When a muskrat’s a fish

by Feast of Assumption

On fast days in the Catholic liturgical calendar, the eating of meat is avoided. There’s been plenty of writing across the centuries1 about this being no biggie for those on fine economic footing, but somewhat more of a hardship for those of meager means.

In Michigan among French-descended fur trappers, a missionary in the early 1800s noticed his parishioners were faring poorly, and allowed them to eat muskrat (after all, it lives in water!). This post gives a detailed saga, culminating with a modern hey waaaaait, muskrats aren’t fish, shouldn’t we make the Michiganders knock this off?,” which was answered by the late Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing in 1987:

He referred to what he called the Great Interdiocesan Doctrinal Debate” of 1956, during which he determined that although muskrat is a warm-blooded mammal and technically flesh, the custom had been so long held along Michigan’s rivers and marshes that it was immemorial custom,” thus allowed under church law.

For the record, Bishop Povish didn’t much care for muskrat as a meal. He wrote that anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest of the saints.”

The post linked above gives a complete explanation of the dispensation and its history, but I found that it faceplanted on the description of the taste of muskrat. It tastes like a duck if a duck had no fat–it is quite lean, and its flesh tastes like algae. The best perparation I’ve found is in the vein of sauerbraten, where you give the muskrat an overnight sweet vinegar-based marinade. Once it’s been well marinated, muskrat tastes fine enough, but the bones:meat ratio is tiresome, and I don’t know a fix for that.

Family lore has it that (cicra 1930), Ojibwe coworkers would brag about having a muskrat available for dinner that week, but white coworkers wouldn’t.

  1. …the poor fast all year round. Very few farmers eat meat once a month. If they had to eat it every day, there wouldn’t be enough for the most flourishing kingdom. The small number of rich, financiers, prelates, principal magistrates, great lords, great ladies, who deign to have lean meat (1) served at their tables, fast for six weeks with sole, salmon, fish, turbots, sturgeons. | The secretary of the commandments of the rich, his valets de chambre, the young ladies of Madame, the head of the office, etc., eat the dessert of Croesus, and fast as deliciously as he does. | It is not the same with the poor. Not only do they commit a great sin if they eat for four sous a tough mutton, but they will search in vain for this miserable food. What will they eat? they have only their chestnuts, their rye bread, the cheeses they have pressed from the milk of their cows, their goats, or their sheep, and a few eggs from their hens. Voltaire’s Careme, via Google Translate

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