An un-eaten ‘rat
I am always reminded of the “Fiddler on the Roof” when involving myself in the culinary side of muskrats. As you probably know, the musical centers on Russian peasants fighting to maintain the spirit of their culture through TRADITION! Tevye says (at least I think it was his line) that “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as…as… a fiddler on the roof!” TRADITION! Muskrat eating is TRADITION!
Yes, it’s a local thing around Monroe, Michigan and the Detroit Downriver area with origins dating back to the early French settlers. But, let’s save further explanation for now and simply acknowledge that partaking in muskrat flesh binds us to our local French history. When I say French, by the way, I mean French-Canadian and not Parisian French. Those continental French would, likely as not, blurt out an indignant “Sacre bleu” at the very thought of eating anything called a ‘rat. Your average local in these parts – even those of non-French Canadian background -would, on the other hand, shout TRADITION at the very mention of muskrat eating. They, in fact, proudly prefer to shorten the full name to ‘rat (at least in print, the apostrophe distinguishes this rat from the Parisian French sewer rat).
One of the first muskrat dinners of the year (and there are many) is always held at the Monroe Boat Club in Bolles Harbor, Monroe. This venerable old club has done this for over a century and, in so doing, has kept that shaky fiddler off the roof. Even though the actual meal is held in early January, the preparation starts immediately after Christmas – usually the day after. My daughter and I participated in the muskrat cleaning process this year as non-club volunteers. She is, by coincidence, a fiddler but this has little bearing on the matter.
We gathered, along with a dozen or so others, to perform the tedious process of de-fatting and “de-musking” some 200 critter carcasses. The muskrats themselves were purchased from trappers who skinned and gutted them, but otherwise left them “unfinished.” They process the furs and sell the meats to hungry traditionalists. The ‘rats arrived at the club naked, hollow, and footless but with their heads intact (as a hold-over of another tradition in which the heads were also considered delicacies). By the time they reached our cleaning table, however, the heads too were gone and all that was left to do was the fat nit-picking. This sounds simple enough in theory.
The father & daughter team (I am on the right, by the way)
There were obvious fat deposits on the flanks, back, and inner backbone that were there to scrape off. These were easily removed. Hidden deposits, tucked under the shoulder blades and deep inside the thigh muscles, were much more elusive. The inner thigh deposit, mistakenly called a musk gland, was the toughest one for me. It took sharp pointed knives to effectively reach both of these locations. Fortunately, the Hamilton Beach steak knives I brought along proved ineffectual and we had to abandon them for some more appropriate cutlery. I say “fortunate” because one of the fellows was wandering around with a whet stone to renew the blades every so often. I was already under the threat of bodily harm from my wife should I somehow lose or forgot those Hamilton Beach knives (she said she would “kill me” if I lost or damaged them, but that was just a figure of speech….right?) and I could only imagine her reaction upon finding them crudely re-sharpened with a whetstone.
Even though I had skinned and poked around plenty of ‘rats before (locating the real musk glands which are inside the body cavity), I never did so with the intention of eating my specimens when I was done with them. I found the cleaning process cumbersome. My daughter had never been inside a ‘rat before, but she forged on. While the guys around us flipped and cut and stacked their finished ‘rats onto the tray with surprising regularity, our father/daughter team lumbered through at a rate of about 1 per their every three. All this was performed while engaging in near continuous conversation, I should add. Talking – guy talk – is a requisite part of this process. One does not clean ‘rats in silence. History was the primary topic due to the historical nature of the activity, so I was comfortable with that part of the tradition. I tried to play the line between intelligent conversation and keeping all my digits intact.
The fat was scraped onto the blade and then wiped off onto a sheet of newspaper. How fast any one cleaner was performing his/her duty was apparent by the condition of the piece of folded newspaper before them. Your cleaned ‘rats blended into the anonymity of the growing pile, but your paper told the real story of your production. Every now and then, the newspaper would be wadded up and tossed into the garbage as it amassed fat scrapings. A new sheet of classifieds was then laid out to receive further deposits. Let me just say that we changed our sheets only once during the whole time – and that was just to keep from looking bad. My conversation repartee was pretty good, however.
(I will continue this narrative in the next blog. In that Installment I will relate how I actually did forget our Hamilton Beach knives back at the boat club kitchen!)