Observant Catholics in the Detroit area who abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent may still consume a type of semi-aquatic rodent: muskrat. The Associated Press reports on this established exception to the no-meat-on-Fridays rule, which the Archdiocese Of Detroit has granted Catholics for more than a century. Dating back to the 18th century, Catholic missionaries in the area realized that river-dwelling muskrat was a cheap source of protein, and were loathe to deny its meat to poor residents. Even as the economic pressure to eat muskrat has abated, the tradition continues to this day. I’d assume the key is to think of it as the other, other, other white meat?
An investigation into the history of Detroit-area muskrat dinners by Detroit Catholic found St. Charles Borromeo in Newport, Michigan, still holds an annual fundraising muskrat dinner each February. The muskrats must be butchered and cleaned on Wednesday; then re-cleaned multiple times over the next two days; salted; and finally, “parboiled with onion, spices and celery and later fried in a pan.” The muskrat chefs dish up about 900 plates of the meat on Friday, and diners tell Detroit Catholic it tastes like rabbit, chicken, and garlic roast beef. A priest who grew up eating muskrat with his family disagrees, telling the Associated Press: “I think muskrat tastes like muskrat, and I don’t think I can compare it to anything else.”
St. Charles parish’s muskrat dinner raised about $10,000 this year.
Observant Catholics once abstained from eating meat on Fridays throughout the year, and while this still remain canonical law (really!), it’s not observed much these days outside of the Lenten season. The idea is that Catholics should do penance in some form, and that abstaining from meat on certain days is a way to show unity and solidarity in this penance. It’s not just giving up meat for its own sake; Catholics are also instructed to pray and to perform acts of charity and piety.
I’d consider eating muskrat an act of sacrifice, though it was obviously once intended to be a dispensation from the rule against meat-eating. Eating rodents and semi-aquatic land mammals does have precedent. Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru consume guinea pigs. Some British chefs now herald grey squirrel as a sustainable meat. And Louisiana residents have had marginal success turning “voracious orange-toothed rodents” called Nutria into a delicacy. Maybe all muskrat needs is a sleek-sounding, Nutria-esque rebranding? After all, neither the word “rat” nor “musk” is especially appetizing. Instead: Swamp Beef? Marsh Veal? Chicken Of The Bog? Mmmmmmuskrat?