arrow left envelope headphones search facebook instagram twitter flickr menu rss play circle itunes calendar

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.

< Back to Oral History project: New Orleans Eats

< Back to Oral History project: Southern Gumbo Trail

< Back to Oral History project: Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition


Lionel Key

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:
2006-07-14 00:00

Sara Roahen, writer and SFA member


Download Transcript

Other Project Interviews



The Southern Foodways Alliance drives a more progressive future by leading conversations that challenge existing constructs, shape perspectives, and foster meaningful discussions. We reconsider the past with research, scrutiny, and documentation.


Bill Smith Crooks Corner

Let’s Stay in Touch

Sign up for the SFA newsletter to have the latest content
delivered directly to your inbox.