Muskrat's on menu, and folks line up

Attraction: The marsh-dwelling rodent is a popular part of the National Outdoor Show being held this weekend in Dorchester County

February 24, 1999|By Tracy Sahler | Tracy Sahler,Special to the Sun

Time is running out for those gourmets who have not yet tucked into a plate of tender, spicy muskrat this winter.

Of course, that may not be high on most folks' list of things to do. While the dark-fleshed emu is the exotic darling of the decade, and some people can't seem to bite into enough bison, the meat of the muskrat, a semiaquatic rodent at home in the swamps and marshes of the Eastern Shore, just hasn't caught on.

It doesn't help that those who have eaten muskrats all their lives casually refer to the creatures as "rats." The bones don't help, either. Traditional Eastern Shore stewed muskrat is cooked with sage, red pepper and black pepper until the muskrat is so tender it falls apart. Then the meat is served in dark brown mounds, bones and all.

"The rat, while it is an aquatic rodent, has meat that is richly red and [almost] fat-free. It eats nothing but roots," said John Root Hopkins of Cambridge, a 68-year-old retired patent lawyer and businessman who wrote "Muskrat Cookin' " to celebrate the rodent. "It's more like venison than anything else."

This weekend, the muskrat takes center stage at the National Outdoor Show at South Dorchester K-8 School in Golden Hill, a community south of Cambridge and not far from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to the largest nesting population of bald eagles east of the Mississippi, as well as the less-heralded muskrat.

The Outdoor Show, which has been held most years since 1937, celebrates country living with events like the Miss Outdoors Pageant, goose and duck calling, gun dog trials and timed muskrat skinning. People who attend on Saturday can enjoy muskrat several ways. Thomas and Barbara Mills of Golden Hill will put on a game cooking demonstration, including muskrat, at 1 p.m. Sometime during the afternoon, the kitchen will sell plates of muskrat along with other food. Organizers stopped announcing a time because long lines formed, keeping people from the rest of the show, said Helen Peel, president of the show.

Anyone is welcome to compete in the muskrat-cooking contest by registering a prepared dish at 3 p.m. Saturday. Muskrat chefs may enter in the traditional (usually stewed or fried) or special (pate and gumbo and beyond) categories. Leave your fancy garnishes and plate arrangements at home. "It's not presentation," Peel said. "It's just how pure good it is."

Once the judges have picked the three winners in each category, it's open season on the entries. "Usually there's nothing left in any of the bowls when we go to gather them up at the end," said Rhonda Aaron, a Golden Hill native who always makes a dish or two out of the muskrats she, her son and husband have trapped.

She captured first and second place in the special category last year with muskrat jambalaya and muskrat jerky. Her mother and aunt took the first two places in the traditional class. The family has always eaten muskrat, Aaron said. It's an accepted part of the winter menu for those who still live close to the marsh.

"It's different now, but years ago the old-timers, like my grandparents, didn't go to the store to buy stuff. You ate what you had on the farm, what you could trap or hunt or find," she said. "A lot of people have gotten away from that wild taste, but we haven't."

Aaron is keeping this year's contest recipes secret for fear someone will copy them. When cooking for her family, she's been known to mix the meat into barbecue, chili and gumbo, and mask the meat's strong flavor with marinade.

"It's just mind over matter. When you marinate anything like this, it changes it," she said. "If you're used to rabbit and squirrel, it's not a bad taste."

Muskrat is more than a curiosity on the Eastern Shore. It is a drawing card for countless fire company and civic group dinners, bringing out crowds of natives who mark their calendars weeks ahead for muskrat. Newcomers want to see whether people really eat the stuff, and elected officials don't often want to miss the chance to be seen at what they know will be a well-attended event.

The sleek rodent was the foundation of at least one political career. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., a Dorchester County Democrat, put himself through law school trapping muskrat. He is now retired after 48 years as a delegate and senator in the Maryland General Assembly.

Many seafood stores on the Eastern Shore sell muskrats, with the heads on, for about $3 to $3.50 each. Count on one muskrat per person. Someone will already have skinned the muskrat and removed the unpleasantly strong-flavored musk gland from its hind legs.

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