Muskrat

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When most people think of the muskrat, their mind turns to the tedious son made popular in the 1970’s by The Captain and Tinnille, but it is much more along the shores of the Chesapeake.

Lyrics to Muskrat Love:

1972 song by Willis Alen Ramsey

 

Muskrat, muskrat candlelight
Doin’ the town and doin’ it right
In the evenin’
It’s pretty pleasin’

Muskrat Susie, Muskrat Sam
Do the jitterbug out in muskrat land
And they shimmy
And Sammy’s so skinny

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love

Nibbling on bacon, chewin’ on cheese
Sammy says to Susie “Honey, would you please be my missus?”
And she say yes
With her kisses

And now he’s ticklin’ her fancy
Rubbin’ her toes
Muzzle to muzzle, now anything goes
As they wriggle, and Sue starts to giggle

And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ the jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love

La da da da da …”

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Rodentia

Super family: Muroidea

Family: Cricetidae

Sub-Family: Arvicolinae

Tribe: Ondatrini

Genus: Ondatra

Species: O. zibethicus

 

                Recent Archeological studies of the Chesapeake region have determined that up to 40% of the meat eaten by early colonial settlers was wild game.  Most of this was in the form of white tailed deer; however there is a shocking variety of animals eaten during this period.  It is quite natural considering that a variety of food sources not only offered a more balanced diet, but was also less prone to disastrous shift is availability and crop failure.  The United States at the time of British colonization was actually going through a miniature ice age due to the violent volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean

                Wild game such as muskrat, rabbit, squirrel and turtles were readily available and easy to procure.  This is relevant since most of the colonists time was spent tending to cash crops of sotweed or tobacco.  The financial survival of the colonies was dependent on this crop.

                Muskrats are the most abundant aquatic mammal in the Chesapeake region and an indication of the importance of the muskrat to early colonial diets, the Catholic Church issued a longstanding disposition allowing muskrat to be consumed on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent proclaiming that the muskrat is equivalent to fish since it lives in the water. 

                Early settlers tried to make a major export out of another wild animal in beaver pelts.  This enterprise was also beneficial to the Native Americans, but was later replaced by the demand for tobacco in Europe.  Most game meat was eaten fresh, due to the lack of preservation, and smaller game animals actually worked quite well as a pragmatic solution to the colonist’s daily diet. 

                Mid – Atlantic diets shifted by the first half of the eightieth century as beef and pork became the predominant sources of meat in the diet.  Wild game and fish dropped off dramatically in part due to the lack of value the meat commanded.  In the volatile tobacco market domestic animals such as cows, pigs and chickens were seen as a financial buffer for settlers and could easily be passed on to future generations in wills and estates.  The abundance of meat in the colonial diet was available to even the poorest planters, so the need to procure wild game such as muskrat, goose, turkey, deer and duck, became less desirable as more time was spent harvesting a living out of the tobacco fields. 

                The muskrat as a food source is said to have come into being because of slaves who hunted the creature at night. Often times, slaves were given substance foods such as rice or cornmeal and had to provide proteins for themselves, or live off the scraps of the main house.  In order to supplement their diets, many took to nocturnal hunting and made stews and other dishes from nocturnal animals.  After the Civil war in the war torn south, this method was also adapted by many who had to live off of the land in order to survive.  The cuisine of the slaves was adopted by many in the south after the Civil War and became the basis for Southern and low country cooking. 

                Referred to as Marsh rabbits, the season for hunting Muskrat is very limited to January and February.  On the Eastern Shore, they are simply referred to as “rats.”  Traditional accompaniments include hot biscuits, scalloped potatoes and stewed tomatoes.  Muskrat meat must be salted at least 4 hours before it can be cooked to remove the strong gamey flavor.  Another delicacy can be made from the pan drippings, a concoction referred to as “rat” gravy.

                Muskrat is a type of rodent that can be found in most of North America.  It lives in swampy or marsh like lands.  It primarily feeds off of cattails and grasses, but has been known to become predatory and eat small aquatic life as well.  The average muskrat weighs up to four pounds and was sought after for its fur as well as a food source.  Even today, the muskrat is sought out as a source of fur, but more often than not discarded as a food source. 

                The musky odor for which it is named is a yellow fluid that excretes from the perineal glands and is used to mark the territory of the muskrat.  The muskrat makes its home in burrows that can be spotted easily in overgrown shorelines of the Chesapeake.  They can stay submerged under water for up to twenty minutes in search of food or hunting aquatic life and can swim at a speed exceeding three miles an hour. 

For a brief period following the Civil war muskrat pelts found a market in fashion centers and the demand for these aquatic pests became profitable.  At one time, St. Michaels, Maryland had its own fur house in St. Mary’s Square.   The muskrat has fallen into disuse as a food source since it requires special skills to butcher and most home cooks no longer possess these skills.  Only a few people on the Eastern Shore still keep the tradition of this recipe alive and at the end of the Twentieth century, this recipe is destined to soon fall into extinction.  Even now it is seen as more of a novelty dish as opposed to a heritage dish in the Mid-Atlantic. 

