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Star News Online   Wilmington, North Carolina.
Article published Oct 24, 2007

Mullet mania: Diners who once shunned the lowly 'bait fish' are rediscovering its rich flavor and heart-healthy benefits

Sunset Harbor Seafood’s cooler is a glistening display of fresh fish: fat sea trouts, red drums as long as a man’s arm, and a flounder on which you could platter a turkey. Assembled at the profusion’s rear are a few barely noticeable striped mullets, what many anglers consider bait fish. Yet, these lowly swimmers are the buzz at the Brunswick County market this Saturday afternoon .
“What ya cookin’?” Billy Nicholson yells, pulling up in golf cart near the grill, where seafood house owner Dave Beresoff is stationed in an aromatic fog. “I can smell them all the way down the road.”
Nicholson grins, and Beresoff answers with a knowing nod. Both men are well acquainted with the smokey scent of unscaled mullet filets cooking skinside down over hot coals. It’s an old-fashioned dish locals up and down the Carolina coast call “charcoal mullet,:
Long before fried flounder become coastal Carolina’s seafood-menu darling, there was striped mullet, a medium-sized, meaty fish with rich flavor.
Native Americans were roasting mullet when Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1584 reconnaissance party landed on Roanoke Island.
Mullets were so abundant and popular along the state’s shore in the 1800s that the 96-mile-long Atlantic and North Carolina railroad, built in 1858, between Morehead City and Goldsboro was nicknamed the Mullet Line because it carried so many of the fish.
“Wonderful, nutty flavor”
Every fall, when striped mullets began their weather-triggered movements known as “mullet blows,” inland farmers rushed to the coast to become commercial fishermen, according to a report from N.C. Sea Grant. They knew autumn cold fronts combined with chilly northeast winds would set off massive mullet migrations southward. The men set up seaside camps, where they stayed until they had netted hundreds or thousands of barrels of fish before the season ended in late November or early December.
Before refrigeration, much of the mullet haul was salted and transported out of state. Tiny Portsmouth Island, on the Outer Banks’ southern tip, was noted for particularly fine salted mullets, and the fish’s roe, liver and gizzards also were prized, especially by fishing families, who sustained life on spots and striped mullets, N.C. maritime heritage tourism officer Connie Mason, of Morehead City, says.
“Before Charlie The Tuna became the chicken of the sea, the mullet was the chicken of the sea,” she says.
With the advent of refrigeration and myriad fish it could preserve for sale all over the country, diners started bypassing striped mullets. Over time, the fish, with its signature layer of white fat visible on filets behind the pectoral fin, garnered a reputation for being too oily, too pungent and too humble for America’s refined seafood palate.
Today, striped mullet is favored bait for the flounder, red drum and sea trout that it lays beside in Beresoff’s cooler, along with other popular fish such as tuna and mahi mahi. When Brunswick County friends first asked Beresoff, a commercial fisherman from New York, if he wanted to join them for a mullet barbecue, he replied, “Why would I want to eat bait fish?” Nicholson, who came to the area from Hickory 18 years ago, felt the same way when he encountered mullet being eaten along the coast.
Coastal Carolinians, however, continue to love the striped mullet, preferring it stewed, pan-fried or cooked over hot coals.
“Charcoal mullet is a thing of great pride,” Mason says. The fish, he explains, must be fileted but not scaled, lightly seasoned and grilled scale-side-down over ample heat just long enough to cook but not dry out the flesh. Some North Carolinians skewer drawn mullets lengthwise on long sticks, even rebar, then insert the skewers’ bare ends into the ground, teepee style, around a fire so that the fish extend over the hot coals.
Either way, the result is a delicious, juicy, firm-fleshed filet.
“Flounder really only takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it with; mullet stands on its own,” Mason says. “It has a flavor, a wonderful nutty flavor.”
Hearty and heart-healthy
After tasting charcoal mullet some years back, Beresoff and Nicholson both became fans. “Sometimes I eat it in the morning,” Beresoff says of a favorite breakfast after fishing all night.
The flavor comes in part from that layer of white fat cursed by gourmets but praised by locals. It keeps the mullet’s flesh moist during grilling and seasons the fish as the melting fat drips onto the hot coals.
“Some people will get mad if you try to cut the fat off,” says Beresoff’s wife Lisa, who manages Sunset Harbor Seafood and filets lots of striped mullet in fall.
And now, with recent research showing the many health benefits of fish oils, the fat may become more palatable to diners who have snubbed mullet. Four ounces of striped mullet contain 534 mg of omega-3 fatty acids, according to nutritiondata.com. Besides heart-health claims, omega-3s are said to lower triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, improve mood and aid joint health.
Within a few minutes of Beresoff’s firing up the grill in front of the seafood house, a small crowd has gathered. Customer Tyrone Deas soon takes over the cooking so that Beresoff can tend to other patrons who are sniffing around the fire. Workers inside are nibbling mullet filets while answering questions about what’s fresh and what’s cooking.
Nicholson is perched on a stool by the cash register; the register’s desk has become a makeshift buffet table for the grilled fish. He’s most impressed by the filets Beresoff has seasoned with Carolina Treet barbecue sauce, a no-no to salt-and-pepper purists like Mason.
Now and then, customer Sandra Robinson pokes her nose in to take a look. More than once, a woman nearby offers her a forkful, but Robinson declines, saying she prefers stewed mullet. Finally, no longer able to resist, she grabs a white plastic fork and digs into the stranger’s charcoal mullet. Robinson’s positive review is immediate and forceful.
“Flounder cannot hold a candle to that!”
Old-fashioned Mullet Barbecue
1 drawn mullet per person
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 sharp stick or stake per fish
This dish must be prepared outside over an open fire. Using charcoal, build a fire on the ground. Allow the coals to die down. Meanwhile, salt and pepper mullets. Beginning at the mouth, insert a sharp stick or stake (about 2 1/2-feet long) lengthwise through each mullet, leaving the fish at the end of the stick. Insert the bare end of the stick in the ground at a diagonal so that the fish extends over the hot coals. Barbecue 20 to 25 minutes.
– Vera Gallop of Harbinger, N.C., in Coastal Carolina Cooking by Nancy Davis and Kathy Hart (1986, University of North Carolina Press)
Charcoal Mullet
2 pounds striped mullet filets, with skin and scales in tact
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional seasonings:
1/4 cup Carolina Treet Cooking Barbecue Sauce, 1/2 cup bottled Italian dressing or a seasoning blend of garlic powder, paprika, Texas Pete and butter to taste
Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire in a grill or set a gas grill on medium-high or high.
Rinse filets, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Then:
* If using Carolina Treet, brush a light coating of the sauce on the flesh side of the filets.
* If using Italian dressing, pour dressing over fish and let marinate in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes.
* If using seasoning blend, sprinkle a light coating of garlic powder, paprika and Texas Pete on flesh side of filets. Lightly dot with butter.
Place plain or seasoned filets in a single layer on the grill grate and close the grill’s lid. Cook fish 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets. The flesh will flake easily and release from the skin when the fish is cooked. Slide a spatula between the grill and the fish, lifting skin and all onto a serving plate. Serves 3 to 4.