Bud Willis stands over a pot of boiling muskrats in the kitchen of Trinity Lutheran Church in Wyandotte. He’s been cooking for hours already, and in less than 40 minutes, he’s expecting more than 200 guests to arrive.
It’s the second day of labor; yesterday, he spent all day cleaning the muskrats.
Preparing muskrat is a fine art: If you don’t properly remove the animal’s musk gland, it can leave a foul flavor that can wreck the whole meal. But the hard part is over, and now, Willis is at ease. He even offers up his family’s recipe.
“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.”
“Hey Buddy, don’t tell him what our recipe is!” Willis’ brother, Eric, mock-scolds over the din of the kitchen. “There’s a reason ours is the best!”
The recipe, Willis says, is his grandmother’s. And now the production is a family affair: His makeshift cooking crew includes his dad, wife, son, daughter, two brothers, two sisters-in-law, and two nephews.
It’s not your typical church fish fry fundraiser. In fact, it’s more successful. Willis served his first muskrat dinner at Trinity Lutheran seven years ago. At the time, other members of the church had just hosted a pork roast dinner. “They laughed at us about our muskrats,” he says.
But the joke was over when Willis sold the evening’s final muskrat. “Our first year, I think we made $1,000,” he says. “They were like, ‘I can’t believe it! We only sold $150 worth of stuff!’ ”
A Folk Tradition
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.
The name “muskrat” is something of a misnomer. While Ondatra zibethicus is a rodent (and at up to 2 feet long, a rather large one at that), they are not members of the genus Rattus. Still, the “rat” in the name is enough to give plenty of potential diners pause.
And the key to the muskrat’s legacy as a Downriver folk tradition could arguably be due to another classification misnomer. Here, muskrat is considered a Lenten meal — the time of year when Catholics traditionally give up eating warm-blooded meat on Fridays in favor of fish.
According to local lore, the custom goes back to at least the early 1800s, when an early missionary named Father Gabriel Richard decided to allow his flock of fur trappers to eat muskrat during Lent rather than go hungry during the rugged times — the reasoning being that muskrats, like fish, also come from the water.
Whether the story is fact or fiction is up to debate. According to a 2007 article in the Catholic News Service, “The Detroit archdiocesan communications department said there is a standing dispensation for Catholics Downriver — in Detroit’s southern suburbs and below — to eat muskrat on Fridays, although no documentation of the original dispensation could be found.” The practice of Catholics eating semiaquatic rodents during Lent, however, is not unprecedented. In the 17th century, the church allowed the Bishop of Quebec to tell his flock they could eat beaver. In Venezuela, Catholics eat capybara — the world’s largest rodent, at up to 4 1/2 feet long.
In metro Detroit, the practice has survived as a folk tradition. People who live Downriver have eaten muskrat for Lent as long as anyone can remember.
In the 1980s, restaurateur Johnny Kolakowski made a name for himself by selling wild game dinners out of Kola’s Kitchen, which he operated out of a Wyandotte bowling alley. One of his most popular dishes was muskrat. At the time, Kolakowski boasted to the Detroit Free Press that he was selling 1,000 muskrat dinners a month.
After the article was published, the state cracked down on Kolakowski, declaring that all commercially consumed meat had to come from an approved source, citing health concerns. Since Kolakowski got his muskrat from under-the-table independent trappers, there was no way to inspect it.
Kolakowski, a city council member, fought back, turning over a petition signed by several thousand people seeking a “continuation of the 300-year-old French ethnic tradition of eating muskrat at home and at nonprofit organizational clubs without state and federal regulation.”
As the press noted, more locals protested the muskrat issue than Monroe County’s Fermi 2 nuclear power plant, another hot-button issue at the time.
Eventually, Kolakowski found a trapper in Ontario who could supply him with Canadian-approved muskrat, which he imported into the U.S. Kolakowski eventually moved his operation to Kola’s Food Factory in Riverview, but closed shop in 2007, citing the economic downturn.
Today, the state allows nonapproved muskrat to be sold at occasional church fundraisers and special wild game dinners as long as it is clearly referred to as wild game. Downriver, such dinners coincide with muskrat hunting season, which typically runs from November to March. They are especially popular during Lent.
The ’Rat Pack
Muskrat dinners are sometimes served in a sauce of creamed corn. Willis, however, doesn’t do it that way. Instead, his muskrats are served (mostly) whole, its head, tail, and legs removed. The skin looks like patent leather, and there’s not a lot of it hanging off of the muskrat’s bones. It comes with a side of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.
Willis says many muskrat aficionados compare the taste to duck. If done correctly, they say, the meat ought to have a sweetness to it, which is accented by cooking it with white onion. Other diners compare the taste to squirrel or rabbit. To borrow a French term, muskrat simply possesses an unplaceable je ne sais quoi. “You either like it or you don’t,” Willis admits. “But I mean, the way we’re cooking it is the best way I’ve ever had.”
But there’s more to it than that. The meal conjures up feelings of family, nostalgia, and cultural identity, which may be the true key to its appeal.
Witness the entourage of old-timer muskrat aficionados (many of the members are in their 80s) who dub themselves “The ’Rat Pack.”
For a long time, the Pack was a regular fixture at Downriver muskrat dinners. They know all the places where you can get muskrat this time of year — like the Elks Lodge in Flat Rock, or the Carleton Sportsmen’s Club — and make the rounds.
It wasn’t long before the ’Rat Pack found out about Willis’ event. Now, Willis says every year at the start of muskrat season he gets a phone call from de facto Pack leader, Bob Reaume, asking about the scheduled date.
“When they first called me up, it was like, I don’t know, he quizzed me for an hour the way I was doing it,” Willis says. “He was like, ‘That’s not the way the French does it. It’s not the way [the Polish] do it, it’s not this, and it’s not that.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, this is the way I do it.’ ”
The connoisseur (“kind-of-a-sewer,” as Reaume is known to quip) is famously picky about his muskrat. (He boldly declares that Kolakowski’s muskrats were overrated.) But Willis must be doing something right. Reaume and the ’Rat Pack have returned to Trinity Lutheran every year.
Or at least, those of the group who are left of the dwindling group.
This evening, Reaume went without his ’Rat Pack. It’s his third muskrat dinner this year. Reaume’s patient wife, Dorothy, joins him but does not eat muskrat — at least not after she was tricked into eating “swamp rabbit” in her youth. She surmises muskrat “is a guy thing.”
For Reaume, eating muskrat is a natural part of being from Downriver — if one from a bygone era.
“For us kids, if you had citizenship Downriver, you had family members who trapped, or you trapped, just like fishing,” he says. “People lived Downriver because there’s Downriver sports, there’s Downriver activities. When I grew up, muskrat trapping was normal for kids.”
By early evening, Trinity Lutheran Church’s dining hall is packed. Willis will later fall a little short of selling all 200 muskrats.
Reaume sits at a table with his wife and looks around the room. “It’s dwindling,” he says of the tradition. “I’m delighted to see some dark-haired folks here.” He points out that most present today, like him, have white hair. Nevertheless, Reaume believes the tradition will survive another generation. His younger relatives have recently become interested in learning about muskrat trapping. One is still in high school, and the other just started college.
In the meantime, he enjoys the Downriver specialty when he can. “It’s an era thing,” he says. “I just hope there’s still somebody serving muskrat dinner when I get to the end of the trail.”