Thursday, May 1, 2008

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Creole Sassafras Mead

I started off yesterday intending to make a little pot of gumbo. But, honest now, who can ever make a little pot of gumbo? By the time I'd made a roux of duck fat and flour, added the onions, peppers, celery, spices, chicken, sausage, and stock, about two gallons of the stuff was looking up at me out of my biggest Dutch oven.

The only thing left to do to it is add the filé once we dish it up with a bit of rice. Filé is nothing more than the leaves of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), dried and ground into a powder. If the historians are to be believed, it's a gift passed on from the Choctaw Indians to Spanish and French settlers in Louisiana.

Hmmm...maybe "pounded" is a better way to describe it rather than "ground." Some years back, I spent a little time with Lionel Key, a Louisianan who puts out first-rate filé by adding dried leaves to a hollowed cyprus stump and then pounds them with a double-sided maul made of pecan wood. In pounding rather than grinding, Mr. Key was easily able to separate the unwanted stems and veins from the pulverized leaves, which thicken the kinds of gumbos I like to make.

It's an acquired taste—easily acquired. My gumbos come out differently every time I make one, so there's little point in sharing recipes. But thinking of filé made me reminisce about sassafras in general. I especially got to musing about the sassafras nip recipe shared with my by Chef Fritz Blank for my book Moonshine. It's one of those old-time recipes that has to be homemade because the sassafras berries that give the drink its mahogany hue just aren't commercially available.

Sassafras mead, on the other hand, you can make even if you have no access to a sassafras tree because dried roots are generally available from herb companies. This venerable recipe comes from the Picayune’s Creole Cookbook (4th edition, 1910). It's not strictly a mead since there's more "Louisiana molasses" (or you could use cane syrup) than honey and it doesn't undergo the long fermentations typical of mead (the French boisson really is a more accurate term), but it's still a tasty summer drink.

Boisson au Sassafran (Sassafras Mead)

4 Bunches of Sassafras Roots
1 ½ Pints of Honey
3 ½ Pints of Louisiana Molasses
1 Tablespoon of Cream of Tartar
½ Teaspoon of Carbonate of Soda

This is a noted Creole summer drink, and is prepared as follows: Take the roots of sassafras and make about two quarts of Sassafras Tea. Strain well. Set to boil again, and when it boils add one and one half pints of honey, and three and one half pints of Louisiana Syrup or Molasses. Add a tablespoon of Cream of Tartar. Stir well and set to cool. When cool strain it. Take about a dozen clean bottles and fill with the mixture. Cork very tight, and put in a cool place. In a day it will be ready for use. When serving this Mead, take a glass and fill half full with ice water. Add a tablespoon of the Mead and stir in half a teaspoon full of Carbonate of Soda. It will immediately foam up. Drink while effervescing. This is a cheap, pleasant and wholesome summer beverage in our clime. The above recipe has been in use in Creole homes for generations.
Goes well with:
  • Uncle Bill's Spices, Lionel Key's mail-order filé source. Root around on his site for recipes.
  • A Chef & His Library, an exhibit on Fritz Blank's cookery library I developed for the Van Pelt Rare Books and Manuscript department at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Steen's Syrup, the iconic yellow cans of thick, dark Louisiana cane syrup (yeah, they've got molasses, too).

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