In Indian country, frybread, Indian tacos, curly fries and pizza have become as “traditional” as the dancing and socializing of annual pow wows and celebrations. Food is at the heart of most celebrations, and fast food, in many ways, has taken the place of local cooking. Yet in many regions, familiar foods are being quietly revived or have quietly endured—traditional dishes may include fish caught in the dip net (salmon), greens gathered by hand (milkweed), or dishes that rely on an ingredient that is hard to come by—such as corn soup, red chile stew or muskrat. These traditional dishes reflect the geography, climate and the cooks who make their food with love and care. Celebrating these foods at annual tribal events is an important way to understand and embrace Native identity.
Smothered Muskrat, Passamaquoddy Tribe At Pleasant Point
Indian Days, held on the second weekend in August, is an annual Passamaquoddy tribal ceremony to honor tribes, ancestors, and those who have walked on—the closest the tribe comes to a pow wow. The three-day celebration in eastern Maine, just south of the New Brunswick border, includes a one-mile health walk, an overnight canoe race from Indian Township on the St. Croix River to Passamaquoddy Bay near Pleasant Point and Indian dancing, followed by a communal meal.
Hilda Lewis, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, tribal elder and former tribal council member, says traditional foods served at Indian Days include hulled corn soup and moose-meat chili or stew. And one dish that has almost disappeared—smothered muskrat.
The recipe is simple, she says. First, chop off the tail, then drop the entire muskrat into the pot of water with potatoes, onion and shredded carrot. When the meat is tender, the muskrat, sans tail, is served “with the teeth showing,” she adds. The potatoes and onions are heaped on top, hence, the term smothered.
Muskrat has fallen out of favor as a dish because there isn’t as much trapping being done, Lewis explains, which means the toughest trick when cooking a muskrat is getting a muskrat. The best way to do that may be to ask around to see if someone has a few in their freezer.
Muskrat, about the size of a mink, can weigh up to four pounds and has a rich golden-brown pelt and teeth a bit like a beaver. There isn’t much meat on a muskrat, Lewis says, but the flavor is good, like rabbit with an herbal taste.
Lewis grew up on the reservation where “most of my family’s sustenance came from the woods and sea. We didn’t have a lot of commercial product,” she says, although she wished then that her family could eat Wonder Bread instead of bread her mother made at home.
As kids, they picked berries that were canned for winter. Her grandfather kept a root cellar, gathered currants and cranberries for winter, and pickled vegetables from his garden. Sometimes they had money for a chicken when the traveling butcher came around the reservation. And other times, if supplies were low, her mother would send the kids out to the clam-flats to dig their dinner. “Those were good meals,” Lewis recalls. “Living by the ocean, we always had fish to eat.”
Lewis has cooked muskrat for her sisters and their husbands, and this spring, she is thinking about introducing her grown children to muskrat. All four, who range in age from 31 to 52 years old, have never eaten muskrat, and she believes they will like it.
And yes, the teeth will be showing.
Next: Best Indian Food 2013: Salmon Roasted Over an Alder Fire Pit