From December through March, the sign outside Bailey’s Seafood proclaims, “Muskrat Sold Here.”
An area newcomer, who understandably wishes to remain anonymous, naively commented, “I wonder if they sell them as pets…”
No, muskrats – also known as “marsh rabbits” – are sold to be eaten.
Bailey’s Seafood on Route 113 in Frankford has been owned by Grace and Orville Bailey since 1977, when they moved to the area from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Before that, Orville Bailey was a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay, where he captained his own boat, the Five Sisters.
For most of the year, Bailey’s Seafood is best known for the high quality and low cost of its clams, oysters, shrimp and crabs.
“We have much lower overhead here,” said Baileys’ daughter, Cheryl Workman, who now helps run the business. “People drive here from Bethany Beach and Ocean City, and they always come back, year after year.”
But, for a few customers – mostly those whose grandparents were locals back in the Depression – the ability to buy muskrat and cook them according to a decades-old family recipe provides culinary memories of days gone by.
The muskrat is a semi-aquatic rodent but, despite the similarity of name, it is its own species and is unrelated to the much-maligned common rat. It is a vegetarian that eats roots and leaves from plants that grow in marshy habitats. They are clean animals, often observed dipping a root into water to wash off any mud before eating it.
The Baileys used to purchase them locally but, with a dwindling supply, they now come from New Jersey, frozen as a pair and plastic-wrapped.
Please note the following paragraph is not for squeamish readers.
Muskrats are sold skinned, with their heads, feet and tails still attached. Thus – with their four long incisor teeth; long, skinny claws; and long, scaled tail – there is no question about the animal’s identity. Their meat is dark red, and the innards and musk sac – from which it gets part of its name – are removed. Some people consider the brain to be their most delectable part.
In the Bailey family, it is Grace who does the ’rat cooking, and Orville and four generations of men-folk who do the eating. That includes a year-old great-grandson who licked his lips in delight when he had his first taste a few weeks ago.
“I cook five of them for six people,” said Grace Bailey.
First, she chops off the head and tail. She cuts them into quarters, like a chicken, and soaks them in water overnight. Then she parboils them for three hours, along with a sliced apple and onion.
“That takes the wild taste out,’ she explained.
Then it’s a matter of flouring them, browning them in a pan, adding the broth to make gravy and savoring the aroma. Bailey serves the meal with baked sweet potatoes and hot, buttered biscuits. She says the meat tastes like beef to her.
Muskrat hunting a casualty of the times
Bert Adams is the owner of Hook ’Em & Cook ’Em Outfitters in South Bethany. Although it is a full-service outdoor store, he says there is – perhaps unsurprisingly – no demand for muskrat traps at the beach. But Adams knows about muskrats from his early teenage years in Kent County, where the marsh water is fresher and the critters more plentiful.
Living in family groups, muskrats make huts or lodges out of mud and vegetation. These can be more than 5 feet in height and diameter and can sometimes be noticed from the car window as you drive along side the marsh on Route 1 just south of Dover.
“In the winter, my friend and I used to get into all our gear to wade in the marsh twice a day at low tide, looking for runs to set our traps,” Adams said. “Sometimes, we had to crack through the ice to get to them when we returned. It was fun. My dad liked to eat them, and we made money selling the pelts.”
Winter is when trapping is allowed by law. It is also when the muskrat’s coat is thickest.
“I used to get $8 for a black pelt and $5 to $6 for brown ones,” said Adams, noting that prices fell after the “animal rights people protested against wearing real fur.”
Indeed, historically, it is from the pelts that money is made. In 1908, Henry Crane wrote and published his “History of the State of Delaware.” He mentioned that, in the early 1700’s, “fully one hundred thousand muskrat hides were shipped from Leipsic” (near Dover) to European furriers.
If, however, you’re not keen on the idea of trapping a muskrat on your next wildlife excursion or if you don’t happen to have a permit – and if cooking them yourself doesn’t appeal either – but you do have a taste for adventurous if not exotic cuisine, you’re still in luck. The Pittsville Diner at 34200 Old Ocean City Road in Pittsville, Md., has muskrat specials on the menu every Wednesday throughout trapping season, from 4 to 8 p.m., or until they are gone.
“We serve them whole with mashed potatoes or hominy grits, turnip greens, corn bread and black-eyed peas,” said owner Dave White.
White said that his muskrats are trapped locally in Somerset County and are very popular.
“It’s best to make a reservation,” he said. The phone number for the Pittsville Diner is (410) 835-2541.
In general, in Sussex County, muskrat trapping and cooking appears to be a dying tradition. Cheryl Workman doesn’t mind selling them but has no interest in continuing her mother’s feat of preparing them in the kitchen or in eating them.
“I just don’t like the idea,” she said.
On the other hand, Workman and her sister do continue making their family recipe for the delicious watermelon-rind and strawberry preserves sold in the store.
“I warmed some watermelon preserve and spread it on some toast this morning for Dad,” she said. “He told me it was just like his mama used to make!”
The Baileys are often found in the front room that is the entrance to their store. It is where the old-timers gather to eat breakfast in the morning, or workers enjoy a carry-out sandwich at lunch, or customers just shoot the breeze – and where Grace likes to do jigsaw puzzles and where Orville fondly surveys his years of accumulated and assorted memorabilia. Some people might call it a treasure trove of junk or stuff, but to the Bailey family, the room is “Dad’s shrine.”
The phone number at Bailey’s Seafood, to check on muskrat availability or to order your next bushel of crabs, or just to gaze around in amazement is (302) 732-9401.