Elusive Mullet Shines at Premiere on Pine Island
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It’s a sultry May evening on Pine Island. The premiere of WGCU’s new documentary Mullet: A Tale of Two Fish is about to start and the chef hasn’t yet arrived with the “Bokeelia Bacon.”
An age-old favorite on the island affectionately dubbed as the “anti-Florida” by its down-to-earth residents, mullet used to be what fishermen brought home to feed their families.
Since the people of Florida voted in a constitutional amendment banning certain-sized nets in 1995, followed by additional regulations, the traditional way of life has shifted drastically. Some 200 fishing families on the island have dwindled to just a few and they are hard-pressed to make the living that their grandfathers enjoyed.
But, the net ban has restored the statewide mullet fishery, according to scientists featured in WGCU’s latest documentary on sustainable seafood. And, some entrepreneurs along the Gulf coast are cooking up the mullet and its prized roe in ways that show promise for popularizing the widely misunderstood fish.
One such advocate is Jesse Tincher, the owner of the Blue Dog Bar & Grill that celebrates the iconic fish every week with Mullet Monday Madness.
Today, he’s the chef we’re waiting for here at the Fishers of Men Lutheran Church, where mullet fans are quickly filling the room.
It’s fitting that we’re in a church because heralding the mighty mullet on Pine Island is like preaching to the choir.
About 15 minutes before the event begins, Jesse and server Ruby, in her white waders, carry in platters of mullet -- a dramatic last-minute entrance by the true star of the evening’s show.
The former Miami restaurateur bought what was once the Mulletville restaurant in the funky, artsy town of Matlacha just over the bridge on Pine Island a couple years ago.
He turned what had been more of a diner/locals bar into a fun, upbeat daring new dining venue. Aspiring to align himself with the local spirit, he embraced mullet as a unique way to brand his eclectic style of cuisine.
Tonight, he’s serving blackened mullet quesadillas with cilantro and jack cheese, a smoked mullet dip jazzed up with lime, red onion and capers and he’s warming up some fried mullet in the church’s oven to make sure it’s crispy when served.
But, make no mistake – it’s not the chef, it’s the fish that’s in the spotlight.
The room has filled up with about 150 people by the start of the reception and these folks are eyeing the kitchen in a way that locals refer to as “mullet hungry.”
“Mid-May is typically the time when the mullet are just starting to get fat enough to satisfy,” says Rhonda Dooley, the impassioned matriarch of one of the last commercial fishing families. “But, the mullet harder to find this year and still pretty thin.”
Rhonda’s family, which is prominently featured in the documentary, donated 50 pounds of mullet to Jesse to cook up for the premiere. She says they normally would donate more like 200 pounds, but that’s all her husband was able to net the previous day.
“I've noticed this season has been exceptional. We've not seen nearly as much mullet as usual,” says Mike Dooley, who's been fishing local waters for nearly six decades. "And, the season seems to start later each year."
After the documentary is screened, Florida Sea Grant agent Joy Hazell leads a Q&A with the audience and a panel from the film, including Mote Marine scientists Ken Leber and Kevan Main; commercial fishermen Shane and Mike Dooley and Chef Jesse.
The focus of the panel discussion quickly turns to the islanders’ perception of a scarcity of mullet right now, despite research to the contrary, and whether aquaculture, an option mentioned in the film, would even be viable if waters aren’t healthy enough to sustain the fish.
Red tide, unprecedented winter releases from Lake Okeechobee and excessive runoff from a rainy winter are speculated upon as possible reasons why the mullet hadn’t shown up in time for their own premiere.
“I thought it was pretty ironic that the fishermen at Barnhill’s couldn’t get any mullet today of all days,” says Jesse.
Jesse considers it a happy coincidence that the television premiere of the documentary falls on a Monday. While it airs at 10 pm, after the Blue Dog closes for the night, he’ll be celebrating all day with his usual Monday Mullet Madness, serving fried avocado stuffed with his smoked fish dip and mullet with an Indian fusion sauce.
Jesse relies on Barnhill’s Fisheries and its docks right across the street from his restaurant to keep his Mondays stocked with mullet. Barnhill’s Mark Jacques confirmed the mullet were elusive the day of the premiere.
“Sometimes the fish are there, sometimes not – it has a lot to do with the weather and the northern fronts,” he says, not concerned about an unusual absence of the fish.
Jesse is confident that he’ll be able to acquire enough mullet this summer to satisfy a potential increase of customers to his weekly extravaganza, where he’s always inventing new ways of serving it – from Jamaican Me Crazy Mullet to a Mullet Monte Cristo.
Watch Mullet: A Tale of Two Fish at video.wgcu.org to find out why mullet matters and how a healthy future global population may come to rely on this nutritious protein.
And, check back in on our blog for a discussion on how mullet is faring in our local waters, where you can find it and why you should try it if you haven’t.
Find out more about mullet at taleoftwofish.com.