Lent, the Christian holiday that spans the roughly six week period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, is coming to an end. For many Christians, it is a time for self-sacrifice, penance, and fasting. Historically, this has led the faithful to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during the holiday, ushering in a steady diet of fish as a substitute for meat-based meals.
But for Roman Catholics in some areas of Michigan, there is another option for Friday dinners during Lent — muskrat.
The History of the Catholic Church and Muskrats
The Catholic Church has at certain times and under certain conditions made exceptions to the no-meat-on-Fridays rule to include aquatic mammals. In her blog on the subject, Environmental Historian Dolly Jørgensen points out that this allowance arises from the medieval debate over what foods are meant to be forbidden during Lent. “…the dietary restriction wasn’t about mammals & birds versus fish,” Jørgensen writes, “but about land versus water. Thus, other animals that spent time in the water, qualified as aquatic.”
The Associated Press reports that the ruling on the Michigan muskrats came down from the Archdiocese of Detroit, and goes back to the 18th century. Missionaries in the region were worried that fasting during Lent might put undue stress on the Catholic population of the region because of the scarcity of food. So they authorized the substitution of the semi-aquatic rodent as a source of protein during the religious holiday.
Eating muskrat used to be much more prevalent in Michigan, according to an Atlas Obscura article on the subject, and muskrat dinners served as a popular fundraising event for communities throughout Michigan. In 1906, Monroe County, Michigan hosted curious epicureans “from as far as Seattle and New York to eat 2000 prepared muskrats” during its county festival. But the heyday for the muskrat dinner is long gone. Michigan’s most famous muskrat-serving diner, Kola’s Food Factory, finally closed its doors in 2007.
Modern Day Muskrat Eating
The practice is far less common today but remains a traditional dish particularly in areas surrounding the Detroit River where local churches still host muskrat dinners for their parishioners.
If you were to attend one of these dinners, you could expect to have your muskrat cooked in the traditional Michigan manner which, according to Atlas Obscura, is “parboiled and fried…[and] served alongside any number of classic sides such as creamed corn, green beans, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes.” Of course, just like there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more to preparing muskrat than just parboiling. In fact, there are dozens of recipes available on the internet for cooking muskrat, including everything from deep fried to stewed and even cream of muskrat casserole.
Muskrats aren’t the only semi-aquatic mammal that finds itself on dinner plates during Lent. According to Scientific American, barbequed beaver and caramelized capybara are also on the menu. Since the church designated them as fish for dietary purposes. So next year, if you are tired of Fishstick Friday during Lent, there are plenty of other options.