Tradition: Maple Syrup, Muskrat Dinners, and The Nain Rouge

Late Winter and early Spring is a time of cabin fever and muddy boots in many places around the Great Lakes. But there is more to life than waiting for the first flowers of Spring. Three seasonal traditions with roots in First Nations/Native American cultures and early French Detroit continue to be hallmarks of regional French Canadian culture.

Maple syrup. With the tradition of making maple candy – using boiled syrup that is quickly cooled on snow to make a popular confection – in Winter and the running of the sap in early Spring, maple is a key ingredient in the food culture of French Canadians, a skill and resource learned from the First Nations by the earliest settlers. As the maple sap begins to run, professional and well-seasoned amateurs head for the sugar bush to tap this precious resource. It is time-sensitive and takes skill. But the results are worth it as sap turns into syrup and sugar for the coming year. The tradition of the sugar bush can be seen in many artworks of French Canadian life. The Detroit French dialect is also known by at least one scholar as “Sugar Bush” French.

Muskrat. Again, stretching back in time to early colonial life, the voyageurs, coureur des bois, and early settlers used the resources to hand and learned from the native peoples what could be eaten. Muskrat has been part of Great Lakes regional food culture for centuries. The local French dialect is more commonly known as Muskrat French. And the people themselves are also known as Muskrat French. It is a regional folk culture, a cuisine, and a language. Muskrat dinners are held throughout the area and are interesting and popular.  It is said that a dispensation from Father Gabriel Richard allowed the local French population to eat the “marsh rabbit” during Lent, circumventing the rule on not eating meat. It is a water-dwelling animal and therefore considered, for these purposes, a fish.

The Nain Rouge.  An early Detroit folktale emanating from the French Canadian population, this story describes a confrontation between a “red dwarf” dwelling in the marshlands of Detroit and Detroit’s founder, Cadillac. The Nain Rouge, it is said, cursed Cadillac and the city forevermore. It is said to make an appearance whenever bad things happen in the area. In recent years, a “new/old” tradition has taken place on the first Sunday in Spring at which a parade of revelers seeks to drive the Nain Rouge out of Detroit by marching through the streets and finally, when the Nain appears to confront them, chasing it out of town. It is an attraction that draws thousands of marchers, keen to rid Detroit of this evil creature.

For this and more about Great Lakes French Canadian traditions, see our Traditions page.

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