"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.
"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."
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.