Filé powder is used in Louisiana Creole cuisine in the making of some types of gumbo, a thick Creole soup or stew often served over rice. Several different varieties exist. In New Orleans, what is known as Creole gumbo generally varies from house to house though still retaining its African and Native American origins. The Creoles of Cane River make a gumbo focused much more on filé. Filé can provide thickening when okra is not in season, in types of gumbo that use okra or a roux as a thickener for gumbo instead of filé. Sprinkled sparingly over gumbo as a seasoning and a thickening agent, filé powder adds a distinctive, earthy flavor and texture.
Filé powder is made by harvesting the young leaves and stems of the sassafras tree and grinding them. Filé powder is generally not added until after the vegetables and meats and/or seafood are finished cooking and removed from the heat source.
Choctaw Indians of the American South (Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana) were the first to use dried, ground sassafras leaves as a seasoning. Gumbo may have derived its name from the Choctaw word for filé (kombo). Some culinary experts in the early 20th century, including Celestine Eustis, maintained gumbo including filé powder was an early special-occasion dish for native tribes. This is further implied by a late 18th-century Creole practice. At that time, rice was a luxury for many Creoles. They served gumbo over corn grits, a pairing common in the stews of native tribes. The use of corn and filé powder may imply the dish was derived from native cuisine.
The French word filé is the past participle of the verb filer, meaning (among other things) "to turn into threads", "to become ropy".
Unlike sassafras roots and bark, the tree's leaves (from which filé is produced), do not contain a detectable amount of safrole. This is significant because in 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil and safrole in commercially mass-produced foods (such as root beer) and drugs based on the animal studies and human case reports suggesting safrole is a carcinogen.
"Filé gumbo" is famously mentioned in the classic country song by Hank Williams Sr., Jambalaya (On the Bayou), which held the number one position on the U.S. country music charts for fourteen non-consecutive weeks.
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