Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 27, 2012

The Fine Points of ‘Rat Cleaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:16 pm

Ray Dushane shows Jim the Fine Points

Like it or not, I am going to talk about naked muskrats again. Turn away and cover your eyes, ye avoiders of meat, because I will be showing blood. Cover your ears, ye traditional meat eaters for you shall hear of eating “rat.” Speak not, ye “Stream of consciousness” talkers, for what I am about to discuss rat meat and ask that the phrase “ewwwww” not dominate your vocabulary.   I am doing this because the day after Christmas was muskrat preparation day at the Monroe Boat Club and I was there to assist in the preparation and I (as you may know if you are a regular reader) cannot not talk about muskrats for any extended period of time.

Father and daughter pick’n ‘rats

Some 200 muskrats awaited the cleaning crew at the Monroe Boat Club on that morning. It has been a long tradition to clean the carcasses on Dec. 26th and to serve them at a muskrat dinner on the following week. I brought my son Jim and daughter Katelyn along to assist in the cleaning. The ‘rats in question came from a trapper in Napoleon, Ohio and were already “cleaned” by most standards. The post-Christmas re-cleaning involved further removal of the so-called musk glands and all the fatty deposits (see here – re-cleaned ‘rat above and pre-cleaned ‘rat below). Once re-cleaned they will be par-boiled in water and later re-cooked for the actual dinner (served in a sea of creamed corn next to a mountain of mashed potatoes).

This year’s crop of muskrats were especially robust and fat. When these Napoleon ‘rats met their Waterloo they were well fed. We all agreed that one of the bodies looked more like that of a woodchuck than a ‘rat but it was processed anyway. Each carcass had to be probed and picked with proctolist-like precision. Under the shoulder blades, between the thigh muscles, inside the body cavity, along the back – there was no bodily space place un-examined by the cleaning crew.  It is a labor of love.

Jim was a first-timer at this and was placed right next to veteran ‘rat cleaner Ray Dushane in order to absorb all the fine points of the activity. Unfortunately this meant that all his ‘rats had to pass muster before being placed on the finished pile (see beginning picture – note extreme attention on his part). My daughter and I simply hid our products under the pile whenever we were tired of cleaning any particular carcass. Jim is now an expert but his hands still smell like muskrat fat.

My real reason for bringing all this up, however, is the opportunity to explain how one can love something and kill it at the same time. It is a chance to illuminate a fine point of cultural identity. I will fail at both because I have consistently failed at this in the past.

I have a book about muskrats floating around in my head. Once I get past the introduction the rest should flow – like a sink un-plugged by Draino or a toilet….never mind. The introduction remains my mental plug.  Because the book would deal not only with the muskrat as an animal (life, ecological relationships and all that)  but also with the muskrat as a cultural animal, there will be a lot of talk about dead muskrats. The identity of this creature is intimately tied with human culture. A majority of this connection concerns the pelt and the meat – which means that a majority of the muskrat/human interaction over the centuries involves live people and dead muskrats. Therefore, my job is to explain how one can literally love a creature to death and still love it in life.

Unfortunately, even the spiritual type connection requires that the poor little ‘rat must die. The muskrat saved the world in most versions of the Odawa Nanabozo tales but invariably dies in the attempt.  About the only live muskrats in human culture are the little known Jerry Muskrat tales of Thornton Burgess and that insipid track recorded by the Captain and Tenille.  Jerry and the Captain are not responsible for the special nature of the muskrat in the human world. To be perfectly frank, live muskrats tend to creep people out anyway simply because they are rodents (large mice) who live in marshes (mud) and have the word rat attached to their persona (confirming the presence of their naked tail).

You should be able to perceive my problem by this point in time. I have used way too many words in the effort to reach the point at which I can state my case. In fact, the previous sentence even uses too many words (such as the multiple use of “point”).  Let me just say it and be done. It’s time for the Draino to take effect, so to speak.  Muskrat love is a regional phenomenon involving a distinct cultural identity revolving around a particular animal in a particular place. It is the cultural equivalent of one of those pin-point icons that show a location on a Google map.

From the regional (S.E. Michigan) French-Canadian side of things, the muskrat provided both fur and food. Long after the beavers were gone, the muskrat provided. Because it was a water creature it could be eaten during Lent – saving many a starving Frenchmen during the War of 1812. The preparation of the carcasses reached the level of priestly preparation for the High Mass involving certain “must-do” steps. Secret family ‘rat recipes evolved and bridged the generations.

So, you see, the loss of the muskrat would be as culturally damaging as the loss of buffalo to western tribes, salmon to the N.W Natives or Crawdaddies to Louisianans. It would not be fatal but would result in the fraying of regional cultural fabric.  That is why we will never allow the muskrat to vanish and why we love the creature.

Wow, that was heavy, eh?  Just one more thing, just in case you are still holding out on this dead ‘rat thing. Muskrats reproduce like rabbits. It is near impossible to eliminate them and they will always have a place to die as long as a Frenchman has anything to say about it.  They – that is the species – will be dancing on our graves long after we are gone.

You are now ready to view this picture. Happy New Year.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, Gerry – I have a favor to ask. We are working on getting some professionally made interpretive signs for along one of our trails, and the company with which we are working is leaving something to be desired when it comes to photographs of the topic(s) described (they used tropical pitcher plants to illustrate jack-in-the-pulpit and crocosmia for cardinal flowers…I won’t tell you what they used for a green frog). The image they have used on the second set of proofs for the muskrat is some really questionable creature – it’s a rodent of some kind, but I’m not convinced it is a muskrat. BUT! When I think of muskrats I think of you, and I was wondering if (hoping that) you might have a photograph of a muskrat (that really shows the traits one looks for for muskrat ID in the field) that we can use.

    Thanks a bunch – Ellen

    Comment by Ellen — January 17, 2013 @ 11:40 am

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