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Filé Gumbo — The Grow Network Community
Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

-Jack Canfield

Filé Gumbo

Filé powder is used as a spice and a thickener in soup, stews and gumbos. It is made from the dried ground leaves of the Sassafras tree. It has been used by Native Americans and later in Cajun cooking.

When I was growing up in the 1960s we would dig Sassafras roots in the early spring and make tea out of them. My Grandma said they were a tonic. Fast forward to the 1980s and I became aware that the FDA has determined that sassafas contained a carcinogen called safrole. I believe the research was done in the 1960s and 70s but alas there was no Internet then so it took awhile for the word to get around. Anyway it was no longer sold for or considered safe for human consumption. Later testing has determined that the safrole is primarily in the roots and the bark,there is not enough in the leaves to show up in normal testing so filé powder has been declared safe. It just so happens I have many Sassafras trees on my land so I decided to give it a try.

Harvesting is easy, just nip off small branches. Snip off any leaves that have insect damage and dry the good leaves in a dark, dry spot. Once the leaves have dried to a crumbly consistency just use your food processor or grinder. You want a powder. Then store in a dark jar out of direct sun. 

Using your filé powder is pretty easy too. You can just set it on the table and let folks sprinkle it on their food once it is served. If you put it in while the food is cooking or being reheated it will get ropy or stringy, very unpleasant. Most of the recipes I found using it are robust, spicy meals so the cool (to me) flavor of the filé powder would be a nice balance and to thicken it to your own preference sounds like a winner as well. So put on some gumbo and some fiddle music and enjoy the bounty of the land!


  • Obiora EObiora E Posts: 519 ✭✭✭✭

    @VickiP Thank you for sharing. I knew that Sassafras leaves were used for file but never knew of the process. I may try and make some next year.

    The roots of Sassafras were also used in the original root beer when it was still fermented, but because of the "study" being done using from my understanding extremely large concentrations of the root it was determined to be a carcinogen. I still use the root and bark for teas and will make root beer with it (and other roots) next year.

  • VickiPVickiP Posts: 428 ✭✭✭✭

    Yes, they injected large amounts into rats, far far more than any normal human would ever use. One herbalist I read said that he found the roots were no longer flavorsome after the trees started to bud out, as though it was telling him enough is enough. He continues to use the roots in modest amounts for tea. So while I would never encourage anyone to go against conventional wisdom, I do enjoy an occasional cup of the tea myself.

  • Obiora EObiora E Posts: 519 ✭✭✭✭

    @VickiP Sounds righteous.

  • herbantherapyherbantherapy Posts: 355 ✭✭✭✭

    @VickiP what flavor do the leaves have? I thought the flowers were used for something too, any idea what? And does the root have the same taste as the leaf? I think I’ve had it in tea blends but never on its own. I’ve read a few times that is has great healing properties too. I believe as a blood thinner/heart issues and to help with dry coughs.

  • VickiPVickiP Posts: 428 ✭✭✭✭

    I don't taste the root beer flavor in the leaves, more of a fresh, clean somewhat aromatic flavor. Not strong, but I just had some nibbles, this is new to me as well. I am planing a gumbo sometime soon to give them a real taste test. I put some in water and they produce a lot of mucilage . The root has a very aromatic root beer flavor and smell, after all that is where root beer got it's start. Not at all mucilaginous. The root and the bark have been used for healing, but as has been pointed out they do contain a carcinogen so are not considered safe. The leaves however are.

  • Merin PorterMerin Porter Editorial Director Southwest Colorado (Zone 6a)Posts: 580 admin

    Oh my goodness, I love you for posting this. My husband and I just ate at a "Cajun" restaurant in SW CO, and they don't use filé on their gumbo. It was alright, but it sure could have used a before-serving shake of that tasty goodness!

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 1,250 admin

    I grew up drinking sassafras tea and using the roots as a "toothbrush" when camping. I still use sassafras root. It is considered a "tonic" in the Appalachian mountains, where I grew up... and I know too many folks around 100 years old who drink it regularly, and smoke or chew tobacco, and are still alive, to worry about it. I think, like comfrey, you just have to use common sense. I'm also half French with Acadian and Creole heritage. So, File is (don't know how to type the accent) is a favorite of mine! Gumbo comes from an African word for okra. Thickening stews with sassafras leaves likely came from Native Americans. Well, I like it all - with okra, with file, with tomatoes or without, and I'm a roux fanatic! There was a great big mortar and pestle type thing, made out of a stump on my grandparents' farm... passed down for generations... It was used for such things as making file by pounding the leaves into a powder. There was also an old cider press that looked like a huge, dug out canoe, with a hole in one end. It would be filled with apples, pears, etc and the fruit pounded while the juice ran out the end. Older family sold the farm when my grandparents died..... about 400 years of family history on that land, lost. Oh well. To me, file has a slight flavor of tea, and it seems to enhance flavors due to aromatic oils. Add it to your soup or gumbo at the table - you can use a little in cooking, but it is best if each person adds a little to his or her own bowl, to taste.

  • VickiPVickiP Posts: 428 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you for that history and the pointers on using filé . My Grandma used sassafras as a tonic as well. I would love a morter like that! I visited the Cherokee Heritage Museum in Tahlequah Ok. They demonstrated using a large morter made from a log or a stump for making pemmican. I use a small pottery one quite often when I cook but for bigger tasks I use a coffee grinder. (Hint on the accent-- copy and paste LOL.)

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 1,250 admin

    My pleasure! If you ever read the Foxfire books, you'll know how I grew up.... now, I just want to get back to it!

  • Obiora EObiora E Posts: 519 ✭✭✭✭

    @judsoncarroll4 Thank you for sharing your family history and talking more about Sassafras.

    And I heard an older gentleman last year saying that the best time to harvest the root is in February. When were you taught to harvest the roots?

  • Obiora EObiora E Posts: 519 ✭✭✭✭

    @herbantherapy I am not sure of how to describe the flavor of the leaves when used as a tea but it's a nice and pleasant flavor. In the late Spring I make a tea with Black Walnut, Sassafras, and another leaf (I can't recall what right now). It is a really good tea that can be drank chilled. The Sassafras is the standout in it.

    I haven't had gumbo for a while so I cannot comment on the taste of it, the file', in it but I assume that it imparts a similar flavor.

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 1,250 admin

    I don't recall a specific time recommended... though we always did in the fall when the leaves were bright and visible. It makes sense to harvest before the sap rises in the spring though, for vitality.

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