Roger Cleckler’s backyard in Warrington is about as far removed from the dining room at Jackson’s Steakhouse as you’re liable to get without leaving Pensacola.
If Palafox Street, with its trendy eateries and blossoming boutiques, represents everything to which this city’s elites aspire, Roger’s world represents most of the things they’re trying to forget. This is Old Pensacola: fish fries and bar brawls, mullet nets and Southern drawls. It’s what comes to mind when folks hear the phrase (insert trigger warning for tourism executives here): “Redneck Riviera.”
If there’s one thing that unites these two, otherwise very different realities, it’s probably mullet. And Roger, well, Roger is the Mullet Man. He’s one of the last folks in the area who still smokes the fish the old-fashioned way, over logs of pecan wood. It was through Jackson’s, of all places, that Roger and I first met. Irv Miller, the restaurant’s founding executive chef, uses Roger’s fish to make his smoked mullet dip. Irv wrote the book, quite literally, on Panhandle food culture, and we’ve had many beer-fueled conversations about what, exactly, that phrase means.
I’m not sure we’ve reached a verdict. That’s the funny thing about culture: We tend to see it everywhere but in our own backyard. That’s probably true of any place, but it seems especially true in the South, where our backyards are planted with as many corpses as camellias.
For many, to be Southern is to be proud. But, for just as many, it is to be conflicted. You don’t have to look far to see this tension. Just look at mullet. In the pantheon of Panhandle food deities, few fish loom so large. We fry mullet. We smoke it. We toss it across the state line into Alabama like it’s an Olympic sport. We shovel it down our gullets with hushpuppies and cole slaw and wash it down with a swig of Flora-Bama rum punch. We worship the stuff.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find many chefs who’d brag about fried mullet, say, in the pages of Bon Appetit. I think that’s a damn shame, because, when I think about mullet, the memories that come to mind are some of the most pleasant of my life. I think about summers spent with my great grandfather in Navarre, Fla. He was a master with a cast net, and I’d spend hours with him on the docks, just watching him work. He’d coil the rope in his hand, gather the net over his arm, clench the leading edge between his teeth, pivot and, then, release.
The net would expand in a perfect circle and sink to the bottom of the bay. Then, he’d pull it in, hand over hand, hauling his catch onto the dock with a drip and clatter: Silver fish wriggling in the sun. And, then, we’d eat.
My grandfather passed a long time ago, and he took his knowledge with him. Every generation, it seems, the net toss gets more sloppy, the catch smaller, and the fish fries a bit more sparse, until finally, they’re just gone. These days, I couldn’t cast a mullet net to save my life, and I don’t know many folks from my generation who could. In fact, the closest I’ve come to those summer fish fries was at Roger’s place.
Roger and I first met in the summer of 2016, after I called to interview him for a short film I was producing about Irv’s mullet dip. For years, Irv had sourced his mullet directly from Roger, who smoked it using a family recipe at his welding shop off Gulf Beach Highway. Irv gussied it up and served it on a white table cloth, a little bit of Old Pensacola to remind the new where it came from.
This enigmatic dip is my favorite dish in all of Pensacola, because of what it stands for as much as how it tastes. (In case you’re wondering, it tastes like a beach bonfire in autumn: all salt, smoke and nostalgia). Within 10 minutes of picking up the phone, Roger had invited my videographer and I to join him and his family for a fish fry. When we arrived, he was already frying hushpuppies on his back porch.
Roger looks like a cross between Mark Twain and Panama Jack, all mustache, mischief and wide-brimmed hat. He talks like a poet, his voice weighed down by rhythm and feeling, and his stories are as profane as they are profound.
On this particular night, Roger was joined by his family, a smattering of friends and a roving band of pit bulls and goats, Among the friends was Troy, who is one of the last working mullet fishermen in Pensacola. Troy can trace his seafood heritage all the way back to the E.E. Saunders Fish Co., where his forbears fished for snapper in the early 20th century, when Pensacola was still known as the “Red Snapper Capitol of North America.” He had hauled our supper from the bay just hours beforehand.
As we sat around the fire, we talked about mullet, memory and Old Pensacola. Roger, now retired, spent most of his life in this neighborhood. He grew up fighting sailors in the bar rooms off Gulf Beach Highway and diving for scallops in the seagrass beds off Perdido Key — back when the area was still home to scallops, and seagrass and fighting sailors.
Roger’s family, like his neighbors’, relied on the bay for sustenance. And they ate a lot of mullet: fried, smoked, pickled. It was a staple.
“My dad passed away in ‘75,” Roger told me. “Before that, we used to go over to that railroad trestle in the winter time, going over to the Naval Air Station, and just catch white trout like it was going out of style. Cut a piece of cut bait. Just be able to do it, man. Same time, the mullet was so abundant. That’s when anybody could go over there with a cast net and have dinner, or more.
” Mullet was the everyman’s fish. You didn’t need a boat to go get it. If you had a functioning set of legs and a net, you could wade out into the bayou and bring home supper. To me, that’s something worth celebrating.
To be a mullet-eater is to be Southern. And, yes, to be Southern is to be conflicted. It is to grapple with a history that sometimes seems so heavy with the weight of blood that it’s easier just to leave it all behind and start fresh. But to be Southern means other things, as well. At its best, it means to be generous, grounded, self-reliant. It means fish fries and bonfires and inviting strangers over for supper.
And that’s something worth protecting. It’s certainly something worth putting on our menus.
Irv realizes this.
“Besides the fact that Roger’s mullet is absolutely smoky and delicious,” he told me once, “I also want to support him in his efforts to keep that tradition alive.”
That makes two of us.
Waiter, I’ll take the smoked mullet dip, please.