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I live in Florida and write about it frequently. This article about one of Florida's culinary treasures appeared in Tampa Bay Metro Magazine.

Bonnie Boots

Tampa Bay Metro is a glossy lifestyle publication showcasing the people  and positive aspects of Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is located on the Gulf of Mexico and is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Florida.

Tampa Bay is a wonderful place to live and an exciting area to write about. I especially enjoy writing about  foods that are characteristically Floridian. This article, which first appeared in Tampa Bay Metro magazine, is about a type of mullet that is unique to Florida. I invite you to visit Tampa Bay and try this distinctive and delicious local specialty!

 

Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em

 By Bonnie Boots

 
I'm fed up with the media shoving trendy food in our faces. Magazines and television shows force-feed us reports on the latest, greatest food fads and try to make us feel like fools if we can't twist our tongues around kitchen terminology like bulgoki and beurre blanc. They demand we dine on everything from ostrich to octopus, leaping around the culinary landscape like bullfrogs in a frying pan-which will probably be the next food fad.

I'd be all for this type of food hype if it resulted in our setting a tastier table for family and friends. But it hasn't. Instead, it's convinced us that good food is something far too exotic and complicated for mere mortals to master. Cowed, we've become a nation of cooks that only use our kitchens to unbox the takeout and set it on paper plates. Well, enough of that. It's time we returned to celebrating simple food.

Good, plain food-the kind that sustained Floridians until Food TV came long-is just plain good. Ask any old timer what he remembers about growing up around Tampa Bay, and he'll make your mouth water with table talk of meals based on local products and simple preparations. He'll talk about hush puppies and hearts of palm salads, about coquina soup, and always, always, about smoked mullet.

Excellent mullet are as distinctive to Tampa Bay as excellent grapes are to Sonoma. More than 100 varieties of mullet are found around the world, but the clean, sandy bottom of our share of the Gulf produces the best eating mullet anywhere, the "jumping mullet." If you were born in a landlocked state, you may not know that the bullet-headed bits of silver you see jumping for joy in local salt waters are mullet. They leap, old timers say, to see if there's anyone around that wants to throw a net over them, lay them open like a book and smoke them over oak chips for a few hours. During the smoking, the strong, fishy oils melt out, leaving the flesh moist, flaky, brown and sweet as a roasted pecan.

Mullet is true Florida Pioneer food, as homey and simple a dish as you can imagine. I was introduced to its history, and its delights, when I first came to Tampa Bay in 1979. Back then, cheap and readily available mullet were in every food market and on almost every menu. Men attending outdoor smokers were positioned along nearly any road that fronted salt water, beach or bay. The aroma was irresistible. At stop signs, traffic would slow a bit as folks hopped from their cars to buy a bag of fresh smoked mullet, whole or halves. Those that didn't stop wished they had, and later slept fitfully, dreaming of smoky morsels of heaven swimming just beyond their reach.

Stopping off for a smoked mullet is an ancient tradition, for when the Spaniards first came to Florida in 1513 they reported purchasing mullet from native Indians that had smokers set up on the beaches. Today, alas, that tradition has nearly passed, done in by the gill net fishing ban of 1994 and a decade of people turning away from simple, native food to follow the trends. With fewer mullet coming to market and, year by year, fewer people demanding them, the fish that was once an icon of Florida cuisine is all but forgotten.

Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a roadside smoker dishing out mullet to passing motorists, and I haven't seen mullet, fresh or smoked, in any supermarket in years. Lucky for us, then, that a tiny handful of mullet aficionados still fan the flames of their smokers to keep the tradition alive. Perhaps the most respected is Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish where they have stubbornly adhered to the old, native traditions of smoking fish for more than half a century. A visit to Ted Peters should be a requisite for calling yourself a resident of Tampa Bay, for the taste of it's mullet is the true taste of Old Florida, as sweet and smoky as nostalgia itself. It's served simply enough, with a side of German potato salad, a slice of raw onion, saltines and hot sauce. Add a cold beer-bliss!

The Crab Shack and Skipper's Smokehouse, which date back to the 80's, may not have the lineage of Ted Peters but each nobly carries on the tradition of the old timers, smoking fresh mullet over oak chips in a backyard cooker and serving it plain and simple with sides like hush puppies, French fries and cole slaw. Sitting down to a plate of mullet at either place, elbow to elbow with fisherman and families, tourists and attorneys, is an experience in E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One Common Opinion-mmmm, mmmm, good!


LOCATIONS:
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Avenue South
Pasadena
727-381-7931

Crab Shack Restaurant
11400 Gandy Blvd. (St. Pete end of Gandy Bridge)
St. Pete
727-576-7813

Skipper's Smokehouse
910 Skipper Road (corner of Skipper & Nebraska)
Tampa
813-971-0666

 

About the Author
Bonnie Boots is the publisher/editor of The Internet Wizards Magazine, a lifestyle digital publication providing tips, tools, techniques for people doing business on the internet. For a no-cost one year subscription, visit http://www.theinternetwizards.com


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