Blush of spring means skinning of muskrats

March 28, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

My calendar lists Passover, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter all as falling within the space of eight days.

These times of religious observance coincide neatly with the week when seasonal rebirth seems to crash through the doldrums of a long, cold and wet Baltimore winter.

Look outside. Even in the pouring rains, a blush of yellow forsythia has burst forth in Preston Gardens downtown.

Let the temperature rise above 48 and it seems that half the population under 20 is attired in Bermuda shorts.

Be warned. It is the season when the culinary killjoys need to take cover. A friend of mine left a phone message invitation to a muskrat stew dinner. It happened I couldn't attend the affair, but certainly wanted to. I've never dined on this rodent that lives in the marshes but I've always associated these creatures with this season in Baltimore.

I link the debut of spring with Baltimore's wonderful city markets, the places were you can still get a skinned muskrat or shad roe without being confronted by an annoying display of the latest low-free cheese cured in the bat caves of Chile.

Vegetarians be warned. Stay away from the aisles of the city markets. Your eyes will fall upon slaughtered animals' intestines, brains, stomachs and other shamelessly unfashionable body parts.

Years ago the market vendors used to stack up skinned muskrats on sticks outside the front door of the Belair Market. As the No. 15 Overlea-bound streetcar rolled along, some unsuspecting passenger would alight and then be forced to sidestep this sidewalk muskrat butchery.

This was also the era when gypsy-like market traders peddled nTC live chicks, baby rabbits and infant ducks as alleged pets.

Animal rights people and the Health Department were always battling this activity which, while unfair to the animals, made for some excellent street theater. Sometimes the police would scatter the animal sellers from one end of the market as another illicit operative was setting up sawhorses and a plank table at the other.

Spring flowers of questionable freshness also made an appearance at the city markets. Once again, it was buyer beware. I think these seasonal free-lance merchants got their wares from the unwanted leftovers of the more permanent flower sellers. One of these curbside Easter orchids or corsages probably had as much emotional impact as one selected from a fancy florist's refrigerated case.

Live chickens in wooden cases were perfectly legal at the old Lombard Street market in the heart of the old East Baltimore Jewish neighborhood. I can well recall a great Palm Sunday feast my father orchestrated with the help of the late and lamented Stone's Bakery and some of its neighbor delicatessens.

In those days the cream cheese came in narrow wooden boxes and the light green pickles floated in barrels of salty aromatic brine. Old Lombard Street possessed a vitality and noisy hubbub that seemed to say the winter was long behind us.

The city's markets today still retain touches of that seasonal frenzy. If you doubt this, visit them (Lafayette, Cross Street, Hollins, Northeast, Lexington, Broadway or Belair) early next Saturday morning.

It should prove to be a roistering business day for two reasons -- money and religion. The urban economy revolves around the first days of the month, when pension and government checks arrive. Added to this, it is Holy Saturday, a major day of food buying for the traditional Easter Sunday feast. And in Baltimore, a city where religion remains a potent social force, watch out.

One of my favorite Holy Week stops is the dairy counter in the Broadway Market in Fells Point. There's a Polish-born woman named Sophia who sells butter molded into the shape of a lamb. She scoops cottage cheese from stainless steel trays. Her buttermilk is the best to be found in these parts.

Many a Baltimorean equates a cup of fresh-from-the-cow buttermilk with a visit to a city market. The world can be divided into two groups of people -- those who love and those who hate buttermilk.

Come to think of it, I guess the same can be said of muskrat stew.

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