DELMARVA ALMANAC

Muskrat: A Marsh Delicacy

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Colonials learned about them from the native folk and the muskrat has been a favorite winter dish for locals ever since.

If you travel to the marshes of Delmarva during February you can see that the snow and ice have knocked flat much of the marsh grass revealing numerous hay mounds that are hidden from view the rest of the year. These are muskrat lodges.

Up through the early Twentieth century, like many other hunting and seafood traditions, trapping muskrat was big business here on Delmarva. Muskrat pelts were dyed and cut to look like seal fur. In the early 1900's 90,000 pelts a year were trapped near Leipsic. And by the late 1930's a quarter of a million muskrats were harvested annually in Dorchester County alone. Parts of the marshes there are burned every spring. Currently this practice is part of efforts to prevent phragmites and other types of invasive vegetation from taking over. But for a long time this was done just to make trapping muskrat easier.

The muskrat is a native species that can be found here and across most of North America. It is a rodent that grows to about 25 inches long and about 3-4 pounds in weight. Like other rodents they are extremely prolific. A mama muskrat can have as many as five litters of up to five pups a year. The muskrat performs an important job on the marsh, keeping marsh grass from choking waterways. But, when they are over populated they can do great damage. Though they mostly eat the grass, they are omnivorous, consuming shell fish and frogs. Predators that like to, in turn, eat them include foxes, raccoons, eagles, and other raptors. And of course peopleā€¦

Muskrat or marsh hare were an important part of Native American culture. Many tribes revered them in their creation myths with a common theme. When the earth was being formed, they believed that it was completely covered in water and the animals were all just floating around looking for a place to rest. Only the muskrat was smart enough to swim to the bottom and pile up the mud into mounds to form the first land. This myth was in part a way of honoring an animal that provided the meat and pelts which native peoples relied on.

Colonials learned about them from the native folk and the muskrat has been a favorite winter dish for locals ever since. Muskrat like other small game is most often stewed. Pretty much any way you would serve rabbit or squirrel, you can serve muskrat. With their strong muddy flavor, they can be an acquired taste for the uninitiated.

I must admit that I have not yet acquired one. In the early years of living here I had a neighbor who loved my dog and would take him from my yard - without asking me - to go swimming with his dog. When he returned with my very wet dog he would sheepishly offer something he had caught by way of apology. Usually it was fresh shucked oysters or clams, which I was happy to accept. Occasionally it would be a recently butchered muskrat which I am afraid I declined after my first taste.

For lots of people they are however delicious. I once had an employer who was extremely wealthy. Of all the delicacies he could afford to have, muskrat fried in butter was his favorite meal. A few seasons ago on a cable television food show the Wagon Wheel in Kent County, Delaware, was given a makeover. The show's host tried to convince the restaurant owner to take muskrat, a seasonal delicacy, off the menu. They knew it was expected by their loyal clientele, so they declined.

You don't have to be from a place like Delmarva to appreciate muskrat. In the late 1970's Captain & Tennille recorded "Muskrat Love" essentially a romantic children's song which became a big hit. They were invited to perform at the Reagan White House during a state visit by Queen Elizabeth II where they played that song. Some petty haters cried out in moral outrage that a song about animal sex should not be played for visiting dignitaries. Tennille essentially told them to get their minds out of the gutter.

Here on Delmarva the muskrat is celebrated at least twice a year. In Princess Ann on New Year's Eve, instead of a ball drop they have a muskrat dive. This is a once very real now stuffed muskrat dressed in top hat and tie, who has been named Marshall P. Muskrat. He is ceremoniously lowered by a fire department bucket to ring in the New Year.

And coming up on February 26 and 27th is the 71st Annual Outdoor Show in Golden, Maryland. This showcase of Eastern Shore heritage celebrates the people who live off the bounty found along the marsh. The event has competitions for International World championship: Muskrat, Raccoon, and Nutria skinning, as well as corn shelling, trap setting, and oyster shucking contests. They will have cooking demonstrations and plenty to eat: crab, oyster and chicken dishes. And, for the experienced and uninitiated alike: muskrat. Mmmmm.

References:


Restaurant Revisited: Muskrat Mayhem at Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant
Robert Irvine

In Princess Anne, the muskrat drops at midnight
The Daily Times

Muskrat Love
Wikipedia

Muskrat Love
YouTube

Muskrat
Wikipedia

Muskrat Legends of Native Americans

Muskrat
Ondatra zibethicus

Muskrat Facts
National Trappers Association

The Great Marsh: An Intimate Journey Into a Chesapeake Wetland
By David W. Harp, Tom Horton

National Outdoor Show
Official Site

The National Outdoor Show
Maryland State Arts Council

Delaware Bay Watermen
Google Books

Recipes
Everything Muskrat