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Muskrats Shortage Cancels Annual Event

April 9, 2003

CANTON, N.J. (AP) _ When Alicia Bjornson inherited the job of selling tickets to the Salem Rotary Club’s annual fund-raising dinner, she figured putting food on the table would be a secondary challenge to finding enough people to shell out $20 apiece to eat it.

Bjornson clearly underestimated the local taste for muskrat, a delicacy that is part of a centuries-old tradition in lower South Jersey.

``My phone was ringing off the hook,″ said Bjornson, a historian who works at the Hancock House, a state historical site. ``I would have thought the difficult part would be selling the tickets, not getting the muskrats.″

Unfortunately for the 250 people who bought tickets and 50 others who reserved takeout dinners, snow and ice around the Delaware River and Delaware Bay thwarted the efforts of trappers and resulted in a muskrat shortage that forced the club to cancel the dinner at the end of March.

``The conditions were so miserable I almost didn’t bother going out,″ said Harry Beal, 65, who has been trapping muskrat since he was 5. He estimated he went trapping about six times during the 3 1/2-month season that ended March 15.

The harsh winter was a setback for the South Jersey industry, already a casualty of shifting demand, pollution and disinterest from the younger generation. The number of full-time muskrat trappers in Salem County is ``next to none,″ according to Beal, and most of the part-timers are at or near middle age.

Muskrat hunting in South Jersey and across the United States dates back to early colonial times, and there is evidence that Native Americans hunted them in boats.

Henry David Thoreau wrote admiringly of the muskrat in one of his journals, and whiskered President Zachary Taylor was nicknamed ``Muskrat Head,″ a moniker he despised. But the maligned mammal’s 15 minutes under the modern spotlight came in the 1970s with the penning of the pop hit ``Muskrat Love.″

As for the taste, there seems to be no middle ground.

``It’s good eating,″ said Dorothy Nestor, a patron at Muskrat Mall in Canton, a combination corner store and luncheonette. ``I used to bring the kids to the dinners when they were little, bring the playpen and everything.″

As Nestor spoke, a woman nearby cringed.

Some say that the best way to serve muskrat is to parboil the meat to remove some of the gamy taste, then saute or pan-fry it with onions or other vegetables. The taste is similar to pot roast, and savvy diners bring their own hot sauce.

Bjornson sees the muskrat-eating tradition as more than a quaint oddity or conversation piece.

``It’s an unusual subculture,″ she said, ``but it’s one of the things that makes this area unique.″


On the Net:

New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/

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