Thanksgiving 1954: Muskrat anyone?

Justin Isherwood
Thanks to UW Extension Bulletin 1142, the Isherwood family was served up a heaping helping of roast muskrat in 1954.

At Thanksgiving farm folk say a prayer for the potato crop – it’s required – not to forget the corn, the soybeans and the tomato patch.  A prayer, too, for the dairy herd, the chicken coop, the holy wood pile. If from our farmhouse there was a prayer for University Extension, the salvation of the farmhouse, the deliverance of the field.

Our mama was college educated, she believed divine truth was for gospel to imagine, if for the University of Wisconsin to deliver.  All manner of farm sector salvation came by way of UW- Extension, to offer here but a partial listing. That our farmhouse had indoor and a septic tank was by Extension bulletin 473, circa 1932.  That a pressure cooker filled the cellar with Masons, bulletin 594. How to build a chicken brooder from scrap wood to include a storm window, bulletin 297. How to candle eggs, bulletin 924, pickle eggs, bulletin 821, disinfect open wounds, bulletin 834, safely can green beans, bulletin 701.

Then in 1954 there was UW-Extension bulletin 1142, how to prepare wild game. I still believe grounds exist for a legal suit citing trauma because of bulletin 1142.

For reasons only known to historically excitable, our mama decided in 1954 to do an authentic Thanksgiving dinner, including the Pilgrims and the Indians. Including the wild game. The Pilgrims and the Indians wasn’t a crime, Extension bulletin 1142 was.

For the Pilgrims and Indians thing, Mama simply divided the table between Christians and the not-quite Christians. Being Methodist this was pretty straightforward: Methodists circa 1954 didn’t drink, the not-quite Christians did. Mama put the not-quite Christians on one side of the table and the full-bore Christians on the opposite.

The not-quites got Mogen David with their meal served in juice glasses as my mama didn’t have a single wine glass in the house — this being tantamount to admitting not-quite Christian. To her plan, Mama had accomplished the Pilgrim and the Indian partition to include reparations for an authentic, historically cogent Thanksgiving.

The remainder was Extension  bulletin 1142 to do a wild game Thanksgiving. Attached was a long list of possibles; rabbit, possum, woodchuck, squirrel, deer, bear, badger, pigeon, raccoon — somehow a great blue heron got on the list.

Posed at the center of the Isherwood family table was the supreme artifact: muskrat - about six of them roasted, sauced, heads attached.

It was about here our mama’s plot-line became a touch dodgy.  She had come to believe “wild game” in the form of venison, rabbit, even possum were too easy. Never mind I maintain the pre-1960 mindset that venison of this era was analogous to eating roof shingles without a sauce, being before Odocoileus virginianus determined corn fodder to be better fare than popple twigs and cedar bark. Not to discount popple twigs as nourishing, it’s the after-taste.

Apparently Mama had read Extension bulletin 1142 cover to cover that included the thesis that possum was edible, along with raccoon and woodchuck to suggest desperation rather than culinary amplitude. But even these victims missed the Thanksgiving essence required for a true Pilgrim/Indian event. I don’t recall of this event whether children under the age of 14 were equally distributed as Pilgrims or Indians or just assumed to be Indians.

On Thanksgiving Day 1954 that farmhouse on the frontier of the Township gathered up its memorial hosts. Its collection of Pilgrims and Indians were joined at the grateful feast as was about to be authentic, willingly or not, a true Thanksgiving. The bounty of the field, the forest and stream brought to the table, that would render us thankful.  What we didn’t know was, thankful for anything, as long as it wasn’t authentic.

That day we had muskrat. Yes indeed, there was a corn chowder side soup, there was chicken-hued dressing, gravy, the green bean casserole as is statutory, along with a ski-hill of mashed potatoes complete with a butter-flavored glacier. 

Posed at the center of the table was the supreme artifact, muskrat. About six of them roasted, sauced, heads attached, Mama had read the brain is the best part.  As we all know, the turkey is betrayed because it looks so good dead, upside down and roasted.  Same goes for lamb chops, ham, beef Wellington, sirloin.

To confess a dead muskrat doesn’t know how to pose provocatively at the center of the table. It gets some worse with the skull attached. What you notice on a well-done muskrat is the over-large upper incisors, these poised in the middle of the Thanksgiving table, more fang than tooth.

This family, like the Isherwoods of Plover, Wis., gathered round the table where muskrat was the main course. An experience that has stayed with author Justin Isherwood for 65 years.

Since my childhood I have read numerous essays on wild game and the one creature that consistently ranks low is muskrat. Mud the collective sense of what muskrat tastes like. Personally I’ve tasted better mud. However, when it comes to Thanksgiving, there is nothing that will make you more thankful for mashed potatoes, for that green bean casserole, than roast muskrat. 

I believe there were leftovers that day, and a few new-born vegetarians. And unlike most Thanksgivings when the pie course came in its vengeful abundance there was gastronomic room for pie. Nothing like muskrat to make glorious pie; lemon meringue, rhubarb, blueberry, cherry and those who previously shunned mincemeat, to gain a new appreciation.

When this assembly of Pilgrims and Indians at last pushed their digestive innards from that Thanksgiving table, we did feel as if we had been there, a couple miles inland from Plymouth Rock, a true wilderness Thanksgiving. If to believe the Indians were better off having that gallon of Mogen David to their side of the table. That was the farmhouse Thanksgiving of 1954, or 1621 if that’s your preference.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.