Raccoon and muskrat: dying Baltimore culinary traditions

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Smith Island cake and crab imperial get lots of attention for being traditional Maryland foods. But here are two items on many of our forefathers’ menus: raccoon and muskrat.

It doesn’t taste just like chicken. More like a spicy beef, the way Lou Fleming prepares it at Faidley’s Seafood.

The “it” would be raccoon meat, which Faidley’s has sold for generations, alongside muskrat, and of course the oysters and crabcakes for which the Lexington Market stalwart is known.

Raccoon consumption has dropped off significantly in the recent decades, says Bill Devine, owner of Faidley’s. “Those people that ate when they were young have died. And if McDonald’s had it on the menu, you’ve had five generations eating it.”

In 1991, Devine told The Sun, “I submit when the pilgrims landed, they weren’t handed a turkey, they were handed a muskrat.”

Fleming, the manager at Faidley’s, has been eating raccoon since childhood, the way his parents, from Virginia used to cook it. “That is a tradition you can’t find every day,” Fleming said. “Because nobody knows how to prepare it.” But Lou does.

Raccoon season is over now, but Fleming keeps some in the freezer. He presents a frozen specimen for curious customers. Everyone who walks by cranes their neck and has the same question. What is that?

Fleming points to the animal’s padded feet for the answer. By law, he says, the feet of a raccoon must be intact at the sale, to ensure that it’s not really a cat or a dog sold by some trickster trader. Faidley’s gets its raccoons from fur traders who trap the animals (along with muskrats) for their fur and sell the meat.

Today, Fleming estimates Faidley’s sells 400 raccoons per season. Devine says they once sold 10 times as many.

Fleming prepared one for us, soaking it overnight and then heavily seasoning it like a piece of beef. He slow-cooked it for several hours.

“I don’t cook the head because everybody’s scared of it,” he said with a sly grin. “You don’t want it looking back out at you while you eat it.”

He removes the raccoon from the oven – surrounded in potatoes, it looks like any other roast. Fleming’s anticipation is palpable.

“I know you want to taste it,” he said to a member of his staff.

She shakes her head. “No, I’ve never been that curious.”

“It’s only like beef. Just try it,” Fleming said. She didn’t budge.

“Chicken,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of chickens working for me.”

There are those who may be reluctant to try raccoon. Perhaps you have unwittingly eaten some already. Fleming says he sells to a man who drives up from Washington, D.C. to buy around 40 raccoons each time. The man owns a number of Chinese restaurants on H Street. Fleming doesn’t think he puts “raccoon” on the menu.