The Filé File

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. 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 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, 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.”

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 young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, of course. Dry, crush, and mill through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.

Flower of the Dead

Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days of summer, springing up from drying lawns and fields as if from nothing.

A native of China, the lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing grave sites. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower.

Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.

The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separating the lands of the living from the banks of carmine blossoms beckoning  spirits back to life.

Our Imperiled Pea

Most of us know Mississippi silver hulls as a crowders, and y’all are probably as surprised as I was to find that they’re an endangered variety of field peas (Vigna unguiculata). Silver hulls thrive in the lower Mid-South; the 6″ pods carry blocky black or brown-eyed peas that “crowd” one another in the pod. Easy to shell, fresh seeds have a thin skin, giving them a cleaner flavor. Sad to say, field peas of any kind just aren’t grown much any more.

Muscadines and Scuppernongs

It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingers, and September’s drought is soon to set in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets.

North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties are vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet, the sort of thing a little old lady would poison, pour into cut crystal apéritifs, and serve to a  middle-aged rogue she’d discovered was cheating on her. With her maid.

The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the Sanskrit muska-s  (testicle,) in reference to the musky scent of the fruit. (Never underestimate etymology.) Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black/purple and the white/bronze. The white/bronze type is called a scuppernong because of a natural cultivar so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.

You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl  on the kitchen table during the season to nibble on. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.

A Singer in the Arms of Dawn

Though considered “coarse” by our doyen of Southern gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence (among others), she, along with almost every garden writer, mentions the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia) in the same breath with Monet’s gardens at Giverny where in late summer, tithonia, along with many varieties of the more familiar helianthus sunflowers, set the artist’s oasis ablaze, their towering branches tipped with blossoms of red, yellow, and orange.

The Mexican sunflower was first described by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who visited the United States in 1877. He came at the invitation of American botanist Asa Gray, who with Dalton intended to investigate the connection between the floras of eastern United States and those of eastern continental Asia and Japan. It was during this visit that he visited the American Southwest where—in addition to meeting Brigham Young—Hooker collected specimens of the plant, which he sent to England that year along with over a thousand others. As is the custom, Hooker, as the discoverer of the species, was entitled to give it a name, and for reasons that may forever remain unfathomed, he named it after the bridegroom of Aurora, goddess of the dawn.

Tithonus was a prince of Troy, the son of King Laomedon by the Naiad Strymo. He was a talented musician with a beautiful voice. His brother was Priam, the last king of Troy. Aurora fell in love with the young prince, and took him to Olympus to be her groom. Aurora asked Zeus to make him immortal and he agreed, but she had not thought to ask also that he should remain young. So it came to pass that he grew old, but could not die. Helpless at last, unable to move hand or foot, he prayed for death, but there was no release for him; he must live on forever with old age pressing upon him. In time, he shrank and shriveled until at last Aurora, with a feeling for the natural fitness of things, turned him into a cicada, who sings in the morning sun.

Seeds must be started in warm soil; likewise, transplanted seedlings will not tolerate cool weather. If begun in April, the plants require staking by September. Though smaller, more compact varieties are available, these flowers are best grown for their height and profusion of bloom. The old ‘Torch’  is my stand-by, unmatched for height and color in sunny beds. Tithonia reseeds sporadically, but volunteers are vigorous.

Wolf Songs

“Cantaloupe” in the Deep South mostly sounds something like “canna-lope,” without a hint of ‘t’, but Bill Neale saw it spelt “CAN’T ELOPE” on a roadside sign in North Carolina, and a buddy of mine calls them “Romeos and Juliets”.

The name comes from an Italian communi near Rome, one of several Italian towns called “Cantaloupo,” (“song of the wolf” or literally “sings wolf”) where this variety of melon arrived in Europe from (of all places) Armenia in the early 18th century. The cantaloupe didn’t become a commercial crop in the US until the early 20th century. An early popular variety, ‘Rocky Ford’ was developed in Colorado, but ‘Ambrosia’ and ‘El Gordo’ have largely come to dominate the markets.

Incidentally, the European cantaloupe, Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis, is lightly ribbed with a gray-green skin; the American cantaloupe, C. melo var. reticulatus, is a round melon with firm, orange, moderately sweet flesh. It’s also worth noting that the name “musk melon” comes from the pronounced aroma of the uncut fruit; a related group of melons that includes honeydews, Canary, and Santa Claus melons, are termed inodorata.

Family Ties

Dear Janice,

It’s been just hot as hell here lately, and the tomatoes have been making like I’ve never seen. Hugh says it’s because you gave us those hose to tie up the plants. He said they’re flexible and they don’t cut into the stem like string would. He doesn’t know I found some in the bottom dresser drawer in the spare bedroom, but I wanted you to.

Your devoted sister,
Doris

Confessions of an Urban Planter

In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, Mr. Buddy Massey grew cotton every year in his circular drive at the Shell station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32.  So when I hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge in Jackson, Mississippi, I figured if Buddy could grow cotton on the street, I could, too.

This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and though the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I called the Commission out of a hard-learned habit of caution when it came to flirting with the law. The MDA folks directed me to a scholar at Mississippi State University who assured me that such a small “field” as mine wasn’t an agricultural time bomb. Naturally, I considered his opinion testament; if he’d been from Ole Miss, I’d called him a lying son-of-a-bitch.

Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end, I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona.

Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. The first week of May, I heard that cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait.

Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.

For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat.

By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. On the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton had become more than an endeavor; it had become a responsibility, and my care paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.

In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer, and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high; it was lay-by time. The cotton grew taller, I took no notice of what was happening beneath the canopy of leaves and found myself surprised in early July by the first blossom, a pale crimped envelope of crepe protruding from a frilly green box.

Again, I’d been anticipating a transcendental moment for the occasion, but my reaction was more composed of surprise and curiosity, which for all I know may well be the essential elements of a transcendent experience. I lack a frame of reference. Pale at first, the petals of the blossoms turned a rich purple before dropping. My neighbor John Lewis said that in Leflore County they have a saying: “First day white, second day red, third day from my birth I’m dead!” When the blooms had fallen, they left a tight, blocky wad of green still enclosed in a feathery case. On this bud empires had grown and tumbled, but other work distracted me.

The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort, and I was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. It’d never make anything like a bale, but I’d have cotton to harvest.

To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant, either. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed.

As the weeks drew on, every surface of the cotton, leaves, stems, even the ripening bolls, became scorched, ruddy and freckled beneath the unrelenting sun. While the cotton was reddening, the trees were yellowing, becoming sallow, assuming that peculiar jaundice I found familiar from past Septembers. The air itself became hazy because what brief winds we had were picking up the dusty earth and passing it around as they do with pine pollen in June. Everything had a sense of resignation about it, even the light, which seemed suspended in ether, hung between a pale blue sky and a dark dun earth. The world was a sepia silhouette, creaking with crickets, and the leaves were falling. Blistered by the sun and exhausted from their efforts to make seed, the cotton plants drooped under the weight of the swelling bolls, which were opening ever-so-slowly.

October became a coda; the heat and the light had waned, and the year itself was coming to a close. I picked my cotton, ending up with no more than a grocery sack, but a better harvest came from the very reality of growing cotton on the side of a street in Jackson, Mississippi.