A Mullet by Any Other Name

Some quirks of Florida history are so quirky they just couldn’t have been made up. That’s certainly the case with the attempt by state officials in the 1960s to rename that delicacy of North Florida delicacies, the mullet.

Young girl eating fried mullet at the Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville (1978).

Young girl eating fried mullet at the Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville (1978).

Mullet has long been a staple food in Florida, specifically the northern Gulf Coast region. Before modern refrigeration came about, entire families would come from as far away as northern Georgia and Alabama to catch and preserve barrels of mullet. Salting and smoking were both common methods for preserving the fish. Smoked mullet is still a favorite in many coastal communities such as Apalachicola, Carrabelle, and Steinhatchee. The fish is delicious by itself, on crackers with hot sauce, or in a dip. Fried mullet can also be found on many restaurant menus in the Big Bend region, usually served with hushpuppies and a large helping of grits.

Mullet smoking on iron forks around a fire - Monticello (1982).

Mullet smoking on iron forks around a fire – Monticello (1982).

 

Men preparing to fry mullet for the Harbor Day Seafood Festival in Apalachicola (1957).

Men preparing to fry mullet for the Harbor Day Seafood Festival in Apalachicola (1957).

Delicious though it may be, mullet has always had one nagging problem: its name. Across America, folks often associate the term “mullet” either with its namesake hairstyle of the 1970s and 80s, or with one of the many other species of fish that share the name. Indeed, “mullet” can refer to almost any of the fish in the families Mugilidae and Mullidae. Most of these species are used strictly for bait, or simply aren’t used at all. Only black mullet (Mugil cephalus) seems to please the palette enough for use as a food fish.

This photo has double the mullet! The man pictured here is sporting a

This photo has double the mullet! The man pictured here is sporting a “mullet” hairstyle while shoveling ice onto a display bar showcasing fresh fish, including mullet (1988).

 

Woman holding up a large black mullet at the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival (1978).

Woman holding up a large black mullet at the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival (1978).

Over time, this caused problems for commercial mullet fishermen. By the 1960s, frozen fish and canned tuna and salmon dominated the non-fresh fish market nationwide. Fresh mullet was in demand in North Florida, but hardly anyplace else. Accordingly, the market price occasionally dropped to as low as two or three cents per pound. In 1962, the State Board of Conservation decided to do something to try to save the industry. Randolph Hodges, the board’s director and a native of the commercial fishing village of Cedar Key, decided the solution would be to find a better way to market the fish to new consumers outside the state. But how do you convince someone to buy a can of fish they think is a “trash” fish?

William Randolph Hodges, Director of the State Board of Conservation (circa 1960s).

William Randolph Hodges, Director of the State Board of Conservation (circa 1960s).

Hodges decided mullet might be an easier sell if it had a new name. While searching for plausible alternatives, he hit upon the idea of naming the fishlisa.” The mullet family contains a genus called “liza,” which Hodges felt was a much more appealing name  that might help ease the distrust of northerners unfamiliar with the goodness of mullet. He and the State Board of Conservation immediately began campaigning to erase the term “mullet” from Florida’s lexicon. They encouraged canners to package the fish as “lisa” and sell it throughout the United States. Also, all mention of “mullet” in official state communications was to stop; “lisa” would be the preferred terminology.

Press commentary was skeptical throughout the entire experiment, but Hodges and his public relations team were persistent. They staged taste test events at school lunchrooms, hospitals, and even the state prison at Raiford. They sent promotional cans of “lisa” far and wide, inviting food editors to comment on the flavor of the meat and provide suggestions for its preparation. The Conservation Board also sent out packets of recipes for dishes like “Lisa Pilaf,” “Lisa Casserole Supreme,” and even “Lisa Luxury Loaf.” If that wasn’t an all-out selling effort, we aren’t sure what is.

Recipe for Lisa Luxury Loaf from the Administrative Files of the State Conservation Board (Box 4, Series 1163, State Archives of Florida).

Recipe for “Lisa Luxury Loaf” from the Administrative Files of the State Conservation Board (Box 4, Series 1163, State Archives of Florida).

Ultimately, the public response to the campaign was lukewarm at best. Consumers and food critics were amenable to trying lisa, but they found the new name to be rather contrived. The spectacle of renaming a fish with such a lengthy history created more dubious publicity than simply attempting to market mullet as, well, mullet. Eventually the state opted to give the old name another try. Mullet never became as big as tuna or salmon on the national market, but it’s still a favorite on the Florida Gulf coast, no matter what you call it.

Where is your favorite place to get fried mullet, smoked mullet, or smoked mullet dip? Share with us by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page!

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

13 thoughts on “A Mullet by Any Other Name

  1. Interesting bit of history. I have to say I am glad it never became popular in other areas since that leaves more for me.

    My favorite place to eat mullet, swamp cabbage and grits is the Cypress Inn, Shamrock, Florida.

  2. Things that make you go ‘hmmm’. This seems to explain the mysterious & horrible “Lisa Pizza” we were served in our school cafeteria back in the 60s…

  3. I have eaten my fair share of mullet (and frog legs) at the Cypress Inn also. My favorite go to restaurant though, is Deal’s Famous Oyster House on Hwy 98 outside Perry, Florida.

  4. Love Ms. Selma’s fried mullet, hush puppies, coleslaw and grits! It doesn’t get any better than her cooking in Keaton Beach, Florida!

  5. Ted Peters Smoked Fish, South Pasadina, St. Petersburg. Best smoked Mullet this side of how my grandfather used to make it on Merritt Island when I was a kid.

  6. TO say that mullet is a north Florida fish is deceptive. My grandfather had a fish packing plant in Boca Grande, later moved to mainland Placida in South Florida and during a run would net 50,000 pounds of silver mullet in a night. Among his customers was Winston Churchill and his wife. He sold at Fulton Fish Market in NYC from both his NC and FL packing houses. Silver mullet is much loved by those who know fish, and smoke and frying both are wonderful ways to prepare it.

  7. In the summers catching mullet on hook an line in the river is still a way of life for me and friends in Central Fl. 25 years ago in November we would follow the mullet run to the Atlantic coast and catch Silver Mullet in the surf using cast-nets. Clean fish and start the smokers up.Good times. I still enjoy good fish fries with family and friends.

Leave a Reply to pinellas Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy