I think I first heard of muskrats when The Captain and Tennille released their plaintive 1976 hit “Muskrat Love.” The pop duo was not the first to sing the song: three years earlier, “Muskrat Love” was released as an advance single from best-ranked band America's album “Hat Trick.”
Anyway, muskrats – sometimes referred to as “marsh rats” – are dark and stinky, and thanks to a historic loophole in fasting and abstinence laws, Catholics can eat them on Fridays during Lent.
A few years ago, it was my privilege (did I say “privilege”?) to eat a roasted muskrat in Riverview, one of just a handful of communities in downriver Detroit where muskrat is served. It was black and oily and it looked like a hapless rat, its rib cage filled to overflowing with cloves of roasted garlic. The rodent’s pungent odor wafted through the air as soon as the waitress left the kitchen with my entrée, plopped on the plate between the mashed potatoes and the sauerkraut. I caught my breath, thinking that this would be completely inedible had the chef not removed its head and tail. Cleaned up as it was, I thought I could stomach it – but however it's prepared, muskrat is still a gastronomic repast for the serious adventurer.
But Muskrat Is Meat! Why Can Catholics Eat It on Lenten Fridays?
In the late 1700s, Father Gabriel Richard, a mathematics professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, was assigned by Bishop John Carroll to do missionary work with the Indians in the Northwest Territory. His first assignment was to what is now Kaskaskia, Illinois; but in the early 1800s he relocated to Detroit. There, his flock included French Canadian fur trappers.
According to legend, Father Richard saw that the trappers and their families were going hungry during Lent, when fresh vegetables were not available and fish avoided capture. Reasoning that muskrats lived in the water, Father Richard issued a special dispensation, permitting the trappers to eat the animals’ flesh on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, a 2002 document on Lenten observances explains, “There is a long-standing permission–dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s–to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent.” The original document is missing, though, so it’s uncertain where the dispensation ends. Depending on whom you ask, the muskrat dispensation applies in the communities of Wyandotte and Riverview, along the Rouge River and the Raisin River—both of which flow into Lake Erie south of Detroit—or include all of Monroe County, or all of southeast Michigan.
So Where Can an Adventurous Diner Find Muskrat?
Where can you go to find the little water rodents served up on a platter? Unfortunately, Kola's Food Factory in Riverview, where I savored my first (and only) roasted muskrat, is no longer open for business. St. Charles Borromeo parish in Newport, Michigan, holds an annual muskrat dinner to benefit its youth sports programs; but unfortunately, it's too late for this year – the dinner was held on Feb. 1, before we were even thinking about Lenten sacrifices. Trinity Lutheran Church in Wyandotte held their annual muskrat dinner this year on March 10. You may have little choice now but to buy the little critters from the exotic grocery at Eastern Market, take them home and cook them yourself.
Former Kola’s proprietor and chef Johnny Kolakowski specialized in wild game, and even published a cookbook Cookin’ Wild with Johnny, which explains how to prepare the critters with tomatoes, onions, garlic, bay leaves, soy sauce and white wine or beer.
Maybe drinking a little of that beer ahead of time will help to make it easier to swallow. Bon appétit!
But What If You're Not in Michigan?
Oh – and if you're not in Michigan, you might consider one of the other odd mammals which make it onto the “Approved for Lenten Abstinence” list. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory Aymond responded to an inquiry by releasing a 2010 letter which clarifies:
Concerning the question if alligator is acceptable to eat during the Lenten season... yes, the alligator is considered in the fish family.
According to the Catholic News Agency, the archbishop agreed with the parishioner that the alligator is a “magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana” and which is also “considered seafood.”
And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an article from their website titled Questions and Answers About Lent and Lenten Practices, explain:
Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.