The residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are a pragmatic bunch, especially when it comes to what they put in their mouths. Isolated from the rest of Maryland and Virginia by the rumpled expanse of the Chesapeake, traditions die hard here, largely unmolested by the aggressive grasp of invading high-tech modernity. Up until the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, it took a concerted effort and a ferry trip to arrive in the marshy flatlands, punctuated by peeling-paint communities and sagging colonial manses. People mostly lived as they had for a hundred, two hundred years, farming, fishing, and supplementing their diet with what the land could provide when the money hidden in the Chock Full O’ Nuts can ran low.
There are plenty of places on the Eastern Shore where these hardscrabble ‘foodways’ persist, sometimes because of seclusion, sometimes because of tradition, and sometimes just plain stubborn unwillingness to ‘throw away good food’. Often, these Eastern Shore recipes include ingredients that seem at best unpalatable to our modern tastes, and at worst, simply repulsive. Why would you eat, say, something whose actual name reveals its humble origins (scrapple) when you could have a lovely choice cut of organic beef/chicken/pork that’s been tidily divorced from its host animal and prettily arranged with no trace of blood, skin, fur, or a face? The romantic answer would be to say the Eastern Shoreman (or woman) lives off the land, eschewing modern conveniences in favor of ‘a simpler way’ of life. The more realistic answer might be that this is just the way it IS here. Why buy something when you can catch it yourself, and especially when what you’ve been raised to crave isn’t available in the grocery store anyway? Sure, you might enjoy the process, too, but when it comes down to it, when was the last time you saw muskrat on the menu at your local diner?
Even Uncle Sam loves muskrat, too, especially served on porcelain and silver.
Muskrat is one of the quintessential staples of the Eastern Shore diet that has persisted as a local dish even while arguably ‘better’ substitutes have become widely and inexpensively available. Muskrat, for those of you that don’t spend a lot of time out on the Chesapeake in a kayak, is a medium-sized, semi-aquatic rodent indigenous to North America. They have thick, soft fur, a scaly, slightly-flattened tail that propels them through the water, and bright orange front incisors. They live in marshes and shallow tribuatries, and build lodges of mud and reeds. Often, you can observe them as they swim through the water, pushing little rafts of cattails and reeds efficiently before them like slickly undulating tugboats.
For generations, Eastern Shore folk have been trapping muskrats for their oily, plush fur that has been demanded by sleek bipedal sophisticates since the 17th century. Fashioned into coats, hats, muffs, and mittens, muskrat fur was one of the first successful economic ventures in the new Chesapeake colony (eclipsing sassafras root, another early export which was peddled as a aromatic but ineffective 1600’s cure for venereal disease), and for the first hundred years, was primarily trapped by Indians. Colonists, in a rare moment of self-awareness, realized the Indians were far superior at locating and procuring the furry little rodents. As the crown began to parcel and sell acreage in the best trapping areas in the 17th century for tobacco plantations, wealthy white investors involved in the fur trade purchased the properties solely so the Indians could continue to hunt without interference.
A muskrat muff for the discerning lady of fashion.
As it turned out, hundreds of muskrat pelts meant hundreds of pounds of muskrat meat. Traditionally, muskrat was part of the indigenous diet, and Chesapeake Indians continued to consume the greasy, pungent carcasses, generally in stewed form. As the Indian population was dispersed, assimilated, killed, or lost to disease by then 18th century, whites continued the practice of muskratting, though the boomtime of endless furs supplied to England were over, and the price for muskrat fur climbed or fell according to the follies of fashion. They also continued to eat the muskrats they trapped, once the valuable pelts were removed. But muskrat remained a very aquired, intensely regional taste, and never really caught on as a common dish outside of Chesapeake backwater towns.
This exerpt from American Fox and Fur Farmer Magazine from 1921 explains why:
Muskrats, as you may have gleaned from the article, are strong-tasting. This is due to their high fat content, which makes for a greasy dinner, but also because of their musk glands, which if not removed correctly, can saturate the meat with an ungodly pungent reek. The article continues:
In short, there is more than one way to skin (and cook) a muskrat.
But surely this must be a dead, or dying, tradition, right? No one possibly eats rodent these days unless they have to.
Au contraire! Muskrat trapping, skinning, and cooking is alive and well on the Delmarva Peninsula (DELaware, MARyland, and VirginiA). In fact, an annual festival, the National Outdoor Show in Dorchester County, Maryland, celebrates the tradition, and a recent documentary, Muskrat Lovely, followed the festivities and challenges of the event:
Not only are contestants judged for rapidity and skill in trapping and skinning muskrat (which, if you remember, if done incorrectly will ruin the meat), but there are cookoffs and the highlight of the celebration, a beauty contest. Perhaps nothing underscores the continuing importance of the muskrat tradition then the development of a celebration that raises lady and rodent as simultaneously worthy of placement on dual pedestals.
Like the Etruscans and grapes, or the Indians and the sacred cow, the fatted muskrat holds a place of prominence in the traditional menu and culture of the Eastern Shore. And while it may never be mistaken for chicken, the ‘marsh rabbit’ is just another reminder that in the towns and communities of the Chesapeake, roots in the waterways, the marshes, and yes, even the muskrat lodges, run deep.
For more information about the National Outdoor Show, check out their website here: http://bit.ly/e3LUx8
And for more details on Muskrat Lovely, click through here: http://to.pbs.org/z1Hclo