Many of the spices we use in our kitchens come from far-off and exotic locations, but a few can be found in our back yard.
Filé gumbo, best known today for imparting the defining taste and as a thickener in Creole stews, is made from the leaves of Sassafras albidum, a tree native to the southeastern and eastern United States. The leaves, branches and roots of this tree were used by the indigenous tribes of the southeastern United States for herbal medicine, as a food spice and for fire drills and other uses. African and European arrivals adopted these uses and added some: used as the distinctive flavor in the brewing of root beer, flavoring bad tasting medications, using the wood for furniture, as a potentiator for pesticides and (much later on) for illicit drug manufacturing.
Its primary use in non-commercial herbal medicine today is as tea made from the roots of the tree as a mild sedative and very mild euphoric, both effects caused by the chemical safrole. Safrole is banned by the FDA for commercial use on the basis of fairly weak evidence that it is a carcinogen and may cause liver failure in large doses. Perhaps a more relevant reason for the ban on the distilled oil is that safrole is a base ingredient used in the manufacture of the illicit drugs MDA (“Sass”) and MDMA (“Ecstasy”).
Safrole occurs naturally in many other plants and spices, and the leaves of the sassafras tree contain almost no safrole oil. It is both safe and easy to make your own filé gumbo, and the homemade spice is exactly the same as the commercially available spice — except fresher and cheaper.
Sassafras leaves of any age will work, but you ideally want new, fresh leaves, particularly those growing in the spring. The tree is easily identified by the irregular “mitten” shaped leaves, spicy spell when you crush the leaves, and cucumber scent to the cadmium layer of the stems and branches. One other tree in the southeast has somewhat similar lobed leaves: be sure not to collect mulberry leaves. These are tasty for silk worms, but not for us.
The harvested leaves should be hung up in a warm, dry place until fully dry. 80-90F is ideal; much hotter and the flavor will diminish, much cooler and they may mold. If you have a food dehydrator with a thermostat, you can hasten the process.
Fully dried leaves should be ground to a fine powder. You can do this with a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee grinder. (Tip on cleaning coffee grinders already used for coffee: after wiping out carefully, grind up some bread to help absorb the remaining oils.) If your coffee grinder is as inconsistent as mine, use a mesh screen to sieve out the larger pieces for re-processing. I use a lid for draining seeds for sprouting but any fine mesh will work.
A few leaves go a long way. In the photo to the left, this is the result of about 1 gallon of dried whole leaves loosely packed: more than enough for many pots of gumbo.
Storage & Use
Store the ground powder in an airtight container cool, dry place.
To use filé gumbo, it is important to add the spice at the end after the stew has been boiled, or else it will get stringy. Use 2-3 tablespoons for a big pot of stew, or adjust to taste.