Small towns are alive and well and traditions kept and held proud. It is in these small towns where sometimes the foods not found in current food magazines touting where the new recipes have been devised and the hardest restaurant reservations are found. Small town foods are reflections of America. These are oftne the foods of survival in the days before anything could be readily bought, and these almost forgotten foods are preserved in essence quasi-historical enclaves in America. It is in here where they are treasured and the hardship of now finding and making these once regular items, now a source of pride for the generations. It is this New Jersey that is what makes it home to so many, and it is this New Jersey where a muskrat dinner can still be the hardest ticket in town.
Often foods are not a source of a necessity, but rather they are to keep the traditions alive. New Jersey is a state of diversity of geography and population. Highly populated and densely urbanized areas are a surprisingly short drive away from miles of flat lands of crops. Where tractors slowly creep ahead on narrow dirt streets, making patience a necessity and a traffic light easily not seen within a daily commute. New Jersey has its shoreline of beaches which carry strong family traditions of favorites, and its wooded areas that hide the deer, and places of cranberry bogs and regions where still blueberries thrive. It is diverse, and it parts of the America of the originial colonies can still be found in small towns throughout.
Salem County one such area. It is country at its heart. There are generations that grew up in this county, that stayed for the beauty, and that have deep pride in the land. It is still a place where food can be grown and caught to provide for a family. In this area of New Jersey there still exists regular pancake breakfasts on most weekends, but there are also the more obscure and local from fish like to shad to animals that one almost hesitates to taste as first. No more so than with muskrat dinners, a delicacy to many and primary because it was taught by those they loved. Muskrat dinners are not just a fundraiser, they are a part of this area of New Jersey because it is part of the culture. A taught tradition, that is not for everyone’s taste, but for those that wait anxiously each year and line up at the door it represents home.
Muskrat is at it sounds, and its small size means more work for those that trap them, that more some so often than not, do so with the goal to share with those in the community. They trap them and freeze them in the weeks leading up to the yearly event, and they cook them with aprons tied tight and cast iron pans hot with such care in their eye as they eye the pans carefully filled with the precious food, it is as if everyone in the hall is a guest at their home. The smell of butter is the most predominant scent, allowing even the most trepidation eater, to have the camaraderie and scents of warmth in the kitchen envelope them and warm to the idea of eating something not often seen plated.
Muskrat dinners are the part of New Jersey cooking that is still very much alive. For all the new restaurants, it is sometimes in the old style cooking and in the halls that house these early morning breakfasts and freshly caught dinners that we find the true sense of the people of the community. I hope the traditions of the state continues. Each corner, each county, each community is unique. New Jersey is a state of diverse counties, and it is when one visits the locals and glimpses their traditions, that this beautiful state of New Jersey is best appreciated.