Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 13, 2008

Mushrat Love

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:17 am

  Meet John Pastor. The spry 82 year old is a member of the “Rock of Gibraltar” VFW Post 4230, Rockwood, MI.  I met up with Mr. Pastor last night at the Muskrat Dinner hosted by the post and asked him to pose next to one of his creations.  As a self-proclaimed lover of muskrats – alive and dead – I was attracted to the bright neon orange sign along Jefferson advertising a “Cajun Style” muskrat dinner. Between the sign and the building, by the way, is THE rock of Gibraltar for which the post is named (actually it is named for the close vicinity to the little town of Gibraltar which is named after the THE THE original rock guarding the Mediterranean).  

 I arranged to have my name placed on the guest list and showed up, in the company of fellow muskrat Frenchman Ralph Naveaux, with an appetite. Neither of us had experienced Cajun style ‘rat before.  There are a million traditional ways to serve up muskrat – nearly all involve parboiling in water with a variety of spices first.  The treatment of the meats upon the second cooking usually involves corn and onions, but can run the gamut of culinary endeavors. I don’t think anyone has had the audacity to make it into a fashionable or high class dish, since that would ruin the whole thing.  

  Ralph can claim an extensive range of experience in such muskrat eating matters, and I’ve been playing catch-up for the last 27 years. I am not going to explain (at this time) why Downriver and Monroe folks eat muskrats, only that they do it and that they do it with gusto.  

  After paying our fare and helping ourselves to a heap of creamy Cole slaw doled out with an ice cream scoop, our dinner plates arrived at our table.  The boys in kitchen served out the helpings from a large warming pan and a friendly member of the woman’s auxiliary brought it over to table no. 3. We uncased the plastic silverware and dove in – ignoring the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke drifting over from the bar.

  Cajun muskrat is served over noodles and looks like beef stroganoff. The only thing that betrays the real animal behind the feast was the presence of numerous limb bones that had to be worked out via intricate lip manipulations. The taste was very mild and roast beef-like on the palate with just enough spiciness to give it personality. Apparently part of the deal with serving up “marsh rabbit” (a euphemism for muskrat) in this manner is to completely disjoint the meats so that the legs are separated from the body. Normally the bodies are kept pretty well intact. I called over John, the cook, to get his perspective.

  “I’ve cooked muskrat every way possible,” he said, “and I just didn’t like it.  So, I got this recipe out of a book and thought I’d try it.”  He handed me the recipe from a Wild Game cookbook.  The “New Orleans Style Marsh Rabbit” was listed just above the “Braised Muskrat.” It called for muskrats that were de-glanded, disjointed, and floured along with a ton of spices such as garlic, cayenne, bay leaves, thyme and some red wine. He also handed me a packet of collected recipes with titles like “Ecorse Marsh Hare,” “Batter-Fried Muskrat,” and “Muskrat A’ La Duke Underhill.”  I could see that I had barely scratched the surface when it came to sampling different ‘rat dishes – even Ralph saw a few he hadn’t tried.

  Of course, the one ingredient all these recipes have in common is the lowly rodent itself.  John’s son Dave is an avid trapper and one of the few remaining genuine marsh rats around (calling someone that name is a good thing around these parts, in case you were wondering). All of the ‘rats for this dinner came directly from Dave’s trap line in the Pointe Mouillee Marsh. The Mouillee Marsh is literally next door to the VFW, so these muskrat meats were as fresh as you could get.

  The official muskrat trapping season in southern Michigan begins in early December and runs through the end of January. Sometimes the season is extended at Mouillee in an effort to control the over population of the fertile little beasts (they don’t call ‘em marsh rabbits for nothing). The major reason behind muskrat trapping is to harvest the furs, but the meats are a commodity in themselves and a traditional seasonal favorite of long standing.

  Now, I know what some of you are thinking and it’s O.K. to think that. As we approach the Lenten season, there will be many opportunities for you to savor muskrat meat at a variety of church, rotary, and hunt club venues.  One thing that is standard at all muskrat dinners is that they never just serve muskrat.  The VFW meal also featured spaghetti while others serve roast beef.  This is because not everyone likes the idea of muskrat as food. 

  I taunted a friend who was sitting up at the bar for not sampling the muskrat. Mike was nurturing a glass of beer and was in the process of solving all the problems of the world with a fellow patron. He said he’ll eat the stuff but finds it so rich that one bite fills him up.  “It’s amazing to me,” he said “that some folks will ask for another take out meal after they’ve finished this one. How can they do that?” Robin, one of the gals serving the floor, declared that she wouldn’t even think of touching one.  She laughed with a smoky gurgle when I offered her a piece. “It tastes just like smooth beef,” I said, but her return glance – accompanied by a wave-away hand motion – said in no uncertain terms that this meat was from a rat. She was helping herself to the spaghetti.

  It is fairly safe to say that women do not generally like muskrat and that the alternate dishes are for them.  I’ll even admit that a lot of men don’t like it either, but feel compelled to eat it out of duty to God and country. Neither of these statements are proven fact, but I pledge to conduct further research into the matter.

  It is a fact that this particular day began and ended in the vicinity of a muskrat.  In the morning I worked with a fresh road kill ‘rat – also a Mouillee ‘rat – and decided to document a few of its features. I’d like to share some of those morning muskrat observations with you, but this will have to wait until the next entry.

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