Rat is a readily available street food in some Southeast Asian countries, and earlier editions of The Joy of Cooking contained instructions on the proper butchering of squirrels. But rodents have fallen out of favor in most Western cuisines, relegated to mere vermin. So how would you go about cooking a rat if you'd never tried it before?
Laura Ginn did just that recently, breaking her lengthy vegetarianism to how to butcher and prepare rodent meat. Ginn is an artist whose work largely incorporates survival skills such as skinning and tanning. (Those who are squeamish about the skinning and dismantling animals might want to steer clear of Ginn's photography, but it offers sober images of those skills at work.) She opened her recent exhibition, "Tomorrow We Will Feast Again on What We Catch," at New York's Allegra LaViola Gallery with a sit-down dinner where the star food was rat. Ginn attended the occasion, appropriately, in a dress made from 300 rat pelts.
This meant that Ginn had to learn how to skin, butcher, and prepare rats, with the help of chef Yuri Hart. Ginn shared with us what she learned from the experience, the pros and cons of consuming rat meat, and a recipe for rat jerky.
What got you started on this rat project?
Laura Ginn: I've been working on a project dealing with survival skills for a few years now, and the rats started when I moved to New York City. I was thinking about how the work I was doing was weapon making and hunting things and whether it would make sense in the context of the city. And so I chose rats because they were very emblematic of the city to me.
How did you obtain the rats? Were these rats you caught or rats you purchased?
These were purchased from a feeder supply. The reason for that is because I wanted to them to be edible for people, so I didn't want to put anyone in undue danger.
Did you do research into eating wild rats?
I did. I was just concerned about disease. That was the main thing. I was concerned about disease because I knew this was something I wanted to offer to the public. I wanted to make sure everyone was safe.
How did you go about preparing them the first time?
The first time that we prepared them, I initially wanted to use their skins to make leather. Because the project is about practicing these skills and using resources, it didn't make sense to just toss the carcasses. I knew I wanted to eat them. So the first time that we prepared them, I started working with a chef because this was going to be the first time that I had eaten meat in 16 years, so I wanted to do it right. So we fried them up in a pan, really simple, and dipped them in some sauce and tried them so we could really get the full flavor.
Had the chef worked with rats before?
No, he didn't. I met him on Facebook. I was looking for a daring chef, and I proposed the project to him and he was willing to give it a shot.
Is there anything about rats that makes them especially difficult to prepare?
They're small; that's one of them. So the skinning and the butchering process is very time consuming. You have to use a lot to make a good meal.
What does it taste like?
They're gamey. I hear that they taste like rabbit a bit, but I haven't had rabbit yet.
Are there certain flavors that go especially well with rat meat?
We did find that a smokey flavor, like smoking the meat and dehydrating it into jerky, is quite tasty. And then we also used a basil sauce on the roasted rats. I've also had rats prepared in Atlanta with a barbecue glaze that was made with moonshine and those were really delicious.
Did you look to any other cultures that prepare rats in looking for flavors?
The first meal we knew that rats are prepared in Viet Nam and other Asian countries, so we looked for spicy flavors and flavors of those countries. That's what we used initially with the rats.
Was it difficult to get over your aversion to rat meat, especially given that you hadn't eaten meat in so long?
It was hard for me. I mean, up until that point, the skins I'd been using for leather making had all been cast offs from hunters or roadkill so I hadn't felt that I had to eat the meat to justify the kill, but in the case of the rats I could. It was very challenging. I just thought of it as my rite of passage.
What about for the other people who were eating the meat?
Oh, absolutely. For me, it was more of a meat in general thing. For other people, it was more the stigma of the rats, that they're filthy vermin. Just the sort of cultural disgust that we have for the rats.
Is it just a the disgust that keeps us from eating rats? I would think we'd see more people eating rats, since they're everywhere.
I know! I mean they're a widely available source of protein and they don't take a lot of resources to raise, but I do think that if they're raised in a way where they're kept clean and they're not rabid and they're not feeding on garbage, then there's no reason we can't eat them. I think it just has a lot to do with the stigma.
You made a dress out of rat pelts. Were the pelts difficult to work with?
The worst thing about rat leather is that rats have this oil in their skin referred to as "buck grease," and it gives them that sort of rodenty smell. It's sometimes referred to as the "warm tortilla" smell. And so the hides can retain some odor after they're complete. And when you do brain tanning, you have to smoke the hides in order to waterproof them, to sort of seal them. The ones I have on the dress haven't been smoked yet. So I'm looking forward to seeing if that helps.
Did anything particularly surprise you about all this?
How many people really loved their pet rats. I mean, I know they're really smart creatures and I've interacted with people's pet rats before, but I had no idea that there was such a support base for the rats.
Is there anything else that you'd like say about the project?
Something that I've been trying to emphasize, because there's a lot of backlash against the killing animals for art, things like that, is that I think these are really important skills, to be able to kill something, to be able to butcher something, to make skins into leather. They're really important skills that are disappearing in a lot of places. So one of my goals is to keep those alive.
Yuri Hart was kind enough to share his recipe for preparing rat jerky:
Created by Yuri Hart and Robert Pugh
1.Take all rats and with a smoking gun, smoker or cold smoker, smoke the rats with hickory until they have a smokey flavor.
2. Season the rats with salt and pepper. Line the rats on a grate with a sheet tray underneath.
3. Set the oven to 280 degrees, place the rats in the oven and cook for three hours, or until rats are crispy on the outside.
4. Let the rats cool, and then pull the meat off of the bodies into bite size pieces.
5. Serve meat at room temperature.
Top photo by Luke and Kate Bosman.