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It's time to try the muskrat

PITTSVILLE — Mount Vernon native Robert Taylor has been trapping muskrat for the better part of his 72 years. He rises early, even for a farmer, and heads out to start checking his traps. During muskrat season, which ends in March, he will be able to sell as many as he can catch to Dave White, owner of the Pittsville Diner. For his part, White will be able to sell all the muskrat he can buy from Y to grateful and enthusiastic customers. If you are not one of them, it is time to ask yourself why.

The first and most obvious answer is that the delicacy  is poorly, or maybe unfortunately, named. This is a fact that hasn’t escaped many on the Lower Eastern Shore where the meal’s more palatable name, marsh rabbit, tends to soothe the mind enough to allow the taste buds ample room for exploration. White, however, is no fan of the euphemism.

“I don’t use the fancy name, just call it what it is” he said. “People will have to go down the road to get ‘marsh rabbit.’”

As a restaurateur, he is also no fan of buying blind or leaving preparation to chance. In fact, he worries each year that it will be the last he will be able to serve the Eastern Shore delicacy because he fears Taylor will retire before too long, not that he could blame him.

“It’s a hard, hard, life,” White said. “I don’t begrudge anyone who does that a penny of what they charge.”

Muskrat isn’t served in many Eastern Shore restaurants as much because it is a niche market as because buying game takes a significant amount of trust.

White has known Taylor for decades. He knows how he keeps and tends his traps, which is critical for making sure the muskrat meat is the highest quality because only well tended, that is, regularly checked traps yield muskrat worth serving.

That makes the strongest evidence against the unfortunate name of the dish the fact that it might be the freshest, most sustainable meal that can be purchased in a restaurant. It is a rare thing, and getting rarer when it comes to meat, to know that the person who prepared the food took it from the hands of the person who harvested it.

The purity of the transaction, weighed against the superficiality of the name, is certainly worth applauding and supporting.

“Delicacy” is, when you get right down to it, another euphemism. What it suggests is a type of food that, if you didn’t grow up eating it, you are not likely to try it. Black pudding, Capozzelli di Agnelli, and haggis, for example, require a bit of culinary courage for those not raised in households where they are staples.

Longtime Eastern Shore natives are no different. Almost anyone born and raised on the Lower Eastern Shore and in that tradition has given muskrat a shot, even if they thought at the time they were eating marsh rabbit.

But people who live in the regions where these interesting — and better named — foods originate have an informed opinion, one way or the other, about foods many have never heard of and most people will never try. And, almost to a one, people who enjoy delicacies you haven’t tried will tell you that preparation is everything.

As a child White trapped muskrat himself but didn’t prefer the way his mother prepared it. His aunt’s recipe was the only one that he found acceptable and the recipe used in his diner is as close to that one as he’s had.

A closely guarded secret — he wouldn’t even say whether they used vinegar or not — the muskrat is prepared by Louise Miller in a way that draws in the annual diners and continues to attract new ones each year.

Among those who eat or have tried the dish there are two discernible camps. One method of cooking muskrat, which White describes as prevalent in Princess Anne, requires the meat be cooked off the bone producing  a kind of stewy dish, which is less appealing both to the eye and to the palate. 

White prefers to serve muskrat whole on the bone, as one might a rabbit — which is really kind of what it looks like prepared — under a light, or heavy, as you like it, serving of gravy. Mashed potatoes, corn bred, and collard greens round out the meal and on pretty much any Wednesday night for the next two months, customers will come in and eat the muskrat more, and more enthusiastically, than even White tends to.

“Some people just eat chicken, some people clean the bones,” White said.

Similarly, he said a number of diners are so taken with the meal that they make sure the only things returned to the kitchen are the small, well cleaned bones the meat comes on.For his part, White prefers to eat the leg meat and some of the other, easier to slice sections of the dinner.

On the plate, the muskrat is just about a foot long. With four legs and some tender rib and neck meat it looks not radically different than a lot of fresh small game meat might.

“To me, it tastes like sweet beef,” White said. “If you didn’t know what it was and I gave it to you, you’d probably smack your lips and want more.”

For those who have been waiting since last March to have another go at the muskrat dinner served at Dave White’s Pittsville Diner, the name is the least of their concerns. Getting their fell before the season ends, however, is a different story altogether.