdo.
I mean that silly, silvery, doe-eyed fish that shimmies through the peaceful mangroves and suddenly leaps right out of the water with a tremendous splash. Nobody knows what makes a mullet jump, but it looks for all the world like pure joy.
Mullet is an Old Florida staple. Plentiful and close at hand, mullet kept generations of Gulfportians fed.
“Fried mullet and grits,” recalls longtime fisherman and former Mullet King Captain Charlie Williams. “My father and everybody here was raised on it. If it weren’t for mullet and grits, this town probably wouldn’t be here.”
It’s a food that’s sustaining and sustainable: low on the food chain (and thus low in mercury) and high in those coveted healthy fish oils. It’s as locally sourced as you can get, and was once the basis for a thriving fishery here in Florida.
Young mullets hide out in the brackish water of our bayous, foraging in the seagrass, fattening up, and dodging the many creatures that prey upon them, such as hawks, herons, larger fish, and dolphins.
“Everything on this water eats a mullet,” says Capt. Charlie.
But then on a cool, stormy night in the late autumn – usually the “nastiest, coldest, blowingest night of the whole year,” says Williams – this jittery little fish does something rather brave: it schools up and heads for the ocean to spawn.
Picture acres of fish jostling and swimming hell-for-leather out to sea, their bodies packed with a salty, pungent roe so highly sought after in parts of Asia and Europe that it’s sometimes called “Gulf of Mexico Gold.”
“The roe we have here is the best in the world,” says Williams. “The size is right, the taste is right, the texture is right.” He can remember one January run in Pine Island where he made a lucky strike of 10,000 roe fish.
This is the glory of the Florida mullet run.
As for me, when I dig into a good smoked mullet, skin and fins still attached, little bones still sunk into firm, juicy, red-gold flesh, I taste a little of this story. In the deep, earthy flavor of the fish, I partake in the sunlit days in the seagrass, the life-sustaining flow of fresh water into salt, and salt into fresh. In the sweet-sharp odor of smoke, I imagine our tree-shaded town, a village of timber-framed bungalows and homemade smokers, and I think of the slow way Gulfport grew around the rhythms of the Gulf.
I imagine tens of thousands of massing fish following the call of moon and weather and the oldest imperative there is, of the wild and beautiful abundance of their journey. I am humbled. I am fed. I am grateful.
I don’t know why the mullet jumps, but each time I see one, my heart jumps with it.