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Monday, November 19, 2012

No. 117 Mullet Roe

Like ‘em or not, mullet roe were very much a part of life from the first full moon in October until well into the first new moon of November. Mention them to others, and even to some Islanders, and you’ll see a wrinkled nose and often a question such as “how can you eat that stuff?” But “eat” it was an understatement for many of my family and friends and others on Harkers Island. Whether fried or baked, fresh or frozen, salted or dried, fall would not be fall without at least one special meal of red mullet roe.

A fresh red roe waiting to frozen, salted, dried, or eaten
“Big mullets” is the name given to the fish when they swell to more than double their normal size while growing their eggs, literally millions of eggs. When the wind turned to the no’thard, these mullets would school by the tens of thousands, and dozens of crews would leave the Island trying to find them. Seeing even one of them jump would create a stir among the fishermen, causing them to let out a gill net in a wide circle that was then pulled together, if they were lucky, with hundreds, even thousands of pounds of the swollen and silvery fish caught in or rolled into the mesh.

In my early youth the fish themselves were discarded after the roe was harvested — only the “livers and gizzards” saved to be served as yet another delicacy. But not many years later, locals came to love the bulging fillets of the roe mullets, with its flaky white meat, almost as much as the roe itself.

During a mullet blow, people would gather at the fish houses just to get their hands on half a dozen fish, almost always given for free, to take home. Others would buy a hundred pounds or more so they could have enough to roe to freeze, salt, or dry, and to last them through the winter.

A small portion of the roe were white rather than the “reddish orange” that was everyone’s favorite. I never heard of anyone eating any of the white roe, and it was standard practice to squeeze the belly of any fish just enough to see the color of the roe that was squeezed out before choosing one to take home.

At our house, my father preferred a combination of dried and salted roe to any other. A yearly ritual was to lay several dozen on the south facing porch to dry in the autumn sun for several days. When at last they were ready, he would ship some by mail to my brothers who were living away at the time, and the rest he would keep in a large sealed can until all were finally shared or eaten.

In recent years, with the fish houses all gone, you consider yourself lucky to get even one roe in the fall. But even that one is worth the wait and trouble for those who grew up as accustomed to enjoying a mullet roe in October as to having a turkey in November.

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