As It Happens

Why Detroit's Catholics can eat muskrat on Fridays during Lent

Exemption to the no-meat rule goes back to the days of tough winters and resourceful settlers.

Muskrat 'tastes much better than it looks,' says priest

A muskrat feeds while sitting on an ice shelf on the Missouri River near Great Falls, Mont., on Friday, Feb. 2, 2007. (Robin Loznak, Great Falls Tribune via AP)
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For Catholics in Detroit, there is one exception to the rule against eating meat on Fridays during Lent. 

A long-standing permission allows Detroit-area Catholics to eat muskrat — a furry, marsh-dwelling rodent native to the area — "on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent," according to the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The custom dates to the region's missionary history in the 1700s and is especially prevalent in communities along the Detroit River.

"In its earliest history in some of the harsh winters when some of the earlier European settlers were in this part of Michigan, [muskrat] was one of the few things that they had to eat," Rev. Tim Laboe, the dean of studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And so it kind of grew out of that for the French Catholics in this area that couldn't eat meat on Fridays and that could be near starving conditions at certain times during the year. So that's where the dispensation came out." 

'It's a whole production'

Laboe is a fan of the rodent, which he describes as a cross between a beaver and a rat.

But he concedes that muskrat meat is an acquired taste. He likes to bring young seminarians to their first muskrat dinner and watch their reactions.

"It doesn't look very appetizing when when you're served it," he said. "[But] once they try it, they realize that it tastes much better than it looks."

Muskrats eat mostly plants and vegetation. The critters are about 51 to 63.5 centimetres long, including their tails, and weigh between 0.91 and 2.27 kilograms.

In this Feb. 19, 2013, photo, someone applies sherry to muskrat meat prior to the annual Muskrat Dinner at the Monroe Boat Club in Monroe, Mich. (Mike Householder/Associated Press)

Throughout the winter, there are several traditional muskrat dinners held throughout the area on Friday nights during Lent, which Laboe attends enthusiastically.

The meat needs to be prepared with care, as the animal has musk glands that need to be removed.

At one recent dinner he attended, the organizers prepared around 900 muskrats for the feast, he said.

"It's a whole production. They have to remove the musk glands from the back legs and they clean it two or three times before they even cook it," Laboe said. "And then they parboil it with onions and garlic for four hours or so. Then they fry it."  

What does muskrat taste like?

There is some disagreement as to what muskrat most tastes like, he said.

"Everybody has their opinion. Some people say it tastes like rabbit. Some people say it tastes like duck. I just think it tastes like muskrat," said Laboe. 

"If you really want to know what it what it tastes like, you've got to try it."

In this Dec. 14, 2010, photo, a muskrat swims in a pond near Buffalo, N.Y. (David Duprey/Associated Press)

Laboe acknowledges that not everyone is as enthusiastic about muskrat as he is.

"In fact, a former bishop here ... said 'anybody that eats muskrat does an act of penance worthy of the greatest saint,'" he said. "But that's one man's opinion. I take a different approach because I really like it. I think it's great."

Written by Alison Broverman with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Rev. Tim Laboe produced by Morgan Passi.

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, Rev. Tim Laboe was quoted as saying a bishop once told him that anyone who eats muskrat "does an act of penance worthy of the greatest sin." This was a misquote. In fact, he said "the greatest saint."
    Apr 22, 2019 4:54 PM ET