The new second edition of our bestseller, The Trails of M-22, has finally arrived from the printers. It covers 48 trails along that beautiful highway, including all the mainland trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The 224-page guidebook is full color and uses a series of QR codes so you can immediately download onto your smartphone large, more detailed maps, even georeferenced trail maps. You can order the new edition from our eshop.
By Jim DuFresne
I know a rat lover when I see one. So does Thelma Zenser. So it didn’t take me long to bare my soul and divulge my deepest secret to this woman who I met only 15 minutes earlier.
Man, do I love to eat rat.
Muskrat, that is. Or marsh rabbit to those who love that dark, favorable meat but want nothing to do with rat even though it’s only the second half of its name.
Go to a place like Ann Arbor and those trendy yuppies would be horrified at the suggestion of dining on muskrat. “Don’t they have long skinny tails?” they would say if they say anything at all. “Oh, don’t worry. They cut most of the tail off before they serve it.”
Muskrat is, of course, an acquired taste. Either you grow up with it and love it or you never accept the fact that this little rodent can grace a dinner table. Some people, my mother being one, marry into it but at best they spend the rest of their lives picking at the bones and not once pile it high on their fork.
I grew up with it. Living where the Detroit River empties into Lake Erie and being French Canadian and Catholic, muskrat runs deep in the blood of my father’s family. We would get all dressed up on Friday evening and go out for muskrat because the Pope said it was okay to eat rat when all other meat was forbidden during lent…seeing how it spends most of its life under the water anyhow.
At least that’s what the French Canadian Catholics in downriver Detroit would say right after grace and right before ordering a rat for dinner. We would go to restaurants and halls that were never more than a stone’s throw away from the Detroit River and the rat would arrive buried in sauerkraut and guarded by a mountain of real mashed potatoes. The kind with lums in it and a small lake of butter on top.
Muskrat is a very dark meat and very favorable. When cooked properly it’s so tender it falls off the rib cage, has the texture of roast beef, and a taste that is often described as “sweet and wild.” That’s why, I suspect, they always served it with sauerkraut. You’d take a big chunk of rat, maybe from the hind leg, throw a little tangy sauerkraut on that fork to balance it out, and wash it down with a glass of beer.
Then praise the Pope for allowing us to have rat on Friday nights.
Zenser loves her rat as well. Oh, she was cooking snapping turtle that day I interviewed her in Saginaw but we talk about muskrats.
Zenser came from the marshes of Ohio’s Lake Erie and married a man who trapped rats from the day he could walk until he was 73 years old. Needless to say, Zenser has eaten her share of rat. Two or three times a week most of her life.
And she knows how to cook it as well. Zenser once fixed 180 rats in a single day when her husband’s union hall had a muskrat feed and 80 couples showed up.
Like all great muskrat chefs, Zenser has never used a recipe. “I’ve never made it the same way twice,” said Zenser. “It’s just by gift and by God that I cook it.”
And by God she makes sure the musk sacks have been removed. Under the leg of every rat is a gland that helps the animal to dive to the bottom of a marsh. Leave those on and you’ll never eat muskrat again. You may even become a vegetarian after that.
“They look like a little yellow sock,” said Zenser. “You just pinch them off but make sure you remove them.”
Then you parboil the rats, slowly cooking them in a big pot of water with parsnips, onion, a little vinegar and “any seasons you have around.” “Do we put carrots in it, Howard?” Zenser asked her husband. “No, I guess we don’t, do we?”
How long do you parboil it?
“Until you’re able to easily pull the front leg away from the rib cage.”
Who needs a timer? Or a meat thermometer?
The rats are then removed and rolled “in any batter you want.” Some people roll them in beaten eggs first and then cornmeal, other use seasoned bread crumbs. Have some stale saltines in the cupboard? Just hit ‘em with a rolling pin a few times. They’ll work fine.
The final step is to fry the cooked meat just long enough for the coating to become crispy and brown. Nothing does a better job of that than a big cast iron fry pan with a little bit of corn oil on the bottom.
Then give praise to the Pope and serve immediately. And if your dinner guests rave about the meal, try to remember how you made it.