In Some American Parishes, Muskrat Dinners Are an Annual Tradition
The muskrat tradition began in the late 1700s with French Catholics who had moved to Michigan.
Most Catholic parishes have established popular gatherings, from pancake breakfasts to fish fries to Oktoberfests and plenty more. But one wonders how many parishes actually host a muskrat dinner, or festival, in late winter. Very few indeed, unless they are located in the wetlands and swampy areas of the northeastern United States where cool, wet weather supports the muskrat’s natural habitat.
In fact, many folks must wonder: what is a muskrat anyway? It’s a medium-sized, semi-aquatic critter that belongs to the rodent family, and which lives in burrows or dens in North American wetlands. In fact, a muskrat slightly resembles a beaver, except that its tail is narrow and furless. Generally, the muskrat is valued for its body fur and also for its culinary appeal.
And that is just how several parishes in the upper Northwest celebrate the end of winter — hosting a muskrat dinner. This muskrat tradition began back in the late 1700s, thanks to the French Catholics who moved to the downriver area of Michigan. To survive the harsh winters, locals hunted and cooked up muskrats. Thanks to that tradition, lucky parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Newport, Michigan — as well as other local parishes — host their annual muskrat meal before (sometimes during) Lent. And believe it or not, over generations of muskrat eating, they have developed a taste for the meat.
According to parishioner Shawn Flint, dinner patrons usually have to look past the meat’s appearance, which is darker even than a chicken’s dark meat.
“The appearance intimidates most people,” he said. “But the flavor is good. There is not a lot of meat … so we purchase about 920 muskrats that locals trap in late fall or early winter. We are south of the Downriver area and on Lake Erie.”
As he noted, this is a very popular event in which he has participated since his early twenties. “I do a lot behind scenes, such as preparing prizes and all other tasks,” he said. “We get the muskrats in the November-December time frame, put them into the freezer, and thaw them out with kosher salt in 50-gallon drums the week of the dinner.” The parishioners then start the cleaning task, getting rid of fat twice Wednesday, once Thursday, and then Friday. They then parboil them with onions, garlic powder, spices and celery. The final step is frying them in oil with salt and pepper. Right after frying, the kitchen group serves them with creamed corn and mashed potatoes.
Born and raised in a multigenerational Catholic family, Flint and his family have long attended this parish, and as a youngster he served as an altar boy for four years. Now, as an adult with his own family of four children, he maintains his passion for the faith.
“I practice my faith with my own family,” he said. “We say the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, attend church every Sunday, and I am involved in parish activities and am the president of the athletic club.”
Of course, he continues to be an ardent support of the muskrat event. “It is a fundraiser for students and athletes for buying equipment for all games/sports. Our muskrat dinner raises about $10K; each ticket costs $25.” He added that usually 360 people show up, and the kitchen crew numbers about 40 people.
“We are a faith-filled parish,” he said, “and we do things together for many generations with fathers, sons, and grandsons. It is a unique way for us to bond and to keep our parish community close. That makes this event so special: it is not about the money but about people getting together and celebrating who we are.
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“I love cooking my family waffles on Sundays,” said Shawn Flint.
Makes 6 to 10 waffles
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1-3/4 cups milk
- 1/2 cup melted butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a bowl, then set aside. In another bowl mix beaten eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla. Mix both bowls’ contents and pour 1 cup of batter onto the waffle baker. Serve in 3 minutes.