Monday, July 21, 2008


During the first month I lived in Ahwaz, Iran, back in the 70’s, I experienced cultural shock, and exposure to small things that reminded me of my Louisiana home gave me great pleasure. I can remember shopping in a grocery that resembled a store in the U.S. with its plate glass windows and fluorescent lighting, rather than the dark, open stalls of the bazaar, and coming upon a display of Tabasco sauce. I was so glad to see this product from home that I exclaimed aloud “Hey la bas,” excited about the sight of those small boxes of hot pepper sauce that add zest to meals all over the world. Certainly, I hadn’t expected to see them displayed in a Middle Eastern grocery.

Yesterday morning when I sat on the front stoop surveying the trees in my yard, I discovered a small tree whose leaves are the origin of a seasoning that sometimes flavors Louisiana gumbos – a sassafras tree! Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file’ gumbo, I thought, wondering if Tennessee cooks know about the use of sassafras for seasoning gumbos.

About thirty years ago, I made a field trip with my botanist friend Vickie to Convent, Louisiana where we searched for sassafras trees and a person who might still be making file’, despite FDA warnings that safrole, one of the aromatic oils that gives file’ its unique flavor, can cause liver tumors in rats. We found a man named Neil Simon of Convent, Louisiana who had a small grove of sassafras from which he gathered limbs that he put in his drying barn to keep for a few weeks before stripping the leaves to grind into file’ powder. Simon used an electric grinder to make this powder, but his wife’s grandfather had pile’d (pee layed) leaves with a pilon (pee-lawn), a cypress pestle used for pounding, many years before Simon began his enterprise.

At the time we befriended Simon, he made enough file’ to fill four fifty-pound lard cans a year and distributed this seasoning to Louisiana grocery stores. He was licensed by the Louisiana Health and Human Resources Administration. Simon’s grove was approximately a quarter mile from the east Mississippi River bank, but he had planted a few trees in his yard to preserve the stock.

File’ isn’t the only by-product of sassafras, of course. Some cooks harvest the root and use the bark for a refreshing drink. Others drink the tea to alleviate symptoms of pneumonia, bronchitis, catarrh, mumps, fevers, kidney disease, and rheumatism. Regardless of the possible danger reported from ingesting parts of the sassafras tree, people continue to use file’ for gumbos (sparingly) and sassafras for their tea in those picturesque areas of the South where food and drink, naturally derived from plants and the water, are rich cultural traditions.

My botanist friend and I wrote an article about file’ that appeared in “Forests and People” magazine. At the conclusion of the article, we included a recipe from Irene Gonsoulin, now deceased, who formerly cooked “for out” (sold her gumbo) in Loreauville. Perhaps there are some lovers of gumbo who would like to try her recipe, just as it appeared in “Forests and People:”

4 lbs. shrimp
l can lobster
1 lb. crab meat
2 doz. oysters
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup celery
1 ½ cups cooking oil
2 gallons warm water
4 cloves garlic
½ cup onion tops and parsley
salt and pepper
gumbo file’
1 ½ cups flour

Brown flour and oil for roux on very low fire. When roux is golden brown, add onions, celery. Add warm water. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer about one hour. Add shrimp, lobster, oysters, onion tops and parsley. Cook about three minutes longer. In gumbo bowl, put ¼ teaspoon gumbo file’. Add hot gumbo and serve over rice. Irene put the file’ in the serving bowls as this seasoning makes the gumbo stringy and too thick if added in the pot (after stove is turned off) especially when gumbo is reheated with file’ already added. Bon appétit!
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