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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region. If you would like to contribute to SFA’s oral history collections, please send your ideas for oral history along with your CV or Resume and a portfolio of prior oral history work to annemarie@southernfoodways.org.

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Lionel Key

Uncle Bill's Spices

“Gumbo filé is a thickening and a seasoning that we use for our gumbos here in Louisiana,” Lionel Key said. 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 the tradition, which is 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 refused to divulge family secrets, such as the harvest season for the leaves and the length of cure time, he took his processing operation and his mortar and pestle on the road to farmers’ markets and museums. Lionel was modest, but his vocation is rare enough that Slow Food included fresh hand-ground filé on its Ark of Taste.

Lionel Key passed away on December 31, 2017.

Date of interview:

Sara Roahen, writer and SFA member


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