Heart of Louisiana: Filé Man

"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 treasure.

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.

For more information, go online to http://unclebillspice.com.