Many aeons before the use of file (fee-lay) powder for Creole and Cajun cooking, Native Americans pounded young, dried sassafras leaves into a powder and added them to soups and stews. This was actually invented by the Choctaw Indians. The powder acts as a thickener when added to liquid but there is a slight taste pleasant taste that the leaves add. That file is what gives gumbo its popular slippery texture. The file powder is necessary for cooking traditional Creole or Cajun dishes.
Very cool that gumbo file powder is made from the powdered leaves of the sassafras tree. Where my family and I homestead, our property is just loaded with sassafras trees. When the leaves are ground, they have a rich, cooling scent, a lot like eucalyptus leaves mixed with juicy fruit chewing gum. During the spring, when the new leaves emerge, this is the time to gather the young leaves for drying and pounding or grinding into a fine powder.
For those of you that cook a lot of home cooked meals and make a lot of old-fashioned meals, you can use this file to replace cornstarch which more often than not is genetically modified, these days. Organic cornstarch and arrowroot powder are great alternatives to the genetically modified cornstarch, now we can add this sassafras file to the recipe box. How many times have you been in a wooded area and been looking up through the trees and had the ability to point out to a friend what you can and can not eat for survival?
To use your natural file, add several teaspoons to your soup after you have taken the soup off of the heat. Do not add it while cooking. Be easy in your first use as often people add too much the first time. Because there are often folks that will say, well safrole oil is bad for you. I say this: Parts of the sassafras plant contains safrole, which may be carcinogenic according to the FDA. This is the same organization that tells you that eating genetically modified foods is safe for you after private studies have seen rats develop grotesquely large body tumours!
In the 1960’s, researchers separated the safrole oil compound and fed it to rats in ridiculously high concentrations (not found in nature) and they came down with cancer (go figure, keep in mind that they had not even faced the fact that cigarettes caused cancer at this time so my faith in this warning is weak at best). You can also find safrole in more popular herbs such as black pepper, basil and nutmeg. However, just to be sheepishly correct, the leaves of the Sassafras tree does not contain safrole so they are safe for making Filé!
This information gives us an insight through an open door to the distant past where nature provided all the food that humanity consumed. There were no big food corporations and large monopolies controlling every morsel you ate, as it is now. Nature provided and those that lived then knew what they could use for what. How do you think they learned about sassafras leaves and this use? Just as we can today, asking those that are much older than us with hopes their wisdom can provide or just simply trial and error which would be considered, in those times, research.