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. 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 young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, 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.


3 Replies to “The Filé File”

  1. Growing up in your neck of the woods, sassafras tea was right up there with polk salad in the natural larder and apothecary of things you had to have each spring if you expected to get the winter out of your system. Granny had her special trees, cultivated for the purpose on embankments along the Yoder to make access to the roots easier. Sassafras tea was a favorite beverage of hers, but I have to admit I didn’t much care for it, and put it in the category of folk medicines, one of those quaint, somewhat embarrassing holdovers in our Hillbilly memories of underdevelopment.

    On Daddy’s side, however, the leaf of said tree was the essential ingredient to that Swamp Rat gift to the world of good eats, gumbo, a big ol’ pot of which was always made special for us whenever we left Mama’s side of the Loosaskuna in Chickasaw territory and went abroad to Daddy’s homeland south of the River in Choctaw country.

    When the Brown Eyed Handsome man and I took off to the Pacific Northwest to do our higher education we knew that there was a lot we were going to have to get accustomed to, but the dinner table had not been considered closely enough. We found ourselves recipients of periodic care packages from back home which included any number of things that just didn’t exist up there. One day, miracle of miracles, we found some fresh okra at the market. So, of course, given the wealth of seafood available, a big ol’ pot of gumbo came to mind. Alas, there was no filé in the cabinet, and none to be found on even the “exotic” spice racks at the grocery. Tant pis.

    One of our running buddies, his own mouth watering for a taste of down home, burst out laughing. He had gotten a nice little government grant to come up to the Puget Sound and study the Lummi language, a close relative of his own native Choctaw. “You’re looking in the wrong place,” he told us, “this is the land of the Granola Heads. Go to the medicinal herb shop.” We looked bewildered. “Really, they’ve got some there. Just don’t expect to get it if you ask for filé, though. Ask for file, as in the shop instrument.”

    We did as instructed, and politely sat through the holistic medicine show. We even bought some of the root, the properties of which we refrained from giving our own opinionated lecture on. The next time we went to the shop, we were asked if the file had helped. We could honestly say that “after using it” we felt reinvigorated and whole again!

  2. My Granny Stork’s next door neighbor Ms. Teddy, a short, barrel shaped woman with a tattoo on her deltoid, which in the 70’s was quite rare and gave her a decidedly exotic (and masculine) aura, made filé from leaves collected along a creek that emptied into the nearby Bayou la Batre. She kept us stocked with filé for gumbo (all gumbo) stored in recycled green 7up bottles with cork fit snuggly on top.

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