Uncle Bill's Spices
Phone: (225) 267-9220
be described, I don’t think. You know, you have to taste
it. In other words, it has a distinct taste and flavor of its
own…there’s nothing that I can think of that comes
close to what filé tastes like.” – Lionel Key
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
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.
to this 2-minute audio clip of Lionel Key talking about harvesting the sassafras leaves used
to make filé. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.]
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Lionel Key
Location: his home, Baton Rouge, LA
Date: July 14, 2006
Interviewer: Sara Roahen, writer and SFA member
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen;
it’s July 14th, 2006 and I’m in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,
with Mr. Lionel Key. If I could get you to state your name and
your birth date and how you make your living.
Lionel Key: My name is Lionel Key,
Jr.; birthday is November 7th, 1948 and I make a living by making
All right. Can you start out maybe
by describing to me what that is — gumbo filé?
Gumbo filé is a thickening and
a seasoning that we use for our gumbos here in Louisiana. It is
made from sassafras leaves. I have—I employ mortar and [pestle]
and I crush the leaves in to make it into powder—the old-fashioned
way. Traditionally this was done by the Choctaw Indians. And they
taught the settlers when they came over to this country how to
make the gumbo filé.
tell me how you got into that.
I had a great-uncle that made gumbo
filé and he taught me how to make it. Joseph Willy Ricard
was his name. He was blind. He made mops and brooms for the Lighthouse
for the Blind and he made gumbo filé. He raised four kids
And so was he a big part of your
life the whole time you were growing up?
Yes, he was. I always knew that Uncle
Bill made gumbo filé and in his later years when he got
older he called me one day to come over to help him to get his
mop up off the floor. He couldn’t pick it up. In other words,
he used to get a mop in a spool like when you have thread or something
and he would take a broom handle and go through it and pick it
up and put it on—on a roller where he could roll it off
and cut it. And he got too weak to do it, so he called me up and
that—that was the day that I decided that I was going to
ask him how to make the gumbo filé before he passed on—on
away from here.
And had that been brewing in your
No; it hadn't, never—it just
happened coincidentally that one day.
And did it dawn on you or did you
talk in your family about how rare and sort of special it was?
No, Uncle Billy and I sat down and
talked about it a lot. You know he told me to stay in the back
of the garage and just do it and let family members and people
who already bought from him buy from me, but I—I don’t
know. I took it out—out of the garage and put it out in
the forefront so people could actually see what was actually done.
And that day when you went over
to help him pick up the mop what did you say to him?
I just asked him—I said Uncle
Bill, would you teach me how to make the filé? He said
yeah, my boy when I get ready to make it I’m going to call
you up. So he called me one day about 5 o’clock in the morning
and said he was getting ready to make filé and I told him,
well Uncle Billy, I want to bring my two sons over there with
me, so they can see too. And they hadn't gotten up yet, so I’ll
be over there when they get up. So I gave—I had to give
myself a little time. He had no sense of time because he lived
in the dark all—you know being blind. He never knew what
5 o’clock was or 2 o’clock in the afternoon was, so
he started out real early in the morning. When I got there he
was still making it and the first thing he did was told me to
sit there and pound the filé. So I went to pounding it
and he say you’re not hitting it in the middle. I’m
saying to myself how does this old man know
I’m not hitting something in the middle, he can't even see?
But it makes a distinct sound like a—a baseball hitting
off the end of a bat or something like that. It makes a distinct
sound when you hit it directly in the middle of the trunk of the—of
And so when you started working
with your uncle, how long did that last? How long did it take
you to get the hang of it?
Two years. Well he did—he did
all the work. I was just around there watching and—and grasping
what he was doing, you know. He was still doing it his-self, and
when he passed away in ’85 I had to go on my own and I—I
remember making the first jar I made by myself and it wasn’t—he
wasn’t with me or his wife. His wife would help him also
because she would be out there with him. And I made that first
jar and I went over to her house and I said Aunt Sweet, I want
you to see if I’m doing it right. So she took the jar and
she opened it up; she smelled it and put her hands in it and did
that to it, closed the top and gave it back to me and she said
you got it.
And can you tell me a little bit
about what his [Uncle Bill’s] personality was like? How
old were you then—I can't do the math in my head—when
I was in—I was in my 30s, maybe
about 33—34—35, somewhere up in there.
And did you have a career doing
something else at that point?
I was driving trucks for UPS.
Tell me about your year. I’m
not sure how this works. There’s a harvest season I understand?
Yeah, once a year there’s a harvest.
And when is that?
