Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo… Now before y’all go see Michelle o’ me oh, let’s talk about that last one.
This post was inspired by my friend Jenn Digby, a fine Texas lass who one day noticed a strange tree growing in her back yard down around Austin. She posted a pic on Facebook asking what it was, and this ol’ forestry student recognized Sassafras. And that, friends and neighbors, leads straight to filé, a la that ageless Hank Williams hit.
Filé, Pronounced fee-lay, the spicy thickener and spiritual heart of gumbo, is a powder made from the dried and ground leaves of that Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), that Jenn found in her yard. That tree is native to North America, and the use of its leaves as a seasoning goes back quite a spell. The Choctaw, who’s home turf included Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, were the first to use dried, ground sassafras leaves as a seasoning. After the British kicked the Acadians out of what is now the Maritime provinces of Canada during the French & Indian War, many of these Frankish expats found their way down to Lousiana; without question, they picked up a cooking trick or two from the Choctaw along the way.
In addition to gumbo, filé may also be deployed for jambalaya or etouffé as well, again, for its distinctive, earthy flavor and thickening power. Filé powder smells kinda like eucalyptus to me, though I know more than one southern cook who swears it reminds them of Juicy Fruit gum, (I don’t get that, I’m afraid). When introduced to a dish, it’s scent has a definite root beer note, but it’s more complex and earthy than that. I’ve also heard folks say it smells like a blend of thyme and savory, and I’d say that’s a pretty apt description as well. In other words, filé is potent, complex, and adds that certain je ne sais quoi that only it can add; there really ain’t no substitute for it.
If you’re old enough, you’ll recall something about Sassafras as a beverage, and indeed, it was. Back when, root beer was flavored with sassafras root, until the FDA labelled that a possible carcinogen, (That is not a viably proven claim, as far as I am concerned, but that’s another story). The compound safrole is the guilty party, but it is not found in sassafras leaves, so fear not from your filé. By the by, I f you find a tree nearby, dig up some roots and peel back the bark, it will smell like root beer, which is most definitely cool.
Finding prepared filé is not hard; you can buy it in any decent grocery store, but as with most things, the better the source, the better the final product. As such, homemade from fresh leaves is obviously the best option. Cajun Cookbook author Tony Chachere, (who sells a very nice filé of his own), says it is best to harvest the leaves during a full moon, and there may well be something to that. Many preservers of old recommended like practice for a number of pursuits, including pickling and making sauerkraut, so why mess with success then, yeah?
If you’re lucky enough to find your own tree, then by all means take advantage. sassafras is a deciduous tree that grows to 30′ to 40′ when mature, with distinctive lobed leaves, like this…
Once you’ve got a leaf source, harvest nice bright green leaves before fall, when they begin to dry out and turn color. Take whole, small branches for this process.
Rinse the leaves thoroughly under cold running water, then allow them to air dry thoroughly by hanging them, branch end up.
Once dried, hand strip the leaves from the branches and crush them by hand onto clean paper.
With a spice grinder or blender, process leaves into as fine a powder as you can get.
Run your powder through a fine mesh sieve, and don’t force anything through.
Store your filé in a dry, dark place as you should all your spices and herbs; sunlight and excessive moisture robs potency, smell and flavor.
Filé is properly used as a table condiment for gumbo, jambalaya, etouffe, or any soup or stew where you’d like that distinctive flavor. I love a bit on everything from chili to chicken noodle, frankly.
Just sprinkle a bit into the top of your bowl; if you let it set a spell, its thickening power will go to work for you. If you want to add filé to a dish as a thickener, do so after you’ve removed your gumbo, etc from heat and prior to serving. Add a pinch, stir it in, and let it work for a minute before you add more. It’s potent stuff, so go lightly, as a heavy hand will make things thicker and stringer than you want, guaranteed.
Now as it happens, Miss Jenn was sweet enough to do all the heavy lifting for us, so all we gotta do is enjoy – Laissez les bon temps rouler!