“Musk” and “rat” have to be two of the least appealing culinary words in the English language. There has been an attempt to rebrand the big-toothed rodent as “marsh rabbit,” but old-timers on the Eastern Shore simply call them rats.
In places like Dorchester County, muskrats are trapped primarily for their furs, but the meat has also become an important part of the culture. The National Outdoor Show in Church Creek on Feb. 24 and 25 marks the height of the season, hosting the muskrat skinning championship (nationaloutdoor show.org), so this is the perfect time to try them.
I’d had a hankering for muskrat ever since I met Rhonda Aaron, the muskrat-skinning champion for many years and one of the subjects of the documentary film Muskrat Lovely. So when I decided to cook a muskrat, I gave her a call. She promised to send her recipes to me, but on the phone, she gave me the most important lesson: “Watch out for the bones and make sure the musk glands are scraped out. It smells bad.”
Fortunately, Mark Devine over at Faidley’s Seafood in Lexington Market assured me that Faidley’s muskrats are already cleaned and de-musked. They go for $7 a pop, or three for $20. I bought two—frozen in plastic bags—hoping to try a couple of different recipes.
I’m not a big meat cooker, so I needed as much help as I could get. Once I got the muskrat, I also called chef Bernard Dehaene of Corner BYOB, whose Gastronaut Society for adventurous eaters had just served a meal of muskrat. “People were into it,” he said. “They were cracking the skulls and eating the brains and the tongues. It was great.”
It is essential to bring friends and alcohol when you are cooking something you’re kind of scared of. So I invited some friends over and made a big batch of Sazeracs (rye whiskey and Peychaud’s bitters in a glass coated with absinthe) to get things started, and they turned out to be the perfect pre-muskrat aperitifs. There are also a surprising number of songs about the critter to get you going. Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” is perhaps the most famous, but Louis Armstrong’s “Muskrat Ramble” and the Everly Brothers’ “Muskrat” were far more to my taste.
With music and drinks flowing, we were ready to tackle the ’skrat. The most obvious feature of the muskrat is its teeth. When you buy and cook them, they have their heads on, and this is a good thing, even if you don’t eat the brain, because there is something gruesomely fun about the monstrous appearance of the marsh rabbit: It looks so much like us mammals, and simultaneously so alien. (I recommend that anyone interested in making horror puppet shows invest in a few muskrats.)
We were going to “barbecue” one rat and boil and then brown the other in a skillet. I got both of the recipes from Aaron, but as she noted in a letter she sent me, “Put in whatever is in the refrigerator,” so I used only the rough outline of the recipes (available online at tinyurl.com/cookingskrat).
I put a whole onion (chopped), two cans of beer (poured), a half a carton of chicken stock, salt, black pepper, red pepper, and a bit of Tabasco sauce into an aluminum baking pan and put the skinned rat in the oven at 350 degrees.
While it cooked, we parboiled the other rat in accordance with a recipe Aaron calls “Mom’s Old Fashioned Muskrat.” When it has boiled for five minutes, you pour the water out and put the muskrat in a fresh pot of liquid (half water and half Boh), with a whole yellow onion, salt, pepper, and a spoonful of rubbed sage, and bring that to a boil for another half-hour or more.
While it boiled, we took the other dish out of the oven to, as the recipe says, “drain the essence of rat,” pouring out all the liquid. This is the equivalent of parboiling— and gets rid of a bit of the gamy funkiness.
We basted the rat with barbecue sauce. Aaron’s recipe calls for duck sauce and ketchup, but generally disliking sweet barbecue sauces, we went with apple cider vinegar and a lot of red and black pepper in the Carolina style. But we had second thoughts and, having a blood orange handy, juiced it and added the juice to our mixture. The thing that had looked like a monster a few moments before was beginning to look appetizing.
Both rats would have been better brined and slow-cooked for hours, but it was already getting late and we were hungry. After another half-hour in the boiling water, we took out the muskrat and browned it in a half a stick of butter in a cast-iron skillet until it took on a beautiful brown hue and a savory crispiness. We liked it so much that when we took the other one out of the oven still pretty moist, we popped it down on the skillet for a while.
Eating muskrat is more like eating crab than eating steak. We all ended up standing around the counter and ripping little pieces of flesh from between the numerous bones and joints (the meat around the spine was best). “Marsh rabbit” is actually a good description: The meat tastes like a combination of rabbit and alligator. As my friend Dan Pavlik aptly put it: “It’s lubed-up on swampiness, with a murky flavor.”
“Murky” was the perfect word for both recipes. The meat has something of the texture and the iron-laden taste of liver— especially the tongue. The barbecued one achieved a strange balance between the acidity of the sauce and the murkiness of the meat, but it never quite blended.
Until the next day, that is, when we took all the meat we’d picked off the rat and hashed it up in a skillet with a bunch of onions and let it cook for another couple of hours—then it was brilliant and vibrant. We mixed it with pinto beans and rice in burritos, and it was genuinely delicious.
Local country musician Caleb Stine tried a bit, and he said it best: “It tastes like venison jerky from the gentlest and coolest guy who comes into the Knox Bar in Knoxville and sells you jerky when you’re drunk.”
I’ve never had that jerky, but a muskrat burrito may just be the perfect late-night food.