Ask anyone about Southern foods and the first they’re likely to mention is grits. I have before me an article out of one of those upscale magazines devoted to the South as an intellectual and cultural milieu. This magazine is printed on the finest paper, has photographs taken by talented people, and if you put it on your coffee table, you’re liable to impress someone with your je ne sais quoi. Inside, an article on Southern food (ever-so-quaintly called “fixin’s”) targets “a grand grits revival.” The author cites grits pilaf, grits croquettes, stone-ground grits with morels, Southern fried grits, grits crackers, Logan Turnpike grits (God only knows what that is), and sweetbreads with grits as evidence of this renaissance.
People, this is chic commercial jive operating under the auspices of promoting a naturally progressive cuisine. Southern cooking is progressive; as new ingredients become available they’re assimilated into traditional recipes, often with good results, and as far as cultural assimilation is concerned, Southern cooking is a brilliant hodgepodge of distinct cultural influences, Native American, West European, and African, the tripod which forms the basis of the cuisine itself, and as new populations move into the region (Hispanic, for instance, or Asian) over time the cuisine will reflect these changes. But a shotgun wedding with French cuisine (or any other cuisine, for that matter) is much too artificial to be taken seriously. This effort seems more intended to get people to pay exorbitant amounts for a serving of grits than it is to create a compatible blend of ingredients. For better or worse, grits are versatile; they’re essentially starch, as are potatoes, rice or pasta. But can you honestly claim as the author does that adding “innovative twists and fresh accents” such as morels and/or sweetbreads to grits that you have a dish that “reflect(s) the changing nature of the South”?
I think not. For one thing, these recipes are the products of commercial establishments, of upscale restaurants designed to attract diners who have the time and money to eat at high-end tables. Recipes such as these tend to be the brainchildren of down-home boys and girls raised on their mothers’ or grandmothers’ good Southern cooking who travel to France where they stay in Paris or Provençe, sopping up the local hubris, naturalizing their schoolroom French and drinking themselves into a pixilated delusion of fraternity with the local Jaques Bonhommes on the local vin ordinaire. While there, they of course become so enamored of le haute cuisine de la France that they decide to launch a personal crusade bent on transforming the cuisine bourgeoise of the American South into “exciting food.” This is to say, of course, food that people will pay a lot of money for because they are “infused with French accents . . . and render (sic) with some finesse.” For another thing, these commercial recipes are subject to the whims of restaurants, which are notorious for posturing. They have to be. If such recipes reflect the changing nature of the South, then the reflection is of a superficial and ephemeral nature. If foods can indeed be considered a barometer for a region’s or a nation’s changing identity—and they very well can, if examined properly—then foods should reflect such profound and lasting changes as those brought about by shifting demographics and to a somewhat lesser extent technological advances.
To be trendy and fashionable our dishes must be finessed. Is Southern food in, you say? Well, yes, but then it does need sprucing up a bit, doesn’t it? Let’s take that plain fried chicken and serve it on squash waffles with peach salsa. Black-eyed peas? Let’s puree them, pat them out into cakes and fry them in olive oil and serve them with an herb-laden tomato puree. Grits? Yes, with morels, sweetbreads and jalapenos, deep-fried and served with cranberry chutney . . . This cooking is catchy to be sure, but I hardly think it’s significant. Our best foods are narratives embedded in time and place, made by people for whom cooking is a conversation, not the monologues of flim-flam chef manqués .
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) wears the crown in the laurel family’s royal culinary heritage, but two of its close American cousins can claim coronets at the very least. The first of these is the red or swamp bay (Persea borbonia) that grows all along the Gulf Coast. Before the advent of imported bay, swamp bay brought the essence of laurel to our regional cuisine, but is largely neglected now. The American cousin of L. nobilis that deserves senior status is sassafras.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is the most widely-known laurel my part of the world, that being the American South. Heather Sullivan, curator of the herbarium at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said, “Both older and younger trees have the aromatic oils that are associated with this family, which you can generate by either scratching the bark on the younger trees or cutting the bark of the older trees. In March, sassafras bear tiny yellow flowers grouped in clusters, and appear before the leaves emerge. When the tree is in leaf, sassafras is one of the easiest trees to identify, as it usually has three different leaf shapes: a mitten, a glove and a solid leaf, which are spicy and aromatic when crushed.” Sullivan said that a large sassafras might reach two feet in diameter and 80 feet in height. “The tree has not had much use in modern landscaping,” she said, “which is unfortunate, because the fall color is a party of reds, oranges, yellows and browns.” She also adds that sassafras “is familiar to many older residents in the state,” (thanks, Heather), but given my hillbilly ancestry, I find it appropriate that sassafras became familiar to me very early in my life as an ingredient for a tea that was used as a spring tonic. According to The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (a must-have for any Southern kitchen library), roots and twigs gathered in the spring are washed, pounded to a pulp and boiled, then strained and sweetened. A little later on, I found out about sassafras beer (call it fate), and even later found out that it’s an ingredient of sarsaparilla, too.
Now, a quick caveat of sorts; sassafras oil, derived from the roots and bark, is a main source of safrole, a phenylpropene also found in cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and basil, that was banned by the FDA because of its carcinogenicity in lab rats. Safrole is also classified as a List I chemical by the USDEA because of its role in the manufacture of MDMA (ecstasy). But you know what? I wouldn’t worry about it too much; it’s been proven that safrole is about as dangerous as the limonene found in orange juice and the caffeic acid found in tomatoes, and I’m damn sure not going to give up eating tomatoes on account of lab rats. I still don’t drink orange juice, but that’s because of an Anita’s rant. I grew up listening to Hank Williams, and while I knew all about lost highways early on, it took me many years to discover that the filé gumbo he sings about is made with powdered sassafras leaves, which is exactly what filé is. The word “filé” is the past participle of the French filer, meaning “to spin thread”, and that’s precisely what filé does when added to a hot pot of gumbo, binding the liquid, thickening it and adding the essence of bay. Of course you’re also going to have a few L. nobilis leaves in there as well (preferably fresh, of course; it does grow here in central Mississippi with shelter from the very coldest conditions)but sassafras adds a pungency all its own, robust and heady.
Given that sassafras is the definitive American laurel, you should not be surprised to learn that filé was used as a thickening/seasoning agent in potages long before gumbo came along. In Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, the authors cite an article in the 1929 edition of The Picayune Carole Cookbook explaining that filé was first manufactured by the Choctaws in Louisiana. “The Indians used sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and the Creoles, quite quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or filé, and originated the well-known dish, Gumbo Filé.” They also add that though the Picayune was on the right track when crediting the Choctaw with filé, “it might have gone a bit further in crediting them with the invention of gumbo and the general use of powdered sassafras in cooking.” After all, “if the Choctaw had not set the precedent, it is doubtful that even the intrepid Creoles would have used a medicine to thicken their stews.”
Even after the rest of us got here and cultivated okra, filé remained an essential element of what came to be known as gumbos. Both filé and okra render a liquid thicker by means of strands of gelatinous (if not to say mucilaginous) substances I can’t even begin to describe, and for this very reason, they should be used sparingly together. Okra takes to stewing, but filé does not. If you’re using filé as a primary thickening agent, use a little in the last few minutes, and then offer a small bowl around the table for dusting. Filé is available in most supermarkets, but look at the label. If it doesn’t say “sassafras”, don’t buy it. A far better option is to make your own, which is easily done by finding a tree and gathering the young summer leaves (under a full moon, of course). Dry them, crush them and then put them through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.