Embracing the Rat at Cambridge Muskrat Festival

I dragged my family to the Cambridge Muskrat Festival, but they forgave me

When I first moved to the Delmarva Peninsula, muskrat was much more a local thing than it has become. Served in church halls or on specialty nights in very specific restaurants, it wasn’t passed off as a delicacy so much as a wall between the Eastern Shoremen and the come-heres. For nearly two decades I was content to leave it that way, until I stopped eating meat.

For long and boring reasons incidental to this story, I elected to eat only game meat, except in the case of fresh-killed chickens available from my local butcher. It is a pretense and conceit, I know, but no more than the access to culture that my more metropolitan friends accidentally remind me I don’t have a ton of access to. I can get super fresh food, but I’m unlikely to stumble upon a secret rock show. Fair’s fair. The short point is:

Muskrat is game.

I eat game.

Therefore, I eat muskrat.

There is no way to dress it up and, really, no point. Embracing muskrat is its own thing.

The Cambridge Muskrat Festival

I’ve written about my first muskrat tasting and will without prompting take you through the various times I have tried and enjoyed muskrat, but the opportunity to attend the annual Crawfish Boil and Muskrat Stew Fest (AKA the Cambridge Muskrat Festival) held a particular fascination  First of all,Cambridge Muskrat Festival participants were serving avant-garde muskrat.

At the risk of sounding like a muskrat hipster, I’ve had the broiled muskrat at Dave White’s Pittsville Dinette which, I’ve heard tell, is the pinnacle of the preparation methods. Dave single-sources his muskrat and uses a traditional (but secret) recipe to produce a spicy near-glaze for the muskrat.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, muskrat generally is either slow-cooked off the bone and served in a kind of stew or broiled al a Dave White. It isn’t the kind of dish people get overly creative with. After all, if they were overly creative, traditionally, they would have not named it muskrat, which would improve the palatability immensely.

There are, in fact, a number of people who call it “marsh rabbit” as a nod to how gross it is to try and foist “rat” on anyone who has grown up in the European tradition, but it is a losing battle. Marsh Rabbit seems overqualified, as if the speaker is trying too hard. Tripe, haggis, these are creatively named dishes that can pass. Marsh rabbit doesn’t sound exotic, it sounds suspicious.

Muskrat feast aka Varmintfest

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Chef Patrick Fanning, a local restaurateur, served variations on muskrat that included: smoked whole, chili, tacos and traditional stew. The stew is tough to look at, especially knowing it is filled with rat. The first time I saw muskrat served was “in the stew” and, for me, this earliest experience raised (I admit) a permanent objection without merit.

I’ll eat a rat that looks like a rat, but a rat that appears to be accidentally rather than intentionally in a stew is beyond my power of self-delusion. I chose the smoked whole muskrat, but my daughter, who could not abide it, chose the “rat dog” a hotdog topped with muskrat chili. Among those who tried some of my smoked rat there were two indictments.

One was that, smoked as it was, it still tasted too much like muskrat. The other was that it only tasted like smoked meat. Both descriptions were true and fair.

If you’re of the mind to try and get someone to taste muskrat, you could do worse than offering them the smoked variety. The gamey flavor is quite subdued while the mineral-y notes shine against the smoke flavor. That easily was the big takeaway from the Cambridge Muskrat Festival.

Muskrat in Cambridge

This, friends, is a rat dog with a side of fries. Nothing ever became a traditional food without first being a new food.

Crawfish Boil and Muskrat Stew Fest

If there is a downside to the festival is it that there is an admission price, which wasn’t prohibitive but, I thought, a little tacky given that it was a fee for the opportunity to buy lunch. And that that lunch was (mostly) muskrat.

The festival was held in what amounted to an alley that had the dual benefit of making it feel as if there were more attendees than there were, and also that no number of them could eat at the same place at the same time. It was a cocktail party with people balancing beers precariously while gnawing on muskrats and shouting down the music.

The music was fine, performed by two excellent regional acts (which, I supposed was what the admission was all about). In its fifth year, though, one would have expected the festival, held on a glorious Saturday afternoon, to have been better attended. I worry that charging people even a measly fiver to stand around and eat rat in an alley while shouting conversation at one another might be a bridge too far.

That said: You should go. I brought my family and they all had the opportunity to indulge in various culinary interpretations of muskrat, which is a story they have now. If nothing else, they can win all the true/false icebreaker games with the following true statement: I have eaten a rat dog.