Sitting in the corner of the glass case at Walt’s Fish Market rests a handful of critters largely ignored by the other shoppers. Unlike the thick hunks of grouper and snapper nearby, the fish isn’t even labeled. But for the connoisseur, those little-loved fish—oily, gamey mullet—are a prize.
People have been catching and eating mullet in the Sarasota area as long as people have lived here. A newspaper article from 1888 reported that “mullet are ripe, and are being caught in large numbers.” That same year, at Sara Sota Bay Fishery, you could buy fresh or salted mullet by the barrel, half barrel or quarter barrel. “The mullet are simply fine at this time of the year,” one reporter wrote in November 1902, “with their great rolls of fat and roe.” “The water at times is literally alive with shoals,” another reporter wrote, “and the supply appears inexhaustible.”
Fateful words. In the century that followed, mullet production dwindled as tourism replaced fisheries as the region’s primary source of revenue. Today, fresh mullet isn’t easy to find, except at a handful of shops, like Star Fish Company in Cortez or Walt’s in Sarasota, but the advice on how to prepare the fish has never wavered: Smoke it. I request three clear-eyed beauties from the case at Walt’s and a talented fishmonger chops off the heads, butterflies them and pulls out a handful of the fish’s prized roe.
A Walt’s smoking guru gives me a few tips: Season the fish with salt the night before and smoke it at “medium-low” until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s it. Working on a simple Weber, with natural hardwood charcoal and soaked wood chips, I lay out the seasoned fish with care and let time, smoke, heat and salt do their magic. As the fish smokes, what was gray-red flesh clarifies into a pearly white, then deepens into an orangish-gold, with darker bits at the edges where the smoke has toughened up the meat the most.
When I pull off the fish after two and a half hours, it has an intense smoky bite but still keeps the salty Gulf flavor of the filets intact. Devoured on its own, or whipped into a delectable fish spread, it’s magnificent. History rarely tastes this good.