Uncle Bill’s Spices
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 William 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.
Date of interview:
July 14, 2006
Sara Roahen, writer and SFA member