Editor's note: Unfortunately, the June 8 mullet toss on St. George Island had to be cancelled due to bad weather.
Long before they had conquered the Mediterranean and dubbed it “our lake” (lacus noster), the ancient Romans were simple river folk who’d built their little town on the banks of the Tiber. For them, just as for the earliest Apalachicolans, fishing was a means of feeding their families, eventually an industry, and a popular form of recreation. And the mullet was in those days a fish that was highly prized.
By the 2nd century B.C. it was becoming fashionable among wealthier Romans to keep pet fish in fresh - or salt - water pools called piscinae (as in PISCes, the astrological sign) or vivaria (think reVIVe and VIVacious), literally “places for live creatures” (like AQUaria, from Lat. aqua/water, “places for water creatures”). Mullets were especially cherished, and you can understand why, if you’ve ever seen a school of them jumping three feet out of the water, playfully it seems, though actually to escape predators or possibly, scientists are unsure, to lunge for surface algae, one of their favorite foods, or shake off parasites.
Some doting owners were said to have valued their piscine pets more than their farm animals, and cared for them when they were sick as attentively as they did their slaves. Masters sometimes named their mullets, fed them by hand, and claimed the fish swam to them when called. Mullets are depicted in masterfully crafted mosaics at Pompeii along with other handsome AQUatic creatures.
The red mullet (Latin mullus), actually related to the goatfish, was a favorite among gourmets. Often farmed in private ponds, the fish typically brought an extravagant price and was recommended for its aphrodisiac as well as nutritional qualities. The ancients liked them char-grilled, and one recipe called for drenching in the widely used condiment garum, something like Worcestershire or the Vietnamese fish sauce nước chấm.
About 80 mullet species have been identified around the world, but especially common in Florida are the Mugil gyrans, or fantail mullet, the Mugil curema, white/silver mullet, and the Mugil cephalus, which has a host of common names, including the striped, flathead grey, or black mullet. This last species was well known in antiquity and valued as highly as the mullus.
Some Greeks and Romans preferred mullet from the sea, others liked freshwater varieties. But the medical writer Galen remarked that the best came from bays fed by large rivers, exactly like our own in Apalachicola. One recipe called for browning the fish and sprinkling with salt and vinegar. And salted mullet roe - the caviar of the ancient world - was enjoyed by Romans, Egyptians, and other Mediterranean folk, as it is today in Greece, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, and the Far East. (The ancients also used the mugil in a non-culinary way to punish adulterers, inserting a whole fish with its spiny fins into the offender’s wazoo, a painful penalty that suited the crime)
Nowadays some food snobs disdain the mullet as either too fishy, too bony, or just plain too cheap and thus supposedly not worth eating. But Floridians - Alice and I included! - love it, are happy to have a healthy food option that’s inexpensive, and have long since found creative ways of serving it. Fried is always a favorite, but smoked mullet is a Panhandle specialty and you can find both the whole fish and smoked mullet dip, delicious on crackers, right here in Apalach and across the bridge in Eastpoint.
There’s mullet across that other bridge too, over on St. George Island, and especially at this time of year. If you’re among those unfortunate few who don’t care to eat the fish, or keep them as pets (!), you can head to the Blue Parrot beach the second Saturday in June every year to just toss a couple. The Parrot, and its co-owner and general manager George Joanos (who traces his heritage to ancient Greece!), will host the 28th annual St. George Island Mullet Toss this Saturday, June 8.
Registration begins at 10 a.m., the toss starts at 11 a.m. sharp, and event proceeds benefit Franklin’s Promise Coalition, a local non-profit focused on building community, alleviating hunger, and providing resources for youth development and senior care in Franklin County. There’s nothing fishy about supporting this cause, as every dollar raised goes to support our neighbors in need.
So get on over to the Toss and don’t be a mullet-head, which, in case you didn’t know, has been since the 1800s slang for a “brainless” person, so-called for the mullet’s characteristically flat head. The term ultimately inspired the Beastie Boys 1994 “Mullet Head” hit, which renewed the popularity of that 1980s “cut the sides, don’t touch the back” mullet do: “pass me the comb, ‘cause I’m the mullet man!”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are." Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.