Saturday, November 18, 2017
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Gulfport's Bob Worthington shares his secret recipe for fried mullet

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WHO: Bob Worthington, 64, of Gulfport, a retired Honeywell mechanical engineer, fire captain, vice mayor of Gulfport and council member; married with four children.

WHAT: Fried mullet.

ABOUT THE RECIPE: Worthington's family has been in Gulfport ever since his great-great-grandfather, a wounded Civil War soldier, "settled down by the shore" in 1865. He was the first white settler of Gulfport, and his family never left. He said he grew up learning to fish with the tides, catching clams and scallops or casting for mullet. Fried mullet is "what we grew up on," he says, adding that he and his five siblings often ate grits and mullet for breakfast.

Today, he and older brother Lou still fish as much as they can, although Bob says they "don't do it near enough."

As they cast for mullet in Lou's 22-foot Carolina skiff — Bob has a boat, too, but Lou says it's too fancy — they "just talk quietly" and "think about ideas." Fall is the best time for mullet fishing, since that's when the mullet are fat and full of roe.

In the spring, Bob fishes for shrimp in the grass flats near Fort De Soto, wading knee-deep in water during the night with only a spotlight to help him find the tiny crustaceans. When July comes, the brothers go scalloping at Horseshoe Beach, a tiny North Florida community with one restaurant and no stoplights. It's the ideal place to get away, Bob says. They snorkel in water that is about 5 feet deep and so clear and pristine they can see all the colorful sponges on the sea floor as they scoop scallops with a dip net.

Fishing isn't just a way for the brothers to bond. It's also a chance to connect with their community. The Worthington brothers serve their famous fried mullet at their annual February fish fry, as well as at Gulfport's Birthday Bash each October. The fish fry began as a birthday celebration for Lou's daughter, which she expanded into a canned foods drive. Now, politicians, neighbors and even family from Washington and New Jersey flock to the event for hush puppies and fried mullet. This year they had 175 guests.

"They love it," Bob says. Since he removes the skin before frying, it doesn't taste too fishy. Some people even say it's as good as grouper.

Hosting large gatherings "kind of came out of our roots," Bob explains. Growing up in a house without air-conditioning, the Worthington family escaped the sweltering summer heat by heading to the beach on Saturday nights. The whole community came out and had a picnic.

"All us kids would go play at the water … and everybody would sit down there till 9 or 10 o'clock at night just to be cool, just to stay out of the heat," Bob says.

ON THE SIDE: Hush puppies. "As easy as they are to fix, it seems to be a favorite," he says. At the last birthday bash, they made more than 1,000 hush puppies and still ran out. "I don't think I've eaten one in a long time because they keep going."

CAN'T FISH WITHOUT: Unsweetened iced tea. "We carry our iced tea everywhere with us. We make it fresh just about every day."

Emily Young, special to the Times

If you have a recipe that you would like featured, or would like to nominate other home cooks and their dishes, email [email protected]tampabay.com with a name and daytime phone number. Include SIGNATURE DISH in the subject line.

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