Long before they had conquered the Mediterranean and dubbed it "our lake" (lacus noster), the ancient Romans were simple river folk who’d built their little village on the banks of the Tiber. For them, just as for the earliest settlers along America’s coasts, fishing was a means of feeding their families, eventually an industry, and a popular form of recreation. And the mullet was in those days a fish (Latin piscis, as in PISCes, the astrological sign) that was highly prized.
By the second century B.C., it was even becoming fashionable among wealthier Romans to keep pet fish in fresh- or salt-water pools called piscinae or vivaria (think reVIVe and VIVacious), literally "places for live creatures (like AQUaria, from Lat. aqua/water, "places for water creatures"). Mullets were especially cherished, and you can understand why if you’ve ever seen a school of them jumping three feet out of the water, playfully it seems, though actually to escape predators or possibly - scientists are unsure - to lunge for surface algae, one of their favorite foods, or shake off parasites.
Some doting owners were said to have valued their PISCine pets more than their farm animals and cared for them when they were sick as attentively as they did their slaves. Masters sometimes named their mullets, fed them by hand, and claimed the fish swam to them when called. Mullets are depicted in masterfully crafted mosaics at Pompeii along with other handsome AQUatic creatures.
The red mullet (Lat. mullus), actually related to the goatfish, was a favorite among PISCiVORes (like VORacious, from vorare/to deVOUR). Often farmed in private ponds, the fish typically brought an extravagant price and was recommended for its aphrodisiac as well as nutritional qualities. The ancients liked them char-grilled, and one recipe called for drenching in the widely used condiment garum, something like the Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam.
About 100 mullet species have been identified around the world, but especially common are the Mugil gyrans, or fantail mullet, the Mugil curema, white/silver mullet, and the Mugil cephalus, which has a host of common names, including the striped, flathead grey, or black mullet. This last species was well known in antiquity and valued as highly as the mullus.
Some Greeks and Romans preferred mullet from the sea, others liked fresh-water varieties. But the medical writer Galen remarked that the best came from bays fed by large rivers (exactly the situation in our little town of Apalachicola, Florida). One recipe called for browning the fish and sprinkling with salt and vinegar. And salted mullet roe - the caviar of the ancient world - was enjoyed by Romans, Egyptians, and other Mediterranean folk, as it is today in Greece, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, and the Far East. (The ancients also used the mugil in a non-culinary way to punish adulterers, inserting a whole fish with its spiny fins into the offender’s wazoo, a painful penalty that suited the crime.)
Nowadays some food snobs disdain the mullet as either too fishy, too bony, or just plain too cheap and thus supposedly not worth eating. But lots of southerners - Alice and I included - love it, are happy to have a healthy food option that’s inexpensive, and have long since found creative ways of serving it. Fried is always a favorite, but smoked mullet is a specialty of southern cuisine and you can find both the whole fish and smoked mullet dip - delicious on crackers - in Apalach and all along the Panhandle.
If you’re among those unfortunate few who don’t care to eat the fish, or to keep them as pets, there’s another fun option. Mullet tossing, while not quite yet qualifying as an Olympics event, has been for decades a favorite sport with beach-goers. The Blue Parrot restaurant on St. George Island, just across from Apalach, has for many years scheduled its Mullet Toss, a charity fundraiser, on the second Saturday of June. Mullet tossing is a major activity at the Swansboro, North Carolina, Mullet Festival, which has been held annually since 1954 and is upcoming again this October 12-13. The Flora-Bama Interstate Mullet Toss, staged each April between Perdido Key, Florida, and Orange Beach, Alabama, provides contestants and guest celebrities the unique opportunity of tossing a whole (deceased) mullet across the state line; the fish are fed later to the sea-birds or donated to the local zoo.
If you’re into throwing fish, take in one of these events and don’t be a mullet-head - which, in case you didn’t know, has been since the 1800s slang for a "brainless" person, so-called for the mullet’s characteristically flat noggin. The term ultimately inspired the Beastie Boys 1994 "Mullet Head" hit, which in turn renewed the popularity of that 1980s "cut the sides, don’t touch the back" mullet do: "pass me the comb, ‘cause I’m the mullet man."
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.