By Ben Moïse
Striped mullet. Image in the public domain.
Not too long ago I received a phone call from a friend from the old days: Dr. Russell Harley, now a resident of Sullivan’s Island. Right off the bat he asked if I knew that mullet had a gizzard. Everyone is familiar with the seasonal availability of mullet roe, which to a select group of aficionados is highly regarded as an incomparable treat. Gizzards may be a little lower in epicurean estimations.
I started telling him about Jim Bishop, a biologist I knew 30 or so years ago over at the Department of Natural Resources Fort Johnson facility on James Island. I had worked with him from time to time on various sturgeon and shad projects in the early days of my career as a game warden.
Jim had contributed several unusual mullet recipes for the now-out-of-print South Carolina Wildlife Magazine Cookbook. One such recipe was for sautéed mullet gizzards. (Bishop also tanned fish skins and made them into wallets.) While I was talking on the phone, I stepped over to my kitchen cabinet laden with cookbooks and quickly found Bishop’s recipe by scanning the index. Going straight for the page, I found, much to my dismay, the page containing Bishop’s recipe was missing.
I told Rusty, who had been patiently holding the phone while I rooted through the shelves, there was another reliable source: You Tube.
Moving to my computer, I found You Tube had instructive videos on catching mullet, cleaning mullet and cooking mullet — even one on the extraction, preparation and cooking of their gizzards. I was informed that mullet not only have gizzards but a bile-like sack, which, if punctured, will foul the taste of any edible parts it touches. Before we hung up Rusty and I set a date when we would get together and eat some of those sautéed mullet gizzards
I contacted a few soul-food restaurants and asked if they could cook some up for us, only to be rebuffed at every turn. One thought it was a joke. Then I started searching for a source of fresh-caught black mullet. Dan Long of Crosby’s Wholesale Seafood said he thought he could get some from North Carolina. They have trucks from North Carolina dealers coming in daily, so he thought he could ensure their freshness. Later I found a row of them on ice at the H&R Asian market in North Charleston. Meanwhile, I ordered six mullets through Crosby’s and began watching in earnest the YouTube tutorials on their preparation for the skillet.
The day I got the word that the six fish had arrived and been scaled, as I had requested, I sharpened several knives I believed would be useful in drawing the fillets and cutting off about two inches of the tail, which the tutorial said would fry up nicely.
When the fillets were drawn, the gizzard was easy to recognize from the YouTube videos in the gloppy tangle of innards. It was easily removed and the offending sack of nastiness carefully snipped away. The gizzard was cleaned just like a chicken gizzard, and pretty soon, I had ten fillets, five tails and five gizzards, saving one whole fish to show my friend how it was done. Standing by was a bowl of cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic power and ground thyme.
Rusty, who is a very amusing fellow with a somewhat quirky sense of humor and a doodle-dog hairdo, arrived right on time, and I started going through the greenery in the refrigerator for the makings of a tossed salad while we chatted about getting old and the demise of so many friends. We both fondly remembered a mutual friend, “Lukey” Lucas, another one-of-a-kind. I had poured about one-half inch of canola oil into a frying pan and turned on the fire. While the oil was coming up to heat, I dredged the fillets and tails in the cornmeal mix and placed the fillets cut-side down into the hot oil. When the cut side was golden brown, they were carefully flipped to brown the skin side. This process might have to be done in several batches. If so, remove the cooked fillets to paper towels and start another batch. Meanwhile stir together one-half teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a dollop of olive oil and the juice of half a lime. Toss in a pinch of salt and a couple of turns of black pepper. Toss well and serve on the plate with mullets. A murmur of silent blessings could be heard across the table as well as an exclamation of “hit don’t get no better than this.”