Definitely not chicken Muskrat: The aficionados of the Eastern Shore delicacy disagree on what other meat the taste suggests but to them it stands on its own.

February 01, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Some say the Eastern Shore muskrat's meat tastes like liver. Others suggest the dark meat of turkey. Some insist it has a pot roast flavor. There also is a faction that claims it resembles venison. Others say terrapin.

But nobody says it tastes like chicken.

David Duvall, a 22-year-old Hurlock resident, has his own verdict: "To me, muskrat tastes like muskrat."

Last weekend, the Eastern Shore Society of Baltimore -- 146 strong -- filed into the Tall Cedars of Lebanon Hall on Putty Hill Avenue in Parkville for a stag oyster roast. The group was founded in 1913 to preserve and honor "the history, traditions and pleasant memories of the Eastern Shore."

Muskrat most certainly was on the menu, fitting because this is the height of the season for muskrats, which have a long-standing place -- along with oysters and crabs -- in the lower Eastern Shore economy and on its tables.

"My mother was a great muskrat cook," said Bill Purnell, a Crisfield native and club member who has lived in the Baltimore area nearly 50 years. "My great-grandmother even picked the meat off the head. When I was a child we had it at least once a week in season. We had rabbit and squirrel too, anything but opossum. I love muskrat."

The all-afternoon luncheon con-sisted of much talk and trip after trip to an outside raw oyster bar (pit beef and fresh and cured hams, too). Long tables with stainless-steel trays held mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, fried oysters and oyster stew.

But then there were two dishes that don't usually turn up at oyster roasts.

One tray was marked hominy, the lumpy white corn dish canned under the name Manning's.

Its neighbor tray held the muskrat, dark brown chunks of meat that simmered nearly four hours on the range of a Harford Road caterer.

No appeal to many

The prospect of eating muskrat -- which even aficionados call "rats" -- does not appeal to many people, acknowledged Milton Noble, 84, a Towson resident who grew up in Vienna, the Dorchester County community pronounced Vee-anna.

But for Mr. Noble and his brother, Paul, 74, muskrat-eating and childhood are bound in a way that resonates to this day:

"My father was freight agent and telegrapher for the railroad -- the Baltimore Chesapeake and Atlantic. I can remember him gulping down his dinner so he could help a farmer who wanted to pick up or leave off a shipment though the station hours were over.

"The muskrat trappers would be sending off their pelts to the dealers," he said. "But they would give us the meat. People survived the Depression doing favors for each other."

But Milton Noble declined the muskrat at the oyster roast.

"I liked the way my mother cooked it," he said. "It didn't have the wild taste."

Furry, bony rodents

Muskrats are furry, bony rodents -- about the size of a rabbit -- with long tails. They make their home in Maryland's tidal marshes, literally living in grass houses. By law, they can be trapped during the winter months.

To those who grew up on stewed muskrat, it is traditional local fare, a regional dish that falls into a category between delicacy and Depression food.

Muskrat preparation was a subject of debate at the luncheon. The version served was from Helen Avalynne Tawes' "My Favorite Maryland Recipes," a book published in 1964. But some Eastern Shore Society members preferred the recipe of H. Reginald Dunnock, the late and longtime owner of a Baltimore cafeteria chain named after the Oriole bird. The Dunnock version is more of a stew laced with sherry.

"The members supplied me with the recipe, and we used it," said Tom Green, an Atlantic Caterers vice president who helped prepare the meal. "I'll tell you, it's not a dish we get a lot of call for."

Other than during the muskrat recipe discussion, few, if any, dissenting voices were heard about the day.

"There are not too many places you can go with a whole mess of men, with great food, beer on tap and a cigarette machine in the corner," said Tim Ratcliffe, 31, of Hurlock.

Cultural changes have turned the local muskrat market inside out. It used to be that the fur pelts of these animals brought the most money -- three to five times the value of the meat. But with the animal rights movement and protests against the wearing of fur, the value of a pelt has dropped to a low of about $1. Trappers get $2 for the meat today.

Tom Collins, manager of Cambridge's Kool Ice and Seafood on the Eastern Shore, said his shop sells 50 to 250 muskrats a day. They go for $3 each retail.

"Usually by the middle of the afternoon we're sold out," he said one day last week.

"It all depends on the weather. If it freezes hard up, it's difficult to get to the traps."

Bill Devine of Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market sells maybe 100 muskrat a week. They go for $3.75 each in Baltimore.

"The people who ate muskrat are dying," he said. "We don't get the call that we once did."

There is still a chance to taste the "rat" this winter -- Feb. 11 at the annual muskrat and turkey dinner at the West Side Volunteer Fire Department in Bivalve, Wicomico County. The women's auxiliary dinner is from noon to 4 p.m. with prices of $9 for adults, $3 for children under 12 and free for children under 6. More than 700 diners showed up last year for muskrat.

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