So I posted on Facebook:
Andrew is my 10 year old son.
I wasn’t going to elaborate further on FB, nor did I even intended to bring this up on my blog (it would seem to be somewhat inappropriate for a food blog) but I feel like I must TRY to explain, since I’ve had 5 friends decline invitations to come over for dinner since that unfortunate posting.
Let me back up. It all started with an illegal fish stand on the side of a rural highway + a 10-foot plywood board with spray-painted, neon orange large letters advertising their catch.
Wow, I’m just making it worse, huh?
Okay, so I live 10 miles “out east” which means I’m outside of the city limits, in a more rural area. My neighbors all have delicious-looking pets grazing and staring at me suspiciously when we drive by everyday (I think they can sense that I’m a good cook and that I have great plans for them.)
The way from town to home involves driving a 10-mile, 2-lane highway. We share the road with massive 10-wheelers transporting precious cargo, most of the time oranges from the groves across the state. This is a highway that is a speed-demon’s friend – there rarely are cops, the road is a straight shot with and there’s never any traffic. Passing is allowed and happens often. Everyone is in a hurry. Everyone is late. Everyone is impatient.
The most dangerous aspect of this 2-lane road isn’t driving fast – it’s the dumb people who think they can pass the slower cars by going into oncoming traffic lane. But as fast as these idiots are going, they fail to realize that the cars going the other way are DRIVING JUST AS FAST and someone has to swerve back in. I’m afraid to drive too fast, terrified to drive too slow.
A couple of months ago, this local family set up shop on the side of this highway. They had their pickup truck hooked up to a smoker and advertised
“SMOKED MULLET FOR SALE.”
Mullet fish here in the warm waters of Tampa Bay are plentiful – during the winter months of November – January, the mullet fish run thick. They are prized for their rich roe (eggs or caviar), which is then exported to Asia and Italy. The mullet is a plain looking fella, not especially tasty itself, and considered a “lowly” fish….I mean, when was the last time you ordered a fish whose name resembles a horrid 80’s haircut?
But the mullet isn’t prized for its flesh anyways. The roe commands exorbitant prices as a delicacy – “karasumi” in Japan and “bottarga” in Italy.
If you’ve dined in Italy, you might be familiar with bottarga, which is salted-cured, sun-dried roe that is grated to top pasta. The price is about $80 for a pound.
In Japan, it’s prepared the same way, and either grated or sliced as a natural sake pairing – one of these babies can cost $300 in Japan!
Harvesting the mullet roe is incredibly lucrative for Florida fisherman, who sell it to packaging companies and export it. During the “Mullet Run” fishermen from all over Florida converge at Cortez Fishing Village, one of the very last true fishing villages in the Gulf of Florida. Mullet travel in massive schools, and they leap, jump, skip above the water.
In fact, you just have to see how ridiculously high they jump:
(the guy’s youtube video has a 14 second ad – just bear through those 14 seconds, YES – the video is worth it.)
The female fish are sliced open, and a golden yellow egg sac about the SIZE OF MY HAND slithers out. Cha-ching! What about the rest of the fish? Well, there’s a small market for smoked mullet. But it’s a “Florida thing” and even then it’s mostly a “side-of-the-road” operation like I encountered near my house or at best a “fish shack” or farmer’s market thing.
I swear, I’m getting to my story back to fish sperm.
The cars were whizzing by way too fast to just casually pull over to investigate the sale. You’d certainly cause an accident if you even THOUGHT about slowing down. But I was curious. I wanted roe. The last time I had bottarga was 4 years ago at Giuliano Hazan’s (the late, great, Marcella Hazan’s son) house for dinner. Giuliano shaved the Italian imported bottarga over hand-made pasta that he had just finished cooking.
Pulling over requires forethought. There’s no shoulder on the road. Just asphalt, 4-inch yellow paint, then it drops off into unknown territory of roadkill remains, grass, dirt, holes, snakes, opossum, skunk and armadillo. (I’m really not painting a good picture of where I live, am I?)
To make this happen, I have to judge how much further before the Mullet People (the only landmarks keep moving and grazing on fresh grass) and steadily and slowly decrease my speed without braking — so that the cars behind me really don’t notice and that I don’t start a passing frenzy. It takes me 5 days of our daily drive to town to calculate distance, speed….waiting for the perfect opportunity and conditions to execute (average mass of cars behind me÷ by distance between each car + estimated age of drivers x square root of earth’s rotation + distance of the accelerated object coming from other lane.
There’s a sense of urgency – what if the Mullet People (great band name btw) sell out and don’t come back tomorrow?
Finally, the perfect storm. The angels above sing, there is ample room between me and all cars, so I pull over. There was a man and woman.
