The largest completed drawing this year is one of my several pieces in recent years celebrating the mullet, Mugil cephalus. It is a shame that a strange hairdo associated with rednecks has been named, apparently, after the mullet, since the fish is an impressive ancient species with credentials and assets far beyond more glamorous, beautiful and famous members of the same vertebrate class. I’m not sure who among the public think “mullet are jumping” is a reference to a male pony tail bouncing up and down.
My drawing is of a marsh with overhanging live oaks and a wide view of a bayou with several haloed mullet floating over water. The borders include text I’ve been using repeatedly in pro-mullet works, such as “food of the ancient Egyptians,” and “The gizzard is good the roe is supreme.” This fish is more than a common wild creature of the near shore but also an important food item for human beings.
The four corners of the four-foot by six-foot drawing are each a vignette: “The Three Mulleteers,” “Aliens Recruit Dead Celebrities to Catch and Export Mullet,” [Dissection of a Mullet], and “Jesus Ate Mullet.” In keeping with artwork being in the realm of fiction made more complex by the addition of facts subject to falsification, my vignettes obviously include both. I’ve enjoyed coining the term “Mulleteer” for one who fishes mullet particularly with a mullet “gun,” which is a term sometimes used for a cast net. I mention in this piece the two nets most commonly thrown: the bag net which has extra mesh hanging around the weight line and kept orderly by short brails between the webbing and the lead line, and the common bait net called the “brail net” which has brails strung between the lead line and the handline with a slip ring which holds the top of the webbing sewn from the slip ring down to the lead line without any extra baggy mesh. The brail net is mostly used for catching small fish and shrimp and usually has a 1/4” mesh. Both types of net can catch mullet but the bag net on the northern Gulf of Mexico is the main “mullet net” or “mullet gun” used for that purpose.
Mullet were eaten by the ancient Egyptians. Mullet were eaten by the people of the Gulf of Mexico since people arrived. The fish is large-eyed, and in seafood markets– where a croaker family species is sold as “ground mullet”–distinguished from this white meat carnivore as “popeye mullet.” Mullet is a cheap fish. It is relatively easy to catch in quantity and its meat is darker from more blood and oil in the meat —most of the oil is in the skin. This fish is second to none if fried fresh, but its flavor can be strong-tasting if pan seared. It is best smoked so that the oil can blend with oak, hickory, pecan or cherry wood to make a golden-colored meat with a flavor recalling woodland and bayou as it dissolves in the mouth, something only smoked salmon could achieve with more rocky and northern stream impressions in the place of the bayous below wooded bluffs.
The yellow roe as depicted under the fillet knife in my upper right corner of “The Mullet are Jumping” is no more bright yellow-orange than the actual roe mullet produce during the October to January time of year. This yellow roe is often fried but disappointing to eat, in my opinion, because the granules, the millions of eggs, are dry and not very flavorful. My Father figured out long ago to smoke the yellow roe and see it congeal into a smoked golden whole that is rich with the fish-egg flavor and the sting of smoke on the tongue with none of that dry separating mass of little eggs filling the mouth almost like filling it with cotton.
The white roe is good as well but it is not easy to cook since it is more fluid and jelly-like. I’ve been feeding the white roe to my cats raw who enjoy it immensely. However, it tastes much like oysters when smoked for four or more hours so that the fluid in it solidifies and it ends up tinged brown from the wood fire. If I am ever short on oysters I’ll exploit the white roe.
The mullet is a small organism feeder. I started to say it was a filter feeder, but I think that would imply the fish having some sort of filtering apparatus such as balleen in whales. This fish instead has a gizzard full of sand to help it grind the vegetarian and small animal food items it picks up from the bottom—digging into the bottom on occasion—and sucking in plankton and various small invertebrates at various levels of the water column. Around the mouth of the West Pascagoula where I became acquainted with mullet, I used to see them feeding at the surface in groups of ten to thirty fish. Their mouths would open and close together in a circle they formed. What they were eating I could never see but the pattern their nibbling mouths made at the surface invited a careful casting of the net usually yielding a few of those showing themselves so plainly to us. However, a mullet can see the net coming and can respond too quickly to surrender in large numbers. A few unlucky fish would get caught because too many fish had to turn too many different directions in order to flee. The net had to snare some of them.
