We were in Clyde Phillips’s seafood shop in Swansboro NC, thinking about getting our usual snapper or tuna or sea bass. We noticed a white-bearded African American man buying more than a few mullet. We also noticed that, at $4/pound, mullet were about a third the price of other fish. We asked the man and he explained that he pan fries the mullet and that they’re very tasty. On his advice, to which a grey-haired African American woman nodded agreement, we ordered two for the two of us. The place was crowded — it was Friday around noon and people, mostly locals, seemed to be shopping for meatless Friday dinner — and our order about how we wanted the mullet cut up got confused. Or maybe it was just we who were confused, but we ended up with fish with no heads but with the backbones intact. So when we cooked them a couple of days later, yes, they were tasty, but also quite bony.
Just over a week later, on our way home from our annual two weeks on Emerald Isle, we stopped by Cap’n Willis seafood in downtown Emerald Isle to load up on shrimp and our usual snapper and tuna and sea bass — thinking that Cap’n Willis, a more upscale kind of place than Clyde Phillips’s, wouldn’t have any $4 fish in their assortment. While the rain-bib-overalled clerk was putting together our order, we noticed “sea mullet” on the white board over his head, and asked if he had any.
“Sea mullet? Or hardhead mullet?” he asked.
“Uh….,” we said.
There followed an extensive lesson at the differences, the characteristics, the virtues of sea mullet and hardhead mullet, delivered by who turned out to be Trey Willis, a mid-30s representative of the Willis family. The main points:
- most people think of mullet as bait fish. Trey catches them to eat and rarely even tries to sell them to his customers;
- sea mullet can’t hold a candle, in terms of taste, to hardhead mullet;
- hardhead mullet hang out in the salt water of Bogue Sound, where Trey fishes at night, using a flashlight to attract the fish and a cast net to haul them in. I asked more than once where exactly in the sound he fishes, but he wasn’t giving that out. The best I got was “Around the rocks.”
Trey wagged a thumb at a young blond man who’d appeared behind the counter to wait on other customers and said “He never heard of mullet till he started working here.”
The young man nodded in agreement. “Now it’s my favorite fish.”
Trey didn’t have any fresh mullet of any kind back in the back of the shop. He had a couple of sea mullet that were several days old, and he wouldn’t sell them to us. He promised that the next time we come down, with a couple of days’ notice, he’ll catch us some hardheads.
Other mulletology from around the Web:
- there are more than 100 species of mullets, genus Mugil;
- hardhead mullet are also known as jumpers;
- sea mullet are also known as whiting and/or king fish;
- on a possible connection between mullet the fish and mullet the unmourned 1990s hairstyle, this from Wikipedia: “The mullet fish basically has no neck, and a fish rots from the neck down, so that may be where the slang derives from, especially since most human Mullet Heads achieve this same effect via excessive hair and musculature.”