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The Forgotten Tree

The sassafras tree has been historically an very important tree. At one point in the 1600s it was one of the largest imports from America second only to tobbaco. the Creole and the Cajuns learned from the Indians the thickening qualities of sassafras leaves and it soon became part of thier cuisine. The roots of the tree became the key ingredient in the original root beer or could be made into a delightful tea.

Sassafras does contain a potential cancer-causing substance, safrole, in the roots. The toxin is so small that two organically grown apples have the equilavency in toxins as a bottle of real root beer(L. S. Gold, et.al., Science, vol. 258, pg 261, 9 Oct 92, “Rodent Carcinogens: Setting Priorities”). However, if you choose not to use the roots, the leaves have no detectable sign of safrole, and will make great filé powder.

Our family loves sassafras tea; their is nothing quite like it. The only way I can descibe the taste is something like a fruity licorice drink. If you want to make this classic tea, then follow the simple recipe below.

Sassafras Tea

Makes 1 Gallon

Preparation:

  1. If you have your own property, or permission of a landowner, walk along the sides of the roads and look for 3-5ft sassafrass sapling. They are quite easy to spot by their leaves; all the leaves are toothless with varying lobe shapes.
  2. Once located, slowly ease the tree up by pulling as low down the tree as you can, trying to keep as much of the tap root as possible (You might have to loosen the soil with a shovel).
  3. Take a pair of garden sheers and cut the root away from the trunk. Keep the top of the tree if you plan on making filé. Wash the roots well.
  4. Weigh out 2-oz. of root and cut into 1-inch pieces.
  5. Place the root pieces strait into a pot of water and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 5-minutes then let cool  for another 10-minutes for maximum flavor.
  6. Meanwhile, measure 1 1/2-cups of sugar and place in a gallon pitcher.
  7. Set a cheese cloth over the pitcher and fasten it with a rubber band.
  8. Pour in the tea and dissolve sugar.
  9. Chill and serve iced. ENJOY!

Now you are left with a bunch of sassafras tree tops. In Louisiana the Creole and the Cajuns make a killer gumbo using powdered sassafras leaves they call filé powder. Here is how to make this southern thickener.

Filé Powder

Preparation:

  1. Bundle several sassafras branches and hang in your attic, basement,or garage. It is best to keep it in a dark, dry environment.
  2. When dry, remove leaves and place in a food processor.
  3. Chop until a very fine powder, about 2 minutes.
  4. Sift the filé powder to rid it of stem bases.
  5. Place in a airtight container and store in a cool, dark place. It should keep a year.

You can use filé powder in gumbo and soups in place of roux or okra. Just slowly add until you have desired consistency. the flavor of the filé itself is light but has a slight earthy taste that adds richness and body to the dish. It can also be used as a final garnish.

Bon appetite!

By Hunter Harris

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