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SASSAFRAS: Description & History


See also: Sassafras 2; Filé; Gumbo

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum or S. officinale).
Also known as: Ague Tree.

Sassafras is a tree of the Laurel family. There are three species, 2 of them are found in eastern Asia, and one, Sassafras albidum, is native to eastern North America. The American sassafras is the most important. It is found from small bush size to a height of 50 to 60 feet. It has many slender branches, and the hairless leaves can be of three different types (a smooth oval, a two lobed and a three lobed leaf) sometimes all three being found on the same tree and even the same branch. The roots are large and woody, with a spongy bark. The small flowers are yellow, and the fruit is a blue berry on a red stem.

The bark of the roots, formerly one of the ingredients in root beer, contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole. The FDA banned its use as an additive in 1960, as safrole was found to cause liver cancer in rats. The sale of sassafras tea was banned in 1976. The root bark extract and leaves are now treated commercially to produce a safrole-free product, the root bark being used as a flavoring agent and the leaves for filé powder. The safrole free extract has, unfortunately, an inferior flavor. (Safrole is similar to thujone, which is found in wormwood, and was used to make absinthe --- banned since 1913).

It is not possible to make a safrole free extract at home.

The root bark has long been used medicinally by native Americans, and this knowledge was passed on to early settlers, probably to the Spaniards in Florida. Sassafras was one of the earliest American plant drugs to reach Europe, having been used medicinally in Spain as early as the middle 1500's, and was cultivated in England sometime before 1633. The early settlers also fermented the roots with molasses to make beer, and during the Civil War sassafras tea became popular. Today the (safrole free) root bark extract is used in perfumery, as a flavoring for candy, beverages, and to make an aromatic tea.

The Choctaw Indians first used the dried ground leaves as a seasoning and thickener, and today the dried leaves are used to make filé powder (gumbo filé) which is used to thicken and flavor soups and stews in Créole cooking. (See also Gumbo )

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."

food history



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