By Matt Blitz
Updated January 11, 2016
Credit: © cthoman / Getty Images

Everybody try to suck it up and act like adults for the next several hundred words, because this is the fascinating story of how a gross-sounding part of a funny-sounding animal became a revered delicacy.

At first glance, beavers don’t look particularly delectable. Brown and buck-toothed, these semi-aquatic rodents look more like fattened-up sewer rats than a chef’s sought-after main ingredient. Yet, for hundreds of years, beavers were a rather common meal. But it isn't just their meat that can be enjoyed. Beaver tails have long been in high demand and their castoreum—secretions from near the beaver’s anal gland—a safe, fragrant food additive. Here’s how a beaver’s rear end became a much-desired commodity.

Beavers once dominated the rivers and streams of North America, with as many as 400 million waddling around and building dams from to Canada to northern Mexico. With the influx of European settlers in the 17th century, their numbers dramatically dwindled. Previously hunted in Central Asia and Russia (where they’re still known as somewhat of a nuisance) for their shiny and warm coats, beavers became a new source of profit for trappers on this side of the Atlantic. And by the mid-19th century the rodents had become so popular a target that the settlers nearly hunted the beaver into extinction.

And it wasn’t just the pelts that trappers craved, but their castoreum as well—the gooey secretion emitted from the beaver’s castor sac, located next to the anal gland. About the consistency of molasses, castoreum is a chemical compound that comes from between the pelvis and the base of the tail. Contrary to what its location on the animal’s body might suggest, the compound smells like vanilla and fruit owing to the beaver’s herbivorous diet of bark and leaves. Thanks to those pleasant odors, castoreum was often used in 18th- and 19th-century medicines and perfumes.

Today, amazingly, beaver castoreum is still “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA for use as a “natural” food additive. In 2011, Jamie Oliver brought this point home when he proclaimed on David Letterman’s show that castoreum is used in strawberry syrups and vanilla ice cream. While in theory that’s possible (and legal), NPR reported in 2014 that very little castoreum is actually used in vanilla extract—not necessarily because humans discovered something better to use, but because of castoreum’s high costs.

While trekking across the continent in search of valuable beaver, trappers needed easy, hearty, fatty meals to sustain them. Fortunately, beavers were also good for that as well. Owing to being high in caloric and fat content, it made sense for trappers to eat the mammal they were going to catch and kill for its coat anyhow. In fact, meals of beaver were so common that in the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec petitioned the Catholic Church to allow the consumption of the rodent on Lent. While meat consumption is forbidden during Lent, fish is allowed. So using the reasoning that beavers were skilled swimmers and their tails were like fins, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish and therefore acceptable for Lent. Beaver meat is still eaten today by the adventurous sort, who describe it as mild and on the sweet side

The real treat for many, though, is the beaver tail. Even higher in fat content than the rest of the body, the beaver tail is often grilled on an open flame—much like trappers would have done on a cold night in the wilderness. Not to be confused with the popular pastry, beaver tails are still often eaten in Alaska and northern Canada. Described as “creamy and rich,” beaver tails are eaten like one would eat bone marrow.

Today, beaver is undergoing a bit of a resurgence, especially in some inventive Canadian restaurants, so it’s surely only a matter of time before an artisanal ice cream shop has vanilla ice cream with hints of beaver secretion.