I didn’t quite know what to think when the petite waitress set down a plate of skillet-fried muskrat smothered in onions, a side of fries, a small bowl of stewed tomatoes, a piece of cornbread, and a glass of sweet tea.
I’d driven two and a half hours from Washington, DC, to Smyrna, DE, on a cold Tuesday night specifically to sample the seasonal downstate delicacy that some call “marsh rabbit” and I was definitely having my doubts. The pile of reddish-brown meat in front of me looked nothing like the deep fried, Muskrat McNuggets I’d expected.
For the record, I am not squeamish when it comes to food. I’ve eaten yak in the Yunnan, chitlins in Charleston, and frog legs in France. I jones for Slim Jims, even knowing the second listed ingredient on the wrapper is “mechanically separated chicken.” I like hot dogs.
They say that muskrat tastes a little bit like duck or rabbit. But they are wrong. Think about the gamiest animal you’ve ever eaten and then ratchet up the flavor intensity and add in a dash of liver. And this is after it’s soaked for three days to remove the “wild” taste. My dining companion refused to partake.
The smell alone made me queasy. It would linger on my fingers for hours until in a mad frenzy I soaked my hands in a cup of bleach.
Then there were the bones. Hundreds and hundreds of tiny bones, one of which lodged in my throat. I swallowed several whole stewed tomatoes to try and pass it, but all that did was cut off my breathing. Just as panic was setting in, the waitress brought me some cornbread and more sweet tea and that combination freed the impediment. Enough. No more muskrat for me.
I did, however, haul the carcass back to Rehoboth in a white Styrofoam container because one of my neighbors very much wanted to sample it. This gentleman – who shall remain nameless – remembers muskrat served at his family dinner table in Dover. Out it would come on a big white platter, accompanied by heads of boiled cauliflower. But the family cook didn’t cut it up and fry it. Oh no, she laid it out whole, which looked to a young boy back then very much like a red boiled baby.
After one bite of the muskrat, my neighbor grabbed a gin bottle, took a shot and gargled with it. He tossed the container out in the back yard hoping the feral cats or raccoons might enjoy a late night snack.
The Delmarva Peninsula is one of the few areas in the country where people today still eat muskrats. Michigan is another. Catholics in Michigan can substitute it for fish on Fridays during Lent in muskrat season, which runs roughly from December to March. Muskrat is usually roasted, baked, or stewed and served in a pie. It’s most definitely an acquired taste. The Tuesday night muskrat dinners in Smyrna are so popular you need a reservation.
Despite its name, the muskrat isn’t a true rat. It’s a semi-aquatic rodent found throughout most of North America in marshes, rivers, lakes, and ponds. It’s actually a clean mammal, given that its diet is primarily aquatic vegetation. Like the beaver, it will build lodges and burrows and dams in its habitat. An adult muskrat is between 16 and 24 inches long, half of which is tail, and it weighs anywhere from one-and- a-half to four pounds. It’s covered with short, sleek, thick, brown or black fur that is much used commercially. Muskrat is often called the poor man’s mink.
To eat a rodent was never one of my culinary goals. Frankly, the only thing I ever really knew about the animal before it greased my lips were the lyrics to that horrible song Muscrat Love. During the Ford Administration, The Captain and Tenille serenaded the Queen of England with it during a dinner at the White House. Reports say everyone broke into applause except the Queen, who did not approve of songs about rodents having sex.
Lest you judge the Queen too harshly, you should know that in 1974 Delaware legislators rejected an effort to name the muskrat as the state mammal. This despite the fact that residents of Delaware were nicknamed muskrats back in the mid 1800’s.
If you’ve read my columns over the years, you know how I get this thrill in seeking out what’s interesting, eccentric, flamboyant, fund, and tawdry about Rehoboth and downstate Delaware.
However, this time I think I went too far. To err is human, to eat a muskrat is not.