Oh that’s a family secret. [Laughs]
Uncle Bill told me don’t tell nobody unless I tell somebody
in the family. But it’s once a year. Say for instance, I’m
just going to use this as an example: January 15th to February
15th is when you can harvest. After that period of time you can't
harvest anymore until next year.
And what do you harvest and how
do you harvest it?
I go to the sassafras trees that I’m
able to get a hold of and I—I use a pruner and I prune—I
prune the limbs off of the tree, like you would be pruning a tree
to help it to grow. And then I take the leaves on the branches—I
don’t take them off; I wash them and then I take them and
put them in the garage outside and let them dry for a period of
time. And then once they’re dried good and dry I go and
I hand-pick all the leaves off all the branches and that’s
a lot of work—a lot of man hours involved in that. And then
I cure them for a period of time before I start processing them.
Once they’re dried and cured,
do you process them all at once? Do you make them into powder
all at once or can you—
No. I can do it over a course of the
year. Normally I have enough leaves to carry me through the years
to do festivals all over the state of Louisiana and normally I—like
right now I’ve still got two sacks of leaves left, and I
have to get rid of them before I get my new harvest in.
Can you tell me where the trees
Well they’re all over. They’ve
got trees here—right here in Baton Rouge I can get leaves
from. I got a tree on a relative’s property in Sunshine,
Louisiana but the storm got a hold of that and another one is
sprouting up but it’s real short—real small right
now. But I got my sources.
tell me what a sassafras tree looks like. I don’t think
Well a sassafras tree is—looks
something like an oak tree but it’s not as dark. They grow
to be 80—90-feet tall.
When you were growing up what kinds
of things did you eat with filé in it besides gumbo —
No, but I know that you can use it
for soups, sausage, gravies, stews—anything you want to
Have you ever used it for anything
Yeah, red beans, potato soup, shrimp
and corn soup.
With gumbo, is your style to put
it in with your seasoning vegetables?
While you’re cooking it. And
then after it’s dished up I’ll put some more on top
of that—double dip.
Can you describe the flavor to me?
can't be described I don’t think. You know, you have to
taste it. In other words it has a distinct taste and flavor of
its own so there’s nothing that I can think of that comes
close to what filé tastes like.
Do you make gumbo in this house
Yes, I do.
And what kind do you make?
Chicken and sausage and shrimp and
maybe a few crabs in it.
So altogether—do you have
any—I’ve heard a lot of rules like some people don’t
believe in putting filé in seafood gumbo; some people believe
that you do; is there a filé rule?
No, I don’t think there’s
a rule or set way of--that you do the filé just as long
as it’s done--put in the pot at the right time. I find that
So tell me what’s the difference
between your products and a commercially packaged product?
You don’t know when they harvested
the leaves. They didn’t harvest the leaves at the right
time that’s going to be one thing. Secondly they use commercial
grinders that grind everything up—the stems of the leaves,
the vein of the leaves, and all that and it doesn’t—it’s
not fresh. I don’t do it all at one time where I got it
piled up. I keep a fresh supply at all times. Like right now I
need to make up some more fresh filé. And it—the
texture—is different; the smell is different. The thickness
Has anyone in your family ever bought
a commercial brand of filé?
They know they better not. My mother,
she knew about filé all her life too but she never did
like filé she said until a couple years ago, she got to
taste some with some gumbo and she said oh that tastes pretty
good. I want some of it, you going to give me a jar of filé.
So I had to give her a jar of filé. And now I got a new
person on the list.
And how old is she now?
My mother is 82.
I was wondering if you’ve
ever talked to any Native Americans about this.
Not Choctaw. I’ve never met any
Choctaw but I’ve met other Native Indians like the Houma
Indians. They always like to buy it from me when they see me at
festivals and they—they going to come and buy it.
I wanted to ask you about your tools.
Where did you get those?
My great-uncle had those and when he
made filé and when he passed away his wife, Aunt Sweet,
gave them to me. She gave me all his cans, his mortar and pedestal.
She gave me everything that he had.
And do you know where he got it—the
mortar and pestle?
His uncle made it for him, my great-great
uncle made it in 1904 for him. It’s 102 years old. It’s
made out of cypress—out of a sound piece of cypress lumber,
a tree. That’s the treasure. I have people that come up
to me and say oh that’s so beautiful. I’d love to
have that. Oh man this thing is beautiful. I say the bidding starts
at $4 million and goes up a million every second. I couldn’t
depart with it, you know. I just couldn’t depart with it.
I wouldn’t have nothing to work with and wouldn’t—how
would I feel selling something like that? So I—I let people
know it’s not for sale.
To download the entire transcript
in PDF form, please click here.
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