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HERBS & SPICES >  File (File Gumbo)

 

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FILÉ (GUMBO FILÉ)

 

Food History, Herbs
See also: Sassafras; Gumbo

Filé, or as it is also known because of its association with gumbo, gumbo filé, is the powdered dried leaves of the sassafras tree. The Choctaw Indians (Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana) first used this seasoning. It has a flavor resembling that of root beer. It is an essential flavoring and thickening ingredient of gumbo and other Créole dishes. Filé is generally added after cooking, when the dish has been removed from the heat, but still hot, because it becomes stringy with cooking.

Buy in small quantities, filé powder loses its flavor when stored for long periods.

Store in a cool dry place for 3-4 months.
1 pound = 6 cups.

Laurus Sassafras
Laurus Sassafras
Laffitte, La Roche
16 in. x 20 in.
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Gumbo Filé, Gombo Filé
The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1901)

First, it will be necessary to explain here, for the benefit of many, that "Filé" is a powder manufactured by the remaining tribe of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, from the young and tender leaves of the sassafras. The Indian squaws gather the leaves and spread them out on a stone mortar to dry. When thoroughly dried, they pound them into a fine powder, pass them through a hair sieve, and then bring the Filé to New Orleans to sell, coming twice a week to the French Market from the old reservation set aside for their home on Bayou Lacombe, near Mandeville, La. The Indians used sassafras leaves and the sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and still sell bunches of the dried roots in the French Market. The Creoles, quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or "Filé" and originated the well-known dish, "Gumbo Filé."

June, 2007
I received the following email and could not reply because my reply was blocked by the senders ‘spam’ filter.  So, I am publishing my reply here.    Chef James

To Chef James,
In your “File (Gumbo filĂ©)” description you say that “indian squaws” make the filĂ©.
Not funny and not correct.
In translation to English you said: “indian bitches” make the filĂ©.
Please correct.
Lucy

Hi Lucy,
1) The description is not mine.
     The entry you refer to is an excerpt taken directly from the 1901 cookbook "The Picayune's Creole Cook Book" - it says so right there (see above) and the whole excerpt is in brown text to make it obvious.  I do not change quotes or excerpts from other sources.
(No offense was intended -I am simply quoting an historical source).
 
2) When the book was written in 1901 there was no negative connotation to the word "squaw".  This controversy is for the most part fairly recent.  In modern dictionaries, the definition of the word "squaw" was/is simple:
 
Webster’s Unified Dictionary and Encyclopedia, 1959
n. an American Indian woman; a female, colloq.
 
Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1976
1. an American Indian woman or wife
2. any woman: chiefly humorous

 
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1980
n. a North American Indian woman [< Algon.]
 
Oxford American Dictionary, 1980
n. a North American Indian woman or wife
 
The Chambers Dictionary, 1993.
n. a native American woman, esp a wife

3) Nowhere have I ever seen the word "squaws" translated as "bitches".  There is recent controversy over use of the word "squaw", but I have not seen that particular translation.
     In addition, the controversy is itself controversial, and mostly of recent origin.
See the following pages for some background.
http://www.tomjonas.com/squawpeak/barwood.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaw
http://anthropology.si.edu/goddard/squaw_1.pdf
http://www.tomjonas.com/squawpeak/definition.htm
http://www.tomjonas.com/squawpeak/changingperception.htm
http://spot.colorado.edu/~koontz/faq/etymology.htm  scroll down the the 9th word)
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2542/is-squaw-an-obscene-insult
 
Sincerely,         Chef James
 

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