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
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
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)
2 pounds striped mullet filets, with skin and scales in tact
Salt and pepper to taste
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
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.