Catchin’ and Cookin’ Muskrat
By Ken Rossignol
When traveling through the scenic small town of Princess Anne, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a visitor during the fall might notice the sign advertising the annual Muskrat Dinner.
For those lucky enough to have muskrats living along their shoreline and wondering what to do what those critters, a few words about what they are and what they aren’t might be helpful.
The fact is that they are splendid to eat. With that thought in mind, a couple of ways to cook up these critters is included with this article.
First of all, the name implies that the Muskrat is a rat or that it is musky. Neither is true.
Rats carry disease, muskrats do not. The muskrat is not a marsh rabbit. While it is a very distant cousin of a rat in that it is a rodent, the muskrat lives exclusively in riverbanks and marshes.
A family of muskrat’s lives in our seawall and a neighbor is interested in trapping them, but that would remove one of about a dozen determined critters and fowl that call our waterfront yard home from our daily parade of wildlife.
From the upper reaches of the Chesapeake at Harve de Grace down to the tip of Point Lookout, over to the Rappahannock and across to Cape Charles – in every tributary, creek and river of the Chesapeake region live the muskrat. We could likely feed a small nation if they were all rounded up at once.
The muskrat builds dome-shaped structures of cattails and reeds as well as burrow into riverbanks to survive the cold and harsh winters of the Chesapeake Tidewater region.
The major furriers are well-acquainted with the muskrat. Current prices available online show that Muskrat coats may retail between $1,000 and $1,500. Time to get out the traps!
If planning on shooting your resident muskrat, be careful not to nail him in the back as that is the best fur for making coats.
Muskrat coats are rated to be very warm, much like the mink, which generally costs more. One online fur coat expert gives advice on how to sell grandma’s antique muskrat coat and what to expect.
Others might believe shooting a muskrat in the head would be just the ticket. Not so.
When preparing the muskrat meat, first the hide is removed, leaving the carcass. All of the internal organs are removed as well as the genitalia. Be careful to clean out the cavity up into the neck as well. With no need for the feet, unless one is considering pickling them like pigs feet, cut them off as well. Cut off the tail and there could be some uses for that like attaching it to a child’s bicycle handlebar.
The head of the muskrat has now been skinned right down to the nose, including removing the eyeballs, extraneous whiskers and don’t forget the ears.
Here is an important step: soak ole Mr. Muskrat in cold saltwater overnight and give it a fresh water bath in the morning.
Now it’s time to cut up your muskrat carcass just like you would a chicken. But it won’t taste like chicken when you get done with it.
Your muskrat should now be in about seven excellent pieces to proceed with towards the end result of a great meal.
It is now time to parboil this soon to be a diner’s delight.
Fire up your kettle and toss the muskrat pieces in with salt and some dried red pepper flakes. Adding in fresh spices from your herb garden is a great addition. Sage, rosemary, thyme and parsley work well.
One of the reasons for this parboiling is to get the musk out of the rat and it’s a good idea to turn on the fan over your pot during this process. The herbs you added to it will not only help with the flavor but with the odor soon to overtake your kitchen. But you Tidewater folks are a tough lot and it’s a long time until the Princess Anne Fire Department Muskrat Dinner.
Smart chefs follow-up the next day with cooking one of the favorite, flavorful recipes the next day to replace the muskrat musk with a more pleasing aroma.
Now it’s time to get busy cooking your muskrat.
Use any shortening, olive oil, canola or another fat substitute for good old sausage grease kept in your can under the sink just for such an occasion.
Pull out your old iron skillet and fire it up, add your choice of grease and on a medium heat, cook your muskrat until the meat falls off the bones.
Remove the bones and continue to stir and when it’s done, serve it up for dinner.
After draining the par-boiled muskrat, place it in the aforementioned iron skillet (if you don’t have an iron skillet, how can you call yourself a cook?) with enough of your chosen grease to cover the bottom of the pan. There is no need to use flour or breading, you are cooking with oil! When it’s browned up and cooked good, it’s time to ring the dinner bell!
Now since you harvested plenty of meat from the headpiece, especially the thick neck of the muskrat, it’s time to consider what to do with the rest of the head – the brain.
People who live down by the marshes assign the task of cracking the skull open to the children. They use a wooden mallet and pluck out the cooked brain meat which is what the Marsh People call Muskrat Nuggets and the kids chomp them down with wild abandon. Most adults skip the Muskrat Nuggets except for those like me who love brains & eggs and grits. We apparently will eat anything.
Since you clearly are not in a restaurant, you will have to decide on side dishes yourself.
Fall and winter vegetables include kale, spinach, celery and cabbage and with lots of carrots available, as well as sweet potatoes in a variety of ways, your dinner menu is complete. Don’t forget to make some cornbread or spoonbread.
This process leaves a tasty meal of good meat and the “gameness” was removed by the parboiling process. This is about the best darn eating you’ll ever enjoy.
(This story is one of 53 in THE CHESAPEAKE: Oyster Buyboats, Ships & Steamed Crabs – Available in Kindle, paperwhite and Audible at iTunes, Amazon, and Audible