Mostly Trapping

Another Lent Muskrat Article
Mar 3, 2020 07:51 ET

[Reprinted from original]

Original Title: Muskrat rules in Michigan; alligator a hit in Louisiana. Hey, and they're OK during Lent, too.

For centuries, the Catholic Church has required its healthy adult members to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday and identify with his suffering. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ list prohibits any warm-blooded animal that lives on land — a list that includes chickens, cows, sheep, pigs and even birds.

Yet there are a few regional exceptions. Rather weird ones, at that.

In Detroit, muskrat — a furry, semi-aquatic rodent with a long, rat-like tail native to Michigan’s Downriver region — has been on some Lenten menus with the archdiocese’s permission for 200 years.

Further south in New Orleans, alligator keeps Catholics fed — alongside regional favorites like catfish and crawfish. Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond approved the eating of the semi-aquatic reptile during Lent a decade ago, after a restaurateur wrote him a letter.

While there’s no official written document giving Detroiters permission for that muskrat meat, the Rev. Timothy Laboe, dean of studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, says the practice most likely dates to the War of 1812.

French Catholics who settled in southeast Michigan found themselves starving during the winter months after the war, especially during Lent. At the time, the Catholic community had to abstain from meat — not just on Ash Wednesday and Fridays but for the entirety of the 40-day Lenten period.

Father Gabriel Richard, a French Roman Catholic priest who would go on to found the University of Michigan, took pity on their suffering.

He gave them a special dispensation to eat the furry animal so plentiful in the swampy areas along the Detroit River. “And then it became an immemorial custom,” Rev. Laboe said.

By the time the 20th century rolled around, Rev. Laboe said, muskrat became became something of a rage for fundraisers at churches, lodges and sports clubs, especially in Monroe County. Even today, the winter events sell out, though there are far fewer of them.

There have been a few wrinkles along the way, most notably in 1987. That’s when a Detroit Free Press article about a local restaurant that served the rodent caught the eye of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Suddenly, because of health concerns, muskrat no longer could be sold for public consumption.

“But there was such an outcry,” Rev. Laboe said, “that they relented.”

Muskrat can be prepared in a number of different ways — breaded and pan fried, baked in barbecue sauce, tucked into a pot pie or pan of jambalaya or paired with Asian seasonings in a stir-fry.

Yet there are a few rules every cook has to follow, the main one being it’s absolutely essential he or she removes any fat, along with the musk glands before cooking. (They’re what produce the musky odor that male muskrats secrete to mark their territory during mating season.)

The critter also has to be soaked in salted water overnight or boiled for several hours to make the very dark meat less gamey.

It’s not just Catholics who like the meat. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wyandotte, Mich., has held an annual muskrat dinner for more than a decade, “and it’s grown every year,” said Pastor Greyson Grenz.

He expects this year’s dinner on March 21 to once again sell out in less than an hour, and draw upwards of 300 diners, many of whom who will be anxiously waiting in line when the door opens at 4 p.m.

In his parish, at least, muskrat during Lent is not so much a religious thing as a nod to the region’s trapping traditions. “That’s a large part of what Downriver is — hunting, fishing and trapping,” he said. For the church’s dinner, though, the muskrat is imported from Canada.

Originally from Colorado, Pastor Grenz had never tasted muskrat before moving to Michigan nine years ago, and given the way he was first served it — sitting up on a plate with its head still attached as a joke — it’s a wonder he even ate it. But eat he did, and he’s now quite the fan.

You have to work to get the meat off the carcass without breaking its many brittle bones, “but it’s good, it really is.” The look and texture is similar to roast beef, yet the taste, he acknowledged, “is very different.”

The recipe, handed down over the generations by a parishioner’s grandmother, is so terrific, he added, that the family has been approached by restaurants to sell it.

Even with its head, tail and legs removed, a muskrat looks pretty intimidating on the plate.

“There’s no doubt what you’re eating,” concedes Rev. Laboe, a descendant of French settlers known as “Muskrat French” because they lived on spots of high ground amid the swamps and trapped for a living.

While he never ate it as a child — his mother wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole, he said with a laugh — his German grandmother, Agatha, used to make it for his father.

But he came to love it as an adult. In February, he took his dad to the annual muskrat dinner at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Newport, Mich., an event that drew nearly 1,000 diners.

Everyone has their own opinion as to what it tastes like; he likens it to dark turkey meat. But even when fried, as he prefers, with lots of garlic and onion, it’s definitely an acquired taste, he said.

Which is why it helps to have a certain sense of humor when presented with the opportunity to eat the regional delicacy.

Rev. Leboe offered a quote from Kenneth Povich, who served as Bishop of Lansing during the 1970s, as an example. “Anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest of the Saints,” he said.

Lenten gator

Alligator as an approved Lenten food is more modern.

In 2010, Jay Nix, whose Parkway Bakery in New Orleans serves an alligator po’ boy, wrote to Archbishop Aymond, asking if gator was acceptable to eat during Lent.

“Yes, the alligator is considered in the fish family,” he responded, “and I agree with you. God has a created magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana and it is considered seafood.” His approval was quickly backed up the national bishops’ conference.

Since alligators are reptiles and therefore cold-blooded, the reasoning went, their flesh does not count as “meat” from which Catholics must abstain on Fridays in Lent.

Official word is still out on turtles, snakes and tortoises.

While you can find fried alligator on any number of menus where Creole cuisine is served in New Orleans — Cochon is famous for its fried alligator bites with chili garlic mayo, and you also can get “Gator on a Stick” at the French Market — you probably won’t find it at the Lenten fish fries hosted by local churches and community organizations.

As in Pittsburgh, these fundraising suppers tend to feature fried or baked fish dinners with all the fixings.

Given New Orleans’ proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and inland waterways (Louisiana is the nation’s second largest seafood producer, after Alaska), there’s a good chance the menu will include catfish (instead of cod), soft-shelled crab, fried oysters and — if you’re really lucky — shrimp or crawfish etouffee or boulettes.

Those in the Pittsburgh area interested in trying either muskrat or alligator might have to work at it.

Pennsylvania law prohibits the sale of any wild animals, including muskrat, and a clerk at Strip District Meats said the store — known for its exotic meat selection — has never had a call for it. A few places offer it online for those willing to pay a premium.

Uncooked alligator meat, conversely, is readily available at Wholey’s and Strip Market Meats in the Strip.

You also occasionally can find the reptile on local menus. Muddy Waters Oyster Bar in East Liberty currently offers two preparations of alligator tail meat: Breaded and fried alligator bites with a whiskey-chipotle aioli ($12) and a blackened po’ boy sandwich ($18) topped with fried green tomato, collard greens slaw and pimento cheese.