Southern

Behind Gumbo's Key Ingredient (for Some), Filé Powder

February  1, 2016

"I am the filé man," Lionel Key told me over the phone. So says his website, and so said John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, when I wrote to him asking for more information about filé. Lionel's been grinding filé powder by hand for over 30 years.

A traditional ingredient in gumbo, filé is a powder made from dried and ground sassafras leaves. It's similar in function to okra, part seasoning, part thickening agent. "When there wasn't okra available, they'd use filé," Lionel explained. "People only use one or the other. Your gumbo would be so thick" if you were to use both, so people pick a thickener (okra or filé) and stick with it. (Those on Team Okra simply add chopped okra along with the rest of the vegetables, and leave out filé. Additionally, nearly all gumbos include a roux, which also helps to thicken it.)

"People are so passionate about that dish. It takes on so many different variations," said Catherine Robertson, who told the story of her own family's legendary, five-generations-old seafood gumbo on our site this past year. She also wrote her master's thesis on gumbo, and knows her way around the history as well as she knows the ingredient list.

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"Gumbo is a super folklore-y kind of dish," she told me, with different groups of people—native, African, and French—each offering up a component for a distinctly Creole flavor profile: The filé comes from Choctaw Indians. It became a sort of herbalist thing, and many got it from local medicine women. You bought it locally: It [sassafras leaves] was dried out on rocks in the sun and ground up."

Filé powder stirred in once the gumbo comes off the heat. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Not all filé is harvested and ground by hand these days—in fact, most people just have a jar of Zatarain's now, Catherine told me—but that's how Lionel has been making filé for more than 30 years. He learned the skill from his great uncle, Willie Ricard, who started grinding his own filé in 1904. Along with the skill, Lionel inherited his 114-year-old mortar and pestle; the pestle is pecan, and the mortar is a 110-pound cypress tree trunk. He sells sacks of his hand-ground filé through his website.

Filé's not just for gumbo, though that's its most common use; you can also add it to beans, soups, sauces, gravies, or anywhere else you'd use a roux. But if you do use filé in gumbo, you have to add it towards the end of the gumbo's cooking, usually either right before your turn the heat off or just after—or, sometimes, it's sprinkled only over the eater's own bowl. "We add it at the very end in my family recipe. We're strict about it," Catherine explained. Mostly, it's very important not to let the filé boil, at which point it becomes bitter and stringy in texture. (Filé means thread or string in French.)

As far as the filé itself, its flavor evades description: Lionel claimed you have to add it to something hot to really be able to taste the filé flavor itself, which is distinct. Catherine said it's often called "root beer-y"—the roots in root beer are sassafras—but she associates it with lemon ("maybe because I add a little lemon at the end of cooking gumbo").

Which gumbo camp do you fall in—okra or filé? Give us your gumbo specifications in the comments.

7 Comments

Denise February 29, 2016
My mother-in-law was creole in Louisiana and she acted as if mixing filé and okra was sacrilege. She taught me to make gumbo without a roux as well 25 years ago. The first time I tasted one with a roux I thought it was ruined. It's as if someone put gravy in your gumbo. Ugh. Everywhere I go in restaurants these days they have a roux. So I<br />Just make my own. I do remember the injunction against ever letting the filé gumbo boil. She would make a huge pot and leave it in a back burner until all the ingredients broke down into Unrecognizable goodness and everyone dipped from the pot adding to bowls of hot rice all through the day. Good weather for gumbo now.
 
Joseph B. February 23, 2016
My family is neither Creole nor Cajun nor from New Orleans or Louisiana. We have no tradition of gumbo. As a result, I have yet to meet a gumbo I didn't like. I will take it anyway you make it. I just wish I was better at making it myself. My efforts have been mixed.
 
K C. February 22, 2016
My family is from the Creole side. My Mother, Aunt & Grandmother NEVER mixed file and okra. It was one or the other. File gumbo was made in the winter, okra gumbo was made in the summer with the best tomatoes you could find. I love both of them!!
 
Angie February 1, 2016
My family is Cajun. Every gumbo I've ever had or made has had both okra AND filé, and I've never thought that it's too thick. <br /><br />I don't quite get Chef Lisa's description. No roux or filé? I always heard that a gumbo must start with the roux, include the holy trinity, critters that fly, swim, crawl, or slither, include okra, and be finished with gumbo filé. But there's so much old Cajun lore :)
 
Miachel B. February 1, 2016
Team Okra!
 
Chef L. February 1, 2016
Definitely an okra gal. I used my mother's style, which neither contains a roux nor file'. She learned from my grandmother, who was first generation French, and immigrated to New Orleans as a young lady. The three things she did with utmost success was gumbo, oyster pie and a drip coffee that was sublime! Even added at the end, I never cared for the flavor of file'.
 
Edward L. September 13, 2016
The key ingredients in gumbo is the Roux and when serving sprinkle File'over the top. I don't use okra, We make it all time and there is no season on when to have it.I cook mine in the crockpot all day.