"There's a tree I
just planted a few months ago," Lionel Key tells us. "It's young. But it's
producing leaves, what I need."
These special leaves are a big part of family tradition for Key.
He says, "This is a single-pointed leaf, there's a leaf that
looks like a mitten – it's two-pointed.
And here's a three-pointed leaf on it… that identifies a sassafras tree."
It started with Lionel's great uncle Bill. He says, "Joseph Willie Ricard was his name.
But we used to call him Blind Willie because he was actually blind."
Uncle Bill taught Lionel how to make filé from sassafras
leaves. And Lionel still uses his uncle's handmade mortar and pestle, in
constant use since 1904.
It's a process passed down from Choctaw Indians, as the sassafras
leaves are pounded and then sifted into a fine powder. Key calls it "green gold."
He says, "Filé is used for gumbo first of all. It's used for
soups, sauces, gravies, stews, beans, anything you want to thicken up and
season you can use filé."
Lionel has become a regular at the New Orleans Jazz Fest –
you can catch him on the second weekend, pounding sassafras leaves, making his Creole
Just like any farmer, success each year is tied to your
crop. And it's hard to predict how many leaves are going to grow on the
sassafras trees. In a good year, Lionel
will collect 20 to 30 sacks of leaves. Many of them come from trees planted in
his cousin's backyard in St. Gabriel. But last year, he only collected four
sacks of leaves.
Key says, "That's the funny thing about a sassafras
tree. They're doing fine one year and
the next year you go in, dead. I don't know why, they just do that. They die."
The magic is in knowing when to pick the leaves. "That's a family secret," says Key. "Great
uncle told me, ‘Don't tell nobody unless you tell somebody in the family….' Every tree has a season. And what I do is get
it at the peak of perfection."
Lionel also believes there is perfection in this process of
carefully pounding the leaves and sifting out all of the bits and stems –
leaving only a fine powder. He says the
best filé' is fresh filé'.
The Filé Man's "green gold" sells for $7 an ounce. Don't forget, you can catch Lionel Key at the
Fair Grounds on the second weekend of Jazz Fest.
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