For hundreds of years the Choctaw Indians have had a settlement at Bayou Lacombe on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and had a way of making Gumbo long before the white man and the black man arrived. They invented filé (pronounced feelay). The tender green leaves of the sassafras tree are picked, dried, and ground to a powder. A couple of tablespoons of the powder will go a long way to thicken a whole saucepan of Gumbo and give it a flavor that’s spicy and moreish. Filé powder is usually always added after removing the pot from the fire. If you boil, it becomes stringy and unpalatable. Okra and filé is not used together in a Gumbo or it can become thick and stodgy. The Creoles in New Orleans used filé primarily in wintertime, when fresh okra was not in season, but many Cajuns prefer filé gumbo year-round (as do I). Traditionally a big bowl of filé is passed around at the table, so that all the guests may take as much as they want.
The Indians also supplied dried bay leaves (laurel), an essential flavoring element in most Creole soups and stews. At the old French Market in days gone by,Choctaws would be sitting in the shade of the arcade, peddling their small caches of filé and dried bundles of bay leaves.
On several ocassions I’ve tried to purchase filé powder in the UK, but with no avail. Last year I was fortunate to receive a jar from traditional filé makers in Virginia, whilst working in a soul food restaurant.
Filé of a commercial grade can be purchased on-line at many grocery stores in New Orleans and in the Cajun country, but the homemade kind is stronger and tastier. If you can’t find a traditional filé maker, you can make it yourself by pounding dried sassafras leaves with pestle and mortar. And while you’re at it, pound up a few bay leaves for a splendid flavoring element.
So whenever you eat gumbo filé, give a thought to the almost vanished Choctaws of Lacombe. The Choctaws and their Filé are long gone from the French Market, which is now little more than a tourist trap to purchase Mardi Gras beads, T-shirts, and a million varieties of hot sauce. Now that’s another story all together.