24 March 09: __ of the Delaware:
the feast of rat

In this latest installment of the Whatever of the Delaware (maybe I should change the name of the series since it's gone long past summer and then fall and now winter), we're gonna take a drive. Not a long drive, but long enough of one that we're gonna sit through a little rush hour traffic and, when all is said and done, find ourselves down south in Dixie.

The state of Delaware, second smallest in the country, has a grand total of three counties. (Even Rhode Island has five.) New Castle, the northernmost, is its center of industry, activity and population. Wilmington and its Northeast Corridor neighbors, by geographic default, fall into Philly's metropolitan statistical area. Sussex, the southernmost, is largely rural and on the eastern edge are Delaware's destination beaches, Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany. Between them is Kent County, where the state capital Dover straddles a meager hill dividing the watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Delaware River-Bay to the east. And just above Dover is Smyrna, a town of under 10,000 that's hugged the southern bank of Duck Creek, one of the Delaware's hundreds of meandering, marshy tributaries, since 1706.

Those salty tidewater marshes were, at least for a couple hundred years, the lifeblood of many a Delawarean man. The fishing of shad, sturgeon, catfish and eel, the hunting of duck, brant and goose, and the trapping of turtle, fox and a smelly little rodent called muskrat . . . there are few left who make a living doing these, and arguably none left who support themselves on the muskrat, a one time lucrative consolation to the long-ago loss of the beaver.

"It's just the love of it," says Mark, a Smyrna man who's been trapping muskrat since he was a boy. "It's an awful lot of work with not much reward."

The reward used to be the sale of the pelts for their fur and their glands for use in fragrances; the meat was sometimes sold, but usually just kept and cooked (and given to friends and family). That's right -- muskrat meat, as pictured in the first photo above.

Chemistry has long replaced the need for muskrat glands, and individual pelts bring less than a dollar apiece. So it's the tradition -- meat and the trapping itself -- that keep men in the muddy marshes, laboring in small boats to tend to hundreds of traps tied to the bottom of tall bamboo sticks marked with colored flags, and dependent on the rise and fall of the tide. As Mark said, it takes a lot of love to commit that much work.

But commit it they do on the lower Delaware. Muskrat trapping season runs from mid-January to mid-March. Mark, who runs a service company that repairs trucks, tractors and fire engines, "knows all the trappers from Woodland Beach to Bombay Hook." In a straight line on the map, that's only a couple miles, but adding the meanders of the Delaware, the creeks and the "pissy little ditches," as Mark calls them, there are hundreds of acres of swampy, marshy ground where muskrats dwell, burrowing in the mud and feeding on cattails, grass and other vegetation.

"They're vegetarians . . . like me!" says Kathy, a perfectly friendly waitress at the Wagon Wheel Diner, the only place I'm aware of that has muskrats on its menu. There are muskrat feeds at social clubs and hunting lodges -- "I cook 'em over at the Ducks Unlimited feed every year," Mark says -- and a lot of lower Delawareans have their own favorite recipe, but to find it on the menu is rare.

Except at the Wagon Wheel, just under the big Smyrna water tower, where it's been a weekly seasonal delicacy since 1940. The New York Times wrote about it in 1988 (archived online HERE), and Don Polec, who the Inquirer's Michael Klein reported last week will be departing Channel 6 Action News at the end of the month, paid a recent visit. And last Tuesday, St Patrick's Day, I headed down 95, to Delaware Route 1 just below Wilmington, across the William Ross Bridge, Delaware's mini-Sunshine Skyway crossing the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the recognized cultural boundary between north and south in the First State.

Down here in Smyrna, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, muskrat Tuesdays at the Wagon Wheel are especially busy because it's the only muskrat game in town. Though she is a vegetarian and has never tried it herself, Kathy's well versed on the muskrat's life and death. "They bring them in here from the marshes with their heads still on, because they have to [by Delaware state trapping law], and then we serve them without the head because we have to," she says before adding, "and some people even ask for the heads."

Mark explains his preparation process, which seems to center on patience: "After they're skinned, you soak em in salt water for three days. On the second day, you switch out the water. On the third, you boil em for 2-3 hours." At this point, Patty, the Wagon Wheel's owner and Tuesday evening chef, comes to the counter and says, "that's when you take it and toss it in a big pan with lots of sage and lots of pepper."

"In butter?" I ask.

"Oh no," Patty says, "olive oil. And lots of onions."

Lots of onions, indeed. When the plate of muskrat arrives, it has a side of home fries, and a mountain of onions covers each. A cup of stewed tomatoes and a slice of cornbread look on at this plate of muskrat from a distance.

"That's a finger food," Mark says, as though to laugh away the fork on the counter.

"Just pick it up and eat it like fried chicken," says the vegetarian waitress. So I do, and . . . it's . . . okay!

I see where the comparisons to duck, or chicken thigh, come from at least in texture. The flavor, though, is -- shockingly -- gamy. It may have been soaked in salt water for three days, but you can still it came from the marsh. It's not unlike the rabbit and squirrel dishes I remember from my Appalachian youth. But those dishes involved cut meats and forks and knives. Eating muskrat with your hands, like a chicken thigh, means biting the meat off of little leg bones and little rib cages you put into a separate bowl, like the bone bowl at any hot wing joint.

The home fries are tasty, standard issue fried potatoes and onions, but they're not enough to balance out the muskrat's, uh, zest, so I soak them in hot sauce (Crystal, my favorite) to annihilate my palate since the cornbread won't clear it.

The $15 muskrat meal comes with a dessert, but given the portion size, I have no room left for it. Instead, Kathy gives me a baggie of homemade cinnamon candies in the shape of shamrocks. It being St Patrick's Day in small town Delaware, she leans in quietly and says "I don't know if you've been drinking, but these are strong enough to cover up your breath." I laugh and thank her for the tip as I pay my bill and leave a healthy tip of my own before heading out for the hour and 15 minute trip home, sober.

Quite a night, that Muskrat Tuesday at the Wagon Wheel. Muskrat Tuesdays are only in season, though, and when the season's catch is done, Muskrat Tuesdays are done till the next year. The season just ended last week, and Patty and Mark tell me they've got enough for one, maybe two more weeks.

Smyrna's only 65 miles away, so if you don't have any dinner plans this evening, why not exercise your right to eat muskrat before that right goes away for another year? The Wagon Wheel is at 113 South DuPont Boulevard (Route 13) in Smyrna, and they're open till 9.

–B Love


• 26 January 09: Fly eagles fly
• 15 October 08: Sailing on Jupiter
• 7 October 08: Our sacred ground
• 6 October 08: The river to the ocean goes
• 25 September 08: 36th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
• 24 September 08: River and rail
• 23 September 08: The Betsy Ross and Delair Bridges
• 19 September 08: And now, Tacony-Palmyra
• 17 September 08: On the Festival Pier: My Morning Jacket concert review
• 12 September 08: Burlington & Bristol: expecting twins
• 10 September 08: Fantastic voyage
• 9 September 08: Trentonian Trifecta
• 5 September 08: Calhoun Street Bridge, my bridge
• 4 September 08: It's a Celebration, Bridges
• 3 September 08: "Scenic Overlook"
• 2 September 08: How I spent my Summer of the Delaware
• 25 August 08: Walk this way
• 18 August 08: Toke remnants
• 11 August 08: Pi reconsidered
• 4 August 08: A photographic interlude
• 29 July 08: Reconsidering Pi
• 25 July 08: Happy trail
• 18 July 08: Seeking the source
• 14 July 08: All this is mine
• 27 June 08: Welcome to the Summer of the Delaware