Real Food Encyclopedia | Sassafras and Filé
Sassafras is a tree native to North America. Its roots and bark were traditionally used to make tea and the leaves when dried and powdered are called “filé” and are most famously used in gumbo. Sassafras tea was popular among Native Americans and then the Europeans who came here and eventually made it into the precursor of root beer.
Depending on whom you ask, sassafras is either a folk remedy that makes for great tea or is a dangerous carcinogen that deserves Drug Enforcement Agency oversight.
Why? It’s because the roots and bark of the sassafras tree contain a high concentration of the chemical safrole. Safrole was judged a carcinogen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after testing it on rats in 1960. Safrole is also used in the production of MDMA (aka the illegal drug Ecstasy). On the other side of the coin, critics of the ban cite sassafras’ long-standing use as a folk medicine and that the amount of safrole the rats were fed was much higher than would normally be consumed by humans. Since only you can decide if the food you’re eating is safe, we’ve put together the facts about all the parts and uses of sassafras.
To be clear, the leaves of the sassafras tree do not contain enough safrole to be banned, so filé powder is fine for consumption and sale.
Fun Facts about Sassafras and File:
- Pumpkin pie, nutmeg, pepper, star anise and other common foods also contain safrole.
- Some believe the word “gumbo” comes from the Choctaw word for filé: “kombo.” There’s more evidence that the term “gumbo” comes from West African languages’ collective word for okra: “ki ngombo.”
- The first person who found success selling root beer, a pharmacist named Charles Elmer Hires, first tasted it on a honeymoon trip to New Jersey. He went home to Philadelphia, perfected his version and originally wanted to sell it as “root tea.” His inner Don Draper kicked in and he changed his mind to sell it as “root beer.” The rest is beverage history.
- Depending on who you ask, root beer and sarsaparilla are technically different things because their base ingredients aren’t the same: root beer was typically made from the sassafras tree and sarsaparilla comes from a vine named — unsurprisingly — sarsaparilla.
- Root beer fan websites are a pretty great corner of the internet. A gentleman by the name of Anthony Schorr (@AnthonyRootbeer) has been rating various root beers for almost 20 years, is up to more than 625 brands and is still going!
What to Look for When Foraging Sassafras and Filé
Sassafras albidum is a medium sized, deciduous tree. It grows to about 15 to 20 meters tall and has deeply fissured bark that tends towards dark, reddish brown in the recesses. The most striking visual characteristic of the sassafras tree is its lobed leaves. They basically look like mittens with either one thumb or two on each side. If you’re lucky, you might even find leaves with more than three lobes. In the fall, sassafras’ leaves become a beautiful yellow or bronze. Sassafras prefers well drained, sandy soil but will grow in most areas with loose, moist soil. Since sassafras thrives in full sun but is often overshadowed many taller hardwoods, sassafras is happy on the edge of forests and in places where large trees have fallen. It tends to send up a lot of offshoots and can quickly propagate in this manner.
Sustainability of Sassafras and Filé
Sassafras has a large range and grows throughout the Eastern and Central US from as far North as Maine to as far South as the middle of Florida.
As for seasonality, there are different times of year best suited for different uses. For filé, you’ll need green leaves so that means spring through early fall. For roots and bark, any time of the year can work, though foraging while the ground isn’t frozen and the leaves are on the trees makes for much easier hunting.
Sassafras and Filé Foraging
If you want to harvest sassafras, go for a hike and find some — they’re easy to spot! Remember, the best way to know you’ve found sassafras is to cut a bit of the flesh off a stem or root and take a whiff. It should smell just like root beer. Pick the leaves to dry for filé.
To harvest the roots, go find a big sassafras tree and look for the smaller saplings that have probably popped up around the parent. Grip the sapling at the base and slowly pull it up to gather young roots. You can also dig roots from larger trees if no saplings can be found, but be careful you’re harvesting roots far from the trunk as this could really damage the tree. Once cleaned, the roots can be used fresh or dried for use later. To grow a tree in your backyard, pick a sunny area and plant a sapling. Just be careful it doesn’t take over!
Eating Sassafras and Filé
Cooking With Sassafras and Filé
If you’re willing to hazard sassafras tea, gather roots, wash them and peel off the rough, outer covering of the root, then boil. Technically speaking, this is a decoction and not an infused tea — but you get the idea. If you’d like to add some additional flavors, pair with vanilla, cinnamon or spicebush berries. The tea can be a bit bitter, so sweeten with local honey if you’d like.
If you’re interested in making your own filé powder, it’s a fairly easy process. Find a sassafras tree and harvest leaves with the petioles still attached. (Petiole is the fancy botany word for the stem at the end of a leaf.) Tie the leaves together by the petioles and hang them up in a dim place. Don’t try to dry them in the sun as that will desiccate your leaves too quickly and they brown and lose a lot of their flavor. Once the leaves have dried and are crunchy, crumble them into a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar for powdering. Some folks mix in other plants into their filé powder like bay leaves, but for your first time try it alone to get the true taste. Store in a jar or zip lock and boom: you’ve got your own filé powder! It’s recommended that you add filé after everything is cooked and you’re about ready to serve.
A little filé goes a long way, so take a page from the Choctaw by making a big batch in the warmer months to thicken and flavor your soups when seasonal okra isn’t available over the winter.
Sassafras and Filé Nutrition
Nutritionally speaking, there isn’t much information for sassafras root tea as its commercial sale is outlawed. As for filé, here is the nutritional label from a common brand. As mentioned above, prior to being classed a mild carcinogen, sassafras was highly esteemed for its medicinal value. Native Americans had a ton of uses for the tree as you can see listed on this USDA fact sheet. Because of the controversy surrounding safrole and because sassafras was considered a powerful plant, please talk to your doctor if you’re planning on trying it, especially if you are or may be pregnant.