Enjoy your hot delicious gumbo with Louisiana's handmade filé powder

"It can't be described, I don’t think. You know, you have to taste it. In other words, it has a distinct taste and flavor of its own…there’s nothing that I can think of that comes close to what filé tastes like.”

Lionel Key says, “gumbo filé is a thickening and a seasoning that we use for our gumbos here in Louisiana.” In his thirties, Lionel learned the art of making filé—which involves curing and pulverizing the leaves of the sassafras tree—from his great-uncle, Joseph Willie Ricard. “Uncle Bill,” who was born blind passed on tradition said to have been established by the Choctaw Indians. And he handed down the tools that his own uncle made by hand in 1904. While Lionel refuses to divulge family secrets, such as the harvest season for the leaves and how long he cures them, he takes his processing operation, his mortar and pestle, on the road to farmers’ markets and museums. Lionel is modest, but his vocation is rare enough that Slow Food included fresh hand-ground filé on its Ark of Taste. What’s more, Lionel recently convinced his eighty-two-year-old mother, previously in the camp of Louisiana cooks who prefer okra or roux thickeners, to try his filé. She’s a convert.

   Handmade Filé, which is also known as Gumbo Filé and Filé Powder, is a powder made from the leaves of the Sassafras Tree.  The Choctaw Indians of Louisiana are believed to be the first users of sassafras, a type of laurel tree native to North America. The tender leaves of the Sassafras were dried and pounded into a fine powder, which was used as a flavoring and thickening agent.  When ingested, the powder causes the body to perspire, and so it was used medicinally to break fevers.  The Choctaw originally sold this powerful herb to the Creoles of New Orleans in the earliest days of the French Market.

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Lionel Key Jr. was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1948. Mr. Key learned to grind dried sassafras leaves into the seasoning known as filè from his great uncle Willie Ricard in 1982. Using a 114-year-old mortar and pestle he inherited from Mr. Ricard, he pounds the leaves by hand into a powder. Uncle Bill's Creole Filè originated in 1904 with Willie Ricard of Rougon, Louisiana. Mr. Ricard was born blind in 1894. Known as "Blind Willie," Mr. Ricard also made brooms and mops. As a child, he cut sugar cane on Alma Plantation in Lakeland. Lionel Key Jr. didn't think too much of the old ways growing up, but knew about Uncle Bill's Creole filè all of his life. In 1982, he became interested in his great uncle's custom of gathering sassafras leaves each year and grinding them to make filè. He asked his great uncle to teach him how to make it so he could carry on the tradition. He learned Mr. Ricard's tricks of making filè very carefully and has preserved his methods and tools ever since. When Mr. Ricard died in 1984, Lionel was given all of his tools to use, which included Mr. Ricard's mortar and pestle that were made in 1904 by Mr. Ricard's uncle, a carpenter. Mr. Key continues to make filè once a year just as his Uncle Bill did. He keeps the family's secret of just when the leaves are harvested and how they are cured. He will gladly show people the final step of the process, grinding the leaves into filè by hand. As Mr. Ricard used to tell his great nephew, "A lot of people make filè, but they don't make it like me."


Originally Uncle Bills Spices .com

Event Details

When: April 28-May 7, 2017
Where: The Fair Grounds

2017 New Orleans Jazz Festival

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                                  Uncle Bill And The Louiniana File' Man Lionel Key

It's time to get your tickets for this year’s 48th annual Jazz Fest! With some of the biggest musical acts scheduled to perform, this year’s festival looks irresistible. This spring, people will come to New Orleans from all over the world for this two-weekend, seven-day music festival at the historic Fair Grounds Race Course. I will be at the New Orleans Jazz Festival on May 4, 5, 6 and 7.  Stop in to see my Cypress stump,  watch me take dried sassafras leaves and pound out some fresh Uncle Bills File'powder.