Fish meets flame

Fish cleaners work in the back as a variety of fish sit covered in ice at Captain Don’s Seafood on Savannah Highway.

At the end of a dirt road on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, past a man hand-making cast nets from cotton twine, a bevy of women lifting gospel music into the fall air, and a troop of Civil War re-enactors representing the blue Massachusetts 54th, I got my first taste of smoked mullet.

I’d come for the annual cultural day, which for a brief, bucolic afternoon packs descendants of Geechie natives onto the ferry that supplies access to the remote enclave of Hog Hammock and delivers them to the small hamlet’s social center by a repurposed school bus.

There, beneath wisps of green hardwood smoke wafting through the pendulous Spanish moss, stood a collection of local men tending a makeshift barbecue pit loaded with mullet, fresh caught from the adjoining creek, split through the back and slowly toasted a golden hue. We had them for breakfast over grits, the occasional attached roe sack a splendid treat.

Smoked fish is nothing novel. One can find it just about anywhere, from tin cans in the supermarket aisle to slabs of farmed salmon stacked by the truckload at the local warehouse store. It permeates most of the world’s culinary cultures. But this fish was different than the industrial American standard, less assertive and direct, delicate in texture and flavor, ethereally succulent. It was a far cry from the cut bait that was all I’d ever known a mullet to represent.

You could perhaps chalk it up to the historical charm and magical beauty of a place so special as Sapelo, but I returned to Charleston wondering why it didn’t predominate here. We possess a thriving African-American cultural legacy derived from the same origins as Sapelo, a fine-dining infatuation with all things smoked over glowing coals, and an abundant supply of the raw materials. Mullet jump in every creek that flows through the Lowcountry. Why then does the practice prevail from southern Florida to the Sea Islands of Georgia and then make an abrupt stop at the Savannah River?

Perhaps the answer could be traced to differences in state laws surrounding gill nets and river harvesting. We certainly differ from others in those respects, but I found mullet and other inappropriately named “trash fish” at local venues.

I stopped by Backman’s Seafood on Sol Legare Road and talked with the proprietor. “We don’t have none now,” he told me, “the man who used to bring them stopped coming. I guess he don’t catch them no more.”

Mark Marhefka, my trusted expert on all aspects of the fishery supply demurred, “I’m not sure where to get them this time of year, but I’ve got some smoked amberjack at the house if you want some.”

But a trip to Captain Don’s Seafood on Savannah Highway revealed an ample supply, “delivered yesterday,” they said. Buried in the ice was the lowly mullet alongside spots, croaker and whiting. As they took the tray, they offered what I assume is a standard response to someone from outside the neighborhood.

“You want them cut up for bait, eh?”

While smoked mullet has yet to catch fire in the South Carolina Lowcountry, chefs have certainly begun experimenting with the concept. Frank Lee of Maverick Southern Kitchens served a smoked mullet dip during last year’s Cook It Raw event, and other innovators are adopting the practice.

Chef Mike Lata of FIG and the Ordinary has long teamed with Marhefka to make use of by-catch that traditionally was less marketable than the prime fillets that grace the white plates of downtown eating houses. He uses smoking as a way to transform fish with high oil content as well as extend the life of the product in his kitchen.

“When Mark brings fish in, he often brings a lot of it,” Lata said. “We wanted a way to take that and stretch it over a longer period of time. We take all we can and smoke it immediately, straight from the boat.”

This not only enhances the flavor of oilier specimens such as amberjack and mackerel that, like mullet, were once considered undesirable by some. It also extends the life of the fish for two to three weeks as a form of preservation.

“That way we can use everything that he brings through the door, and that pays obvious benefits to the sustainability of a local fishery,” Lata added. “We smoke amberjack, porgy, triggerfish and even snapper at its peak freshness, then store it under vacuum. The meat from fish heads make an excellent pate.”

Local heritage guru, chef Sean Brock, mirrors the approach but looks to the formative culinary influences of the Atlantic World for inspiration.

“On my first trip to West Africa, when I was eating the food, I noticed that it triggered the same emotion as Lowcountry food but without pork,” he said. “They have this tradition of using herring that’s smoked with millet hay and then dried in the sun, and that’s a soul food thing. A lot of people in West Africa are Muslim and I think that those things got lost and replaced with pork in the New World.”

All I could think about was, why aren’t we doing this? At Husk and McCrady’s, they take local by-catch and preserve it in smoke.

“We’ll take things even further and bury it in rice after smoking,” Brock said. “We bury it in the cellar, introducing rice bacteria (katsobushi style), sort of like Italian botarga, then we grate it over rice or a stew of roasted oysters.”

If you have a bowl of gumbo at Husk, it most likely began its flavor journey with a smoked fish head.

Brock describes observing a symbiotic system of fishery and agriculture in West Africa that could serve as a model in the Lowcountry, where whole salted herring are landed for smoking while the farmers who provide millet straw for the process return to their fields with the guts and fish heads to enrich the land. Even the salt is retained for seasoning foods.

Interestingly, such symbiosis occurs on my farm every week when Mark Marhefka drops of a few hundred pounds of fish carcasses to be composted into fertilizer.

“It makes no sense to me,” Brock pondered. “It would help our fishing industry so much. If we had this as part of our cuisine. It would help the fisherman financially and also bring back that flavor ... there’s no way that all those Africans came here and didn’t use smoked fish.

“This relationship between artisans, fisherman, and farmers — we have to get that tradition back — that’s what happens when we lose that, flavors die,” he said.

We could begin with smoked mullet. A few fish scaled and split through the back, some salt and pepper, an old grill, hot sauce and a pack of saltines will get you started. Cold beer is the accompaniment of choice.

But smoked mullet, stirred into a little mayonnaise as a dip and piled on a fancy wafer, they could headline a Champagne buffet.

No matter the guise, what was once certainly a common practice in the area remains a barbecue tradition largely to be rediscovered. For your next backyard retreat, consider paying the folks at Captain Don’s a visit, steady the grill at 140 degrees, add some wood chips, and give them an hour and half on the smoke. You’ll have to flake the flesh from around the bones, but like the mullet themselves, it’s a cheap price to pay for a barbecue by the sea.