                There is no one dish which represents the muskrat, like most game it can be fitted into any number of preparations.  Like most meat based dishes, muskrat does not require any chemistry as in baking and pastry arts, so a definitive recipe is not necessary.  Muskrat meat can be purchased already cleaned, but you should buy it fresh in the beginning months of the year, otherwise it will be frozen and can lose some of its characteristic flavor and texture.  When purchasing exotic game such as muskrat, do your research on the seller.  While muskrat can be legally harvested and hunted during January and February in the Mid-Atlantic, like with anything, you want to make sure it was harvested from a non-contaminated source. 

The Basic Recipe for Preparing Muskrat:

 

Dutch Oven Muskrat[1]

1950’s

 

Soak 3 skinned and cleaned muskrats in salted water overnight.  Then cut in pieces, place in Dutch oven, adding enough water to keep from sticking, add about:

 

½ Small Onion, Cut Up                                                 

Sage, Red Pepper, salt and Black Pepper to Taste

 

                (They should be highly seasoned).  Simmer until very tender.  When done place into large frying pan and cook in bacon grease until cooked through.  Meat will probably fall from bone.  Will serve 4 – 6 persons                                                                                                      

Anne B. Brown

 

When cleaning a muskrat, if the perineal glands are punctured the musk will contaminate the meat, this can be remedied by soaking the muskrat meat in salted water for a few days.  Change the water often to get rid of the musk. 

                A common way of preparing muskrat is to cook it in bacon grease as mentioned above.  This was a common ingredient in colonial kitchens and was a staple in most kitchens up until the 1950’s.  Really good home cooks keep the dripping from fatty meats to use as oil for pan frying.  Keep a mason jar in the fridge to keep you drippings and it will pay you in dividends. 

                Soaking the muskrat meat is a common addition to the preparation of the dish, but is not necessary if you buy the meat already cleaned.  Muskrat has a strong distinctive flavor and soaking it will lessen the shock in some people.  I don’t soak it, but I also prefer to eat things as they are supposed to be. 

                The American palette is considerably bland compared with most cultures around the world.  Consider learning to appreciate the wide variety of flavors available in the culinary world.  It will seem strange at first, but gradually you will grow to appreciate a wide variety of proteins and vegetables which will lead to much greater diversification in your diet.  I strongly recommend stepping outside the beef, pork, and chicken rut that we have gotten ourselves into.  There is an amazing variety of products available to us; we should not shy away from any of them because of food phobias. 

 

 

Maryland – Cooked Muskrat[2]

1964

 

2 Cleaned Fresh Muskrats                                                          

1 Small Onion, Sliced

2 Teaspoons Salt                                                                             

4 strips Salt Bacon or Salt Fat Pork

½ Teaspoon Pepper                                                                       

½ Teaspoon Sage

3 to 4 Tablespoons Flour

½ Cup Bacon Fat

 

                The muskrats should be soaked overnight in salted cold water (about 1 tablespoon salt to enough water to cover the meat.)  Than boil in clean salted water.  Cool and remove head.  Cut remainder of muskrat into portions like a frying chicken.  Sprinkle each piece with a little salt, pepper and flour, and fry in bacon fat which has been heated in a heavy double oven type of roasting pan or saucepan.  Turn meat until brown on all sides.  Then add sufficient water to cover the meat and also add onion slices of bacon, 2 teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and sage.  Cook slowly for two hours or until all the water has cooked down and meat is dry and browned a little.

                If gravy is desired, add a cup of cold water mixed with 1 tablespoon flour to pan after removing meat.  Scrape bits from pan and cook until thick and hot.

 

This is a similar preparation to the one above but clearer in detail for those of you starting out.  If you are not brave enough to prepare this dish in your home, there are other options.  A good way to try this dish is to go out to one of the many restaurants along the Eastern Shore and Baltimore which specialize in this dish when it is in season.  Many people make a pilgrimage to these places every year to satisfy their craving for wild and exotic cuisine.

You can also attend one of the many outdoor festivals such as the one in Dorchester County, or even as far north as Ontario, Canada, where muskrats are skinned and served.  They even hold competitions on skinning muskrats.  This can be seen in a movie from 2006 called “Muskrat Lovely.”  The film is not for the faint of heart, but is a real opportunity to see where food comes from and how it is prepared before it reaches the store shelves.

The decline of this dish can be seen as indicative of our disconnection with the food we eat and the processes from which it is prepared.  So in the depth of winter, if you feel like a hearty stew, consider the muskrat.

P.S.  I apologize if that song gets stuck in your head now.  😉


[1] Personal Recipes from Women’s Society of Christian Service: North American Press Circa 1950

[2] My Favorite Maryland Recipes by Mrs. J. Millard Tawes: Random House Publishing 1964

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About midatlanticcooking

Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for over 20 years. Painter, writer and traveler.
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3 Responses to Muskrat

  1. Pingback: Should The Muskrat Get Be Getting Bad Press For Being A Muskrat? « docdavis15

  2. Pingback: Follow the Water: An Introduction to Mid-Atlantic Cooking | midatlanticcooking

  3. Fay Freeman says:

    Thanks so much for the recipes on muskrats. My Mom cooked them when I was a child….she made the best muskrat gravy! Wish I had gotten her recipe.

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