The Lesser Known Michigan Tradition Of Eating Muskrat For Lent
Lenten Fridays have long been reserved for community fish fries in Catholic communities, but there has been a long tradition in communities south of Detroit of gathering to eat Muskrat.
It ain't for everybody, but the Bishop of the Detroit archdiocese says it's okay.
Yes, Muskrat is a long lost Lenten tradition in east Michigan.
Missionary priests "realized that food was especially scarce in the region by the time Lent came around and did not want to burden Catholics unreasonably by denying them one of the few readily available sources of nutrition — however unappetizing it might be for most folks," Edward Peters, a law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit recently told the Detroit Free Press.
The tradition is particularly big in the Downriver communities where the "marsh rabbits" are plentiful.
For generations of metro Detroiters, mostly of French-Canadian fur trapper descent, muskrats are considered a special meal — a kind of folk tradition. This “muskrat belt” follows the Detroit river south to the region commonly known as “Downriver,” through nearby Wyandotte, down to Monroe, and into Ohio.
Back in 2017, Bud Willis described the muskrat cooking process to Hour Detroit while preparing them for a Lenten meal at Trinity Lutheran Church. (Yup, even the Lutherans are on board).
“We parboil them whole, and then throw in some spice and onions,” he says. “Once they’re done like this, then we’ll fry ’em in butter and garlic. That’s pretty much what it is.”
But don't forget a critical preparation process: removing the musk gland. If you don't a foul flavor will ruin the meal.
So what does muskrat taste like?
Rev. Tim Laboe from Sacred Heart Seminary told the Free Press some people describe it as tasting like duck, but he disagrees: "I think muskrat tastes like muskrat, and I don't think I can compare it to anything else."
The official Catholic Dispensation to eat muskrat over fish has always had a cloudy history, with no one being sure when it was granted.
Laboe often quotes Lansing Bishop Kenneth Povish who famously said, "Anybody that eats muskrat is doing an act of penance worthy of the greatest of saints."
Full disclosure: I ate muskrat while living in Gaylord back in the early '80s. Laboe is dead on. It tastes like nothing else, and is best served in a casserole. Let's just say I haven't had any since.