Muskrat - It's What's for Dinner
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Muskrat Suzie, Muskrat Cam
Don’t taste like chicken, don’t taste like ham…
Tastes like liver, that's soaked in the river
And we’ll roast and we’ll stew and we’ll fry ‘em,
Screw up your courage and try 'em,
We’ll serve them with taters and wine,
Yes it’s muskrat time...
Nearly a decade ago, while duck hunting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my buddies Jimaye Sones and Wayne Correia and I dined at a restaurant in Princess Anne. The featured entrée was fried muskrat. Now, I’d never eaten muskrat and the place was packed, especially the bar area of the diner, with muskrat munchers. I tried to talk my pals into getting just an appetizer size portion of muskrat, but these culinary sticks-in-the-mud would have none of it. And I certainly wasn't about to ramble along the muskrat road alone.
After the hunt, we stopped at a Chincoteague, Virginia, seafood joint for oysters and littleneck clams. There, again, came opportunity. Bundled in plastic bags on ice in the display case were cleaned, whole muskrats. Each was about double the size of an average skinned squirrel. The meat looked dark, sort of like bear meat or beaver, and a tad “juicy” – shall we say. The “marsh rabbits,” we were told, were a bargain at $4.95 each. I got my oysters and left, later regretting I never tried the muskrat.
Muskrats have an ardent, but diminishing fan base. They were once a staple of rural living, trapped for both food and fur. Today, the muskrat market is scant. You can still find them in some Eastern Shore seafood shops and restaurants (in season), but mainland muskrat meat is often sold or given to people operating within a seemingly secret ‘rat lovers society. In short, you gotta know somebody!
Fortunately, I did and a few years later, I told my friend Scott Leysath, the Sporting Chef, about the Eastern
Shore’s muskrat sensibilities. He flew in and we worked to film one of his “Dead Meat” shows for the Sportsman’s Channel there. The folks around Princess Anne (See their tourism website here) were awesome to work with and they even had a stuffed (taxidermied) muskrat named Marshall, who wears top hat and tails and presides over a New Year’s Eve ‘Muskrat Dive,” present in the home where we stayed.
Reruns of those shows are still airing. They were great. Check them out at Dead Meat
We dined on muskrats at a couple places. The first was Dave’s Pittsfield Diner. Muskrats were a weekly winter special and cooked in some sort of gravy and served with the heads attached. This was to prove that the meat was indeed muskrat and not stray cats or possum or raccoon or any other critter. It was “okay,” but the meat was a tad gray for my liking.
Then hunting guide Charles Laird cooked some for us. Man, they were good -- "Company Vittles," as Jed Clampett would've said on the Beverly Hillbillies. Laird jointed them (cuts them up) parboils them, breads them and fries them in 100 percent bacon fat. Bacon fat can fix a lot of potential flaws.
A couple more years passed before the muskrat craving surfaced again. This time, Sgt. Paul Atkins with Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Conservation Police Officer corps and a licensed trapper, happily fixed me up with some rats. I made the trapline run with him through the early winter marsh in a canoe. He had muskrats in 9 of the 10 traps – a bounty of soft-furred, smooth-tailed, big-toothed marsh rabbits. Back on dry land, Atkins gave me a quick lesson in muskrat skinning, trying to separate the meat from hide while preserving the pelts for sale.
It was time for a muskrat fest. We cooked them a couple ways. Everyone liked them; well, one person said they were “tolerable.” We parboiled a few muskrats, and then jointed, seasoned and fried them, just like Charles Laird had done.
At the recommendation of King George, Virginia, home gourmet Scott Jones, a few other rats were baked in apple butter, then seasoned and grilled or fried. The small pieces of meat along the ribs, neck and back were boned and cooked in a mushroom/wine sauce and served over white rice. All muskrats were first brined (soaked in cold saltwater) for 4 hours before cooking.
A side dish of turnip greens soup rounded out the plate. Chef Johnny Belew who lives in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, makes the tasty soup at Claunch’s Café in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Belew, who’s also a local musician, graciously shared his recipe. I tweaked it a little. A dash or two of hot sauce seemed to make everything taste just a little better. We splashed it into the soup and laid the muskrat quarters on a light bed of Sriracha sauce.
So, if you want to give muskrats a try, click here for some recipes. Life is too short to have such regrets.