On the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula, people are known for eating all sorts of things that raise eyebrows elsewhere.
Crabs, for starters.
Up in New England, they look at you kind of funny if you walk into a seafood restaurant and ask if they have steamed crabs.
“No, but we have lobster,” the waitress will say, doing that funny thing with her r’s.
That’s a Yankee for you. Any fool knows crabs with lots of Old Bay seasoning are much better than a boring old boiled lobster.
People on the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula also eat soft—shelled crabs. They taste great, if you can ignore the legs poking out the sides of the roll (although some say that a true soft-shelled crab sandwich is served only on white bread).
Other regional specialities include oysters, Maryland beaten biscuits, and Smith Island cake.
The one dish that you’re not as likely to see on any tourism brochures, however, is muskrat.
These furry critters live in both fresh— and saltwater marshes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware. Also known as “marsh rabbit,” they are considered a Delmarva delicacy whether stewed, fricasseed or fried.
The meat is a byproduct of trapping, because what the muskrat is really known for is fur, not food. There isn’t as much demand for the fur these days because of the politics of fur. But at one time, a muskrat coat was warm and stylish.
You do not have to be a muskrat trapper to make this dish, although you may have to be just as rugged.
A skinned muskrat in a display case at a country market looks like … well, let’s just say that it does not resemble a New York strip steak.
A muskrat also costs much less than grass-fed Angus. I have seen muskrat for about $1.50 each.
Generally, you have to put in an order for muskrat at these country markets.
If you don’t want to cook it yourself, then you can sample muskrat at various places. A few diners have it on the menu in season. Then there’s the Methodist church in Hancock’s Bridge, N.J., where they’ve been holding annual muskrat dinners for over 50 years. They reportedly cook up 1,800 of the critters, or about one ton of muskrat meat.
For anyone who wants to feel like a real Eastern Shoreman and cook his own muskrat, here’s a recipe from “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.
Skin and remove all fat from hams and shoulders of l muskrat. Remove musk glands under legs and belly and white stringy tissue attached to musk glands.
Poach in salted water for 45 minutes.
Place cut-up meat in a dutch oven and cover with bacon strips. Add:
1 cup water or light stock 1 small sliced onion
1 bay leaf 3 cloves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Cover and simmer until very tender. Serve with creamed celery.
With all due respect to “The Joy of Cooking,” I would prefer mashed potatoes with my mukrat. However, I suspect that the muskrat itself will overshadow most side dishes.
Just wait until your guests or family members are saying, “Boy, this is delicious. What is it?” Then tell them they’re eating muskrat. They won’t notice if that’s creamed celery on the side or old boiled socks.
Mmm, mmm, muskrat. Enjoy.