When money was tight at Sunshine School in Pass-a-Grille during the 1930s, a local fisherman raised cash by digging a pit, filling it with coals, tossing a bedspring over the top and cooking 40 mullet at a time to sell.
Captain Kenneth B. Merry is credited as the founder of the Fish Broil and Mullet Festival in St. Pete Beach, which celebrated its 82nd year on Oct. 20 at Hurley Park.
“All my grandfather knew was fishing,” said Janet Merry Weiss, 58. The cap'n and his wife Blanche raised Weiss on the Intracoastal Waterway. Sunshine School closed its doors in 1975, but the coals for the broil are rekindled every year. Saturday, the event was hosted by a private non-profit school, Montessori by the Sea on St. Pete Beach.
Weiss attended Sunshine herself. She remembers quaint fish broils behind the school cafeteria. One year, she set up a booth and sold whole cotton balls she got on a trip to Georgia. Life in Pass-a-Grille as a child was simple for Weiss — if she wanted to swim she’d jump off her dock, and if she wanted to set out on her boat, she’d jump in that, too. Living with a fisherman meant living off of food from the Gulf.
“Friday was steak night. The rest of the week was whatever fish my grandfather brought home,” she said. Merry would catch mullet right off his dock using a method called “snagging.” He’d make his own snags out of three hooks soldered together. You don’t need bait to “snag” a fish, only a quick pull of the arm.
In the 1920s, classes at Sunshine were held underneath palm-thatched roofs. Students would lie in the shade of cabbage palms during naptime, and recess was spent in the Gulf, which was less than a block away. Students and teachers came to class in bathing suits, learned how to handle boats, tie knots and swim.
During winter months, enrollment tripled. The seasonal influx of students increased the demand for school supplies, and the annual fish broil helped Sunshine (a tuition-free school) meet its financial needs.
Over the years, the fish broil has stayed true to its humble beginning — schoolchildren still romp around, parents still volunteer, and mullet still cooks on old bedspring coils.
“They used to use buttonwood to give it its flavor, now they marinate it,” Weiss said. Buttonwood is a shrubby mangrove native to Florida that burns slow and releases good heat and little smoke.
Nowadays, marinade is provided by Silas Dents Steakhouse, said Chris Wilson, one of the guys manning the pit. He's worked alongside the same group of “Mullet Men” ever since Montessori took over, all with beers in one hand and hats on their heads, occasionally checking on personal grills wafting the smell of steak through the park.
Supplies from the fish broil are donated by the community. It took two days to clean the 600 pounds of mullet donated this year by Madeira Beach Seafood, Wilson said.
Last year’s broil sold out of 450 pounds of mullet by 6 p.m. Event chair Karla Hollan said this year, no one had to be turned away. “But we had no leftovers to speak of,” she said.
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