So, muskrat tastes kinda like…
…I can’t even describe it, but have you ever been to a hog farm? If you have, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, there’s a greasy kind of stench that seems to sit on the surface of things – your coat, your shoes, your skin, everything. It doesn’t just sit, it penetrates, and sticks around far longer than you’d ever expect. Muskrat kinda does that inside your mouth. Bleeccch! That sounds worse than I even meant, but actually, it’s pretty accurate. Muskrat has a long-term kind of oily sliminess that can’t be ignored. Or forgotten.
I had occasion to try it at the 70th annual (wow!) National Outdoors Show, held in the town of Golden Hill, in Dorchester County. Way out there in the marsh, the fantastic and majestic Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the annual show is held at an elementary school. The main event is the world championship muskrat and nutria skinning contests – for competing men, women and children. I wasn’t so interested in that part (can barely imagine the horror of skinning contests, inconsistent, ignorant American consumer that I am) but figured it was time I tasted muskrat, a local tradition. (I mean, I easily pulled the cooked skin off a rotisserie chicken I bought this afternoon without a thought. What on earth is the difference? Fur? Well, yeah.)
Truth is, muskrat pelts were an important revenue source for generations of rural Dorchester County watermen who bridged seasons harvesting everything from eels to muskrat, oysters, crabs, waterfowl, deer and fish. Cash those muskrat pelts in and you’ve got a free protein source for the dinner table. Families were raised on the stuff – a Chesapeake cultural tradition.
Luckily, the festival offered dollar “tastes” of muskrat, which was more than enough for both my friend Cynthia and I. Visiting from Chicago, Cynthia is always interested in Chesapeake traditions. This tradition included waiting in line at the school’s cafeteria for plates of muskrat, oyster sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and crab soup.
We expected the focus on muskrat, but the biggest surprise about the National Outdoor Show was the presence of so many beauty queens. Tiara after tiara, we spied them from every age group – 3 to 50. We ate our muskrat at a table with the tiara-ed and absolutely lovely Morgan Hardie of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, a sister to Dorchester County, which according to Morgan, is exactly like Dorchester. Quiet fishing villages dotting the salt marsh three hours south of Baton Rogue, Cameron County holds a twin festival to this one, and each queen visits the other. Morgan brought the Parish Tourism Director, but honestly didn’t need her. Morgan is a first-rate ambassador for Cameron Parish and Louisiana.
Afterwards, a drive down to the very bottom of Hoopers Island, Hoopersville, the absolute end of the road, where we spied tiny footprints in the snowy marsh.
Hmmm.. are those the footprints of a muskrat stealing through the winter marsh?
They just might be.
(Most of the pix are from Hoopers Island, including that terrific snowman, best of the year.)