For some reason, the mullet do not feed today at the surface near shore in the same way but continue to sometimes do this at the barrier islands where the water is saltier. Perhaps something about the water pollution overpopulation has caused has eliminated this surface food source and offshore the food source continues to survive and be preyed upon by mullet closer to the open Gulf of Mexico.
I continue this memoir to mullet on New Year’s Eve, 2010, and can report with the warm spell I am back to catching enough mullet to get some smoked. My father developed a variation on traditional “Biloxi Bacon” which his brother pursued. Instead of splitting out the backbone leaving the stomach attached between fillets, my father simply cuts off each fillet and removes the stomach bone. The boneless fillet is then cooked over a fire by laying it skin and scale side down until it curls up from the grill it lays on. When it curls enough of the moisture has cooked out to allow the fillet to pop off the metal without sticking and that amount of dryness happens to be right for the fish to turn golden brown and pull easily free of the discarded skin.
I eat mullet almost every morning. I’m convinced that fish-eating is Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth.” Science seems to be confirming slowly over time that fish-eating keeps arteries clear and those who eat fish three times per week or more live longer than those who don’t. I realized twenty-five years ago that eating mullet caused hallucinations in me, but I really thought for years that was just something strange about me mostly psychosomatically induced. I knew there was something powerful about the protein acting on my naturally high-strung personality, and figured that it tipped me over into an anxious state where trances and visions took over.
Since the years I first became aware of the “power” of mullet, I have learned that there is a medical condition known as “hallucinatory mullet poisoning” and that people sometimes are hospitalized from distress over the symptoms. I’ve been eating mullet since I was a child and have to believe part of my strange mind is from the hallucinatory effect of mullet. I enjoy putting a warning label on my mullet drawings: “Warning Causes Hallucinatory Mullet Poisoning” because it reminds me of cigarette warning labels and the illegality of any other hallucinogen besides mullet in our society.
A story I read in Sullivan’s history of the Miss. Gulf Coast reminds me of the futility of outlawing this fish if someone decided that it should be treated the same as LSD. During the Civil War a Yankee gunboat approached Biloxi and sent a message to shore that all inhabitants of Biloxi should sign allegiance to the USA or else find themselves blockaded from shipments of incoming food. A teenage male in the crowd was said to have responded by saying “You’ll have to blockade the mullet if you are going to starve us out!” And I think any attempt to stop us from catching mullet will fail. Only pollution and the overdevelopment of our coast will accomplish ending our fish diet. We are far from that day at this time.
What does eating mullet do to me? If I eat mullet in the afternoon or evening I am made nervous and anxious and can’t go to sleep. The strange thing about not going to sleep is that I get tired and lay down and think I’m going to sleep but instead of going to sleep I find myself living an alternative life somewhere else. The place usually is a grassy and rocky shore which I would suspect looks like either Novia Scotia or Scotland. There are paths along the shore and down to the rocky beaches requiring a steep descent. I’m with other people and I am not Steve Shepard. I’m somebody else. Everybody there recognizes me but I don’t really talk or hear. I am paralyzed with fear that I don’t remember Steve Shepard and this fear forces me to jump up from my trance and walk around the house trying to hold onto the identity I had before I ate mullet. I’ll usually sit up for four or more hours before I can lay down and actually fall asleep. There is a set time period that the mullet affects the mind and after that it wears off.
I think mullet is a powerful food, more powerful than normal fish. I eat it every day or nearly so but learned that if I eat it first thing in the morning I can enjoy the extra energy and not lose my identity or even feel strange. Egyptians ate mullet and the Native Americans of our coast ate mullet. I feel kinship with both and think I’m made better by living on this food.