Odd Wisconsin Archive
Muskrat Pie for Christmas Dinner
During the winter of 1811, fur trader Thomas Gummersall Anderson was far from civilization, isolated with five French-Canadian helpers deep in the frozen forest of the northwest. They’d eaten all the migrating waterfowl shot the previous autumn, and the friendly Sioux hunters were all in the field collecting beaver pelts. But that didn’t keep the lonely little party from attempting to celebrate Christmas with a special dinner.
“We had for some time been feasting on dried and smoked muskrats,” Anderson later recalled, “a bale of which savory meat had been secured from the Indians’ autumnal hunting season. Christmas day had arrived; and as on former festival days, I was minded to prepare something new for myself and friends to eat and to talk about for awhile.
“So immediately after breakfast I called my servant and told him we intended to have a 'sea pie' for dinner, and that it must be made under my own inspection, as I wanted it particularly nice. ‘So,’ said I, ‘go and wash your hands very clean and bring me Red Whale's large wooden bowl full of flour to be made into a paste.’ That being done and set by the fire to raise, I directed that six of the fattest muskrats that could be found in the bale be brought; cut off the head and hairy part of the feet, throwing them away; divid each muskrat into six parts and wash them in warm water; then put into a piece of deerskin a dozen grains of pepper, and powder it by pounding as fine as snuff, and pulverize some salt also.
“’Is the bake-kettle clean?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ replied the servant; ’I baked bread in it yesterday.’ ‘All right,’ said I; ‘now roll out some paste the size of the bake-kettle, not more than half an inch thick; grease the bottom of the kettle with that lump of tallow; fit the paste to the bottom of the dish, then lay on the paste a layer of muskrat meat; pepper and salt it; then some strips of paste over the meat; and so alternate the courses till the kettle is nearly full.’ After filling the dish with water, covering it tight, with plenty of live coals on the top, it was left to cook by a slow fire.
"But pepper and salt did not save it, nor savory crust convert muskrat into relishable food. On opening the pie, so sickening was the effluvia emanating from it that all were glad to rush to the door for fresh air; nor have I ever since voted in favor of smoked muskrat pies.”
Despite this and many worse adventures, Anderson lived to be nearly 100 (1779-1875); he is shown here in old age. His memoirs are one of the best surviving sources about the War of 1812 in Wisconsin. Anderson fought for the British against the Americans, and his handwritten memoir of the only engagement fought on Wisconsin soil, the Battle of Prairie du Chien, can be seen at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. He also kept a journal of the British occupation of the town from August through November, 1814, which is in our online edition of Wisconsin Historical Collections.
:: Posted in Animals on December 4, 2006