“Hi there! Do you have any mullet roe?”
“We don’t have any here, but I can bring some tomorrow.”
“Great – how much?”
“Oh I don’t know. How about $25 for 2 bags of 5 pounds each?”
*quick calculation* SCORE! $25 for 10 pounds!! Do these people not know the value of mullet roe!???? Me, cooly: “Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
For the next 24 hours, I research salt curing and drying the roe. I have come up with no less than 8 different recipes and various applications for my bargain roe. Which of my friends were worthy of getting some of this fine Steamy Kitchen Bottarga.
I show up the next day with $25 in cash plus a $5 tip. The lady hands over 2 gallon-sized bags: “Here’s your mullet white roe!”
Okay. I should have surveyed the situation instead of getting caught up in the excitement of cheap fish eggs.
1. Her little mullet stand was an illegal operation. No license to cook and sell.
2. Every time a cop car passed, she pretended to fix a “flat tire”
3. The absurdly low bargain price should have been a big red flag
4. Mullet roe is golden yellow, like a beautiful fading sunset color, NOT white
5. As I drove away and looked back in the rearview mirror, she gave her partner a high-five
Unfortunately, despite #1 through #5, I proceeded onwards with the intention of salt-curing. One bag went into the freezer, one bag to cure.
I powered up my laptop, sat on the kitchen counter with this bag of white roe staring at me and searched “Mullet White Roe” to see if the recipe would be the same.
The first result, Florida Sportsman says, “The white variety comes from male fish and is, technically, not roe, although it wears that name. It’s good, too, but not so richly flavored as the eggs it was meant to fertilize.”
UM, GEE. YOU MEAN SPERM!?????????????
Are you kidding me? I bought 10 pounds of fish sperm to eat?????? (I know, there’s a bridge you want to sell me, right?)
I was SO furious.
Was there a way to salvage the situation at all? What if Mullet Sperm….errrr….I mean “White Roe” actually tasted delicious? My ignorance would prevent me from enjoying one of earth’s finest delicacies? High-end, authentic Japanese sushi restaurants sometimes serve cod fish sperm or “Shirako”- which translates to “white offspring” (very effective naming) as a very special dish – Kathryn Hill at The Kitchn even had it.
But there was a massive difference:
|From lowly,bottom feeding, skanky fish, called Mullet
in warm tropical waters of Florida.
|From highly prized Black Cod Fish in cold Atlantic waters.|
|Picked from the discarded remains.||Carefully harvested and reserved.|
|I’ve never seen it on any menu.||Usually not on the menu. You have
to know somebody to have access to this traditional
Japanese delicacy.Special dish for a sushi chef’s best customers.
|Pan fried on back of a fishing boat. Tabasco and
crackers. Cheap beer to wash it down.
|Cleansed with salt, gently steamed in a dashi broth, mirin
and soy sauce, served with miso soup and seaweed.
|$25 for 10 pounds||$25 for 6-ounces|
|Also known as Florida Redneck Roe||Also known as Milt|
No amount of tabasco and Ritz covered up the taste of “White Roe.” (Yes, I did try it)
The entire bag went down the garbage disposal, I didn’t even want to compost the thing – for fear that my one day my tomatoes would taste like….ohnevermind.
So that was 2 months ago.
Four days ago, while rummaging in my freezer, I found the other 5-pound bag of fish sperm. Oh yeah,
I had forgotten about that Erased the horrid memory of Florida Redneck Roe.
Its fate would be the same as its brothers and sisters (literally) – down the drain. I put it in the extra refrigerator in the studio to defrost – on the top shelf so that we wouldn’t accidentally grab it.
Silly me, I had forgotten about it again. It’s not every day that I remind myself, “oh, I have fish sperm defrosting.”
The next day, Andrew opened the refrigerator in the studio to grab a drink. As he opened the refrigerator……well, let’s just say that the bag of wiggly, jiggly, liquidy, Mullet fish sperm sacs fell over while defrosting and was probably leaning against the door. So as Andrew opened the door, the bag of sperm broke open while falling ON TOP OF HIM. ALL OVER HIM. His hair, his face, his body, his feet.
I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream in horror. My poor 10-year old son doesn’t even know what SPERM is.
I ordered the soaking, dripping, sticky Andrew to disinfect himself and shower. I sent Nathan off to get some old towels to clean up the mess.
The boys knew it was raw fish. And I didn’t further elaborate, fearing that disclosing the “FISH SPERM” detail would only one day cost $$$$$ in therapy bills.
Something this bizarre doesn’t happen unless the stars are aligned just right. So, that’s the story, the very long story about why my studio still smells a little fishy despite 6 different air fresheners, 3 boxes of baking soda and a 2-pack of Febreeze.