SMYRNA, Del. (AP) _ Nancy Bailey walked out of Mary Etta's Family Restaurant, grinning like the proverbial cat who swallowed the canary. But the main course wasn't bird, it was rat - muskrat.

''I'm 54 and I've been eating them since I was old enough to know what they were,'' said Ms. Bailey of Sudlersville, Md.

Delaware's muskrat trapping season began in December, and two Smyrna restaurants are serving the swamp-dwelling rodents' tender, dark brown meat until the season closes March 15.

Muskrat is the Wednesday night $7.95 special at Mary Etta's, with fried potatoes and stewed tomatoes.

Can't make it Wednesday? Across town, Kitty Budd dishes up her secret muskrat recipe on Tuesday nights at the Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant.

''It's a lot of work. You have to make sure you do it right because it's a wild animal,'' said Mrs. Budd, 69, who's been cooking muskrats since she was a child.

Some say the meat tastes like roast beef; others insist it's similar to squirrel.

''This is a tender meat and it's sweet. You'll never find a tough one,'' said David Simpler of Elkton, Md. ''It's better than squirrel. Squirrel can be a little tough.''

''The secret is what you put in it when you parboil them to get the wild taste out,'' said Mary Etta Workman, owner of Mary Etta's.

Some people who have never tried it simply can't get past the name. When Mrs. Budd owned the Wagon Wheel, her menu called it ''marsh rabbit.''

''If they called it marsh rabbit, they would eat it,'' said Bill Starkey of Chestertown, Md., who was among the diners at Mary Etta's. ''It's good stuff. It's better than chicken.''

Starkey was with his wife, Marlene, and Bob and Hazel Moffett. The women refused to eat the ''rats.''

''I'd rather wear a muskrat than eat it,'' Mrs. Moffett said.

Leon Powell, who's been eating muskrat for more than 40 years, said he thinks the rodents are better aphrodisiacs than oysters.

''They're so good they'll make a bulldog break its chain,'' he said.