Sassafras Safari

March 5th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Try to find filé powder in Shaw’s or Stop & Shop. I tried, along with many other chain and oner groceries in and around Boston.

As always, my quest was successful…through my demented perseverance. In my decades in Boston, I have gone from harrumphing frustration to amusement and enjoyment of the sport of it all.

As the cook around here, I am relentless in pleasing my family and guests. It isn’t always easy in a less than cosmopolitan town. Locale has come to make the ingredient hunts events for small triumphs.

Some of this is my fault for having a wide and deep repertoire  in the kitchen. I have been known to guffaw and simultaneously wrinkle my many-furrowed brow when I mention that I am the family cook. Almost invariably the non-chefs and mere dabblers and meat burners outside ask, “Oh, what kind of food do you cook?,” as though that would be reasonable chitchat. Horse feathers! It would be far easier to list what I won’t, haven’t or can’t cook.

Moreover, having lived in many parts of the country (and Japan) growing up, I got used to a variety of cuisines, groceries, and regional specialties. Then as an adult, I lived a decade in the Village in New York, two blocks from the fabulous Balducci’s produce, cheese, meat and fish haven. In lower Manhattan, virtually any foodstuff and all ingredients are available…right then…right there.

Boston and Cambridge and the area are not like that. There are many styles of restaurants. For ingredients though, you damned well better know your neighborhoods as well as your towns if you are looking for something. That’s kind of cute and even endearing in a provincial way. It’s less wonderful when you want to make a dish you know or have recently gotten a recipe for making. The hunt is on!

In its extreme, I learned this the first year we moved from the apple to the bean. That was 30 years ago and Boston has become more urbane and cosmopolitan since, but as many foods as I’ve had to track down over the years, I have no doubt we remain way behind more integrated cities with less dependency on sub-neighborhoods and cultural niches.

My first shock was fittingly enough, bean-based in Beantown. I worked down on Commercial wharf at Inc. magazine, which was a nice walk from the half of a townhouse we rented from the food and beverage manager of the Ritz. Johnny Carter of Johnny and Bonnie was a serious foodie by passion as well as profession.

He said he had never eaten feijoada, the Brazilian national dish and I figured I’d serve that as a get-better-acquainted meal. I knew I could get the sausages and pig and cow parts in the North End on the way home. I had not accounted that the key, staple ingredient — black (turtle) beans — would be a huge deal. After all, I had the North End, the Haymarket and Stop & Shop on the way home.

Well, 30 years ago, we here were even more provincial than we are now. Store after store, whether Italian specialty or chain, most did not have black beans or had ever seen them. Nowadays they are common dried and canned, but not in early 1980.

Such safaris have recurred repeatedly since, but with far greater success. That evening of the feijoada meant substituting the much inferior kidney bean, which did not have the fullness and muskiness required. However, I have learned to plan farther out. I also know which neighborhoods and which stores are likely to have this or that ingredient.

Tracking down items that would be very common in Manhattan has become a real sport and pastime in Boston. Such it was with filé.

I had a couple bottles of powdered sassafras leaves, including one a friend who visited New Orleans brought me a few years ago. When I use it that is generally for gumbo and I don’t need a lot, perhaps a teaspoon or two at the most and putting some on the table for the Southerners to sprinkle on as they might with the various levels of hot sauce I provide.

I sussed out the new Hyde Park supermarket, part of the PriceRight chain.  Every week (starting Sunday and not the herd mentality of Friday), that store has specials, including a couple of loss-leader produce items. One week it might be 97¢-a-pound grapes and the next it might be and was 99¢ okra.

Those wicked green fingers were as flawless as any I had seen or my granddad ever grew and at a great price. So, I churned out a gumbo and used my next to last allotment of filé. Hence, I went looking for replenishment.

filé powderAs a side note, I disdain those who say a gumbo needs either okra as a thickener or filé for that job and not both. I don’t know anyone from Louisiana or anywhere in the Deep South who agrees.  The word gumbo itself is from an African term for okra. You can be sure the namesake is essential. Filé though does more than thicken the broth. It has a distinctive flavor and aroma. We can taste and smell it. Gumbo is not real without both okra and filé, regardless of the fat used in the roux, the meat or fish simmered, or the broth base.

So with my absurdly, compulsively through process, I walked, biked or drove to store after store and called a few others. I learned a few things, such as:

  • the wonderful Hi-Lo Latino market in JP’s Hyde Square has myriad herbs and spices in four places, with lots of Caribbean medicinal bags of leaves or roots, but no sassafras.
  • likewise, America’s Food Basket on Hyde Park Avenue not only has a fine  selection of those ugly root vegetables, but it has a huge range of culinary and medicinal herbs and spices in three sections (no filé).
  • also, that new PriceRight has a big selection in two places in bottles and bags, but no filé.

After two dozen stores, I was amused by it all. I returned to the internet and tried multiple versions of search terms. Finally with something like “(filé powder)  gumbo Boston Cajun ingredients”I saw the winner. On the fourth page of hits, a food chat site had a comment that included the highlighted phrase “for those in the Boston area”.

Sure enough, a decent bike ride or drive of 12-plus miles took me to the source — the wonderful Marty’s in Newton. Yeah, it’s a wine/booze/beer store, but they have great mustards, chocolates and other foodstuffs. I’m sorry the Allston one disappeared in a lease fight, but one is really all I need.

Marty’s private brands many herbs and spices in a great rack of clear bags. God bless ’em. I returned with two sacks of filé. Come the next batch of perfect okra, I’m set. I make a totally pleasing gumbo.

Perhaps it’s  true that the worthwhile should be at least a little struggle so you appreciate it. I’m sure I was spoiled by the years in the Village and almost daily trips to Balducci’s. There I’d find exactly what I wanted and needed and then carry my treasures the whole two blocks north. It was satisfying without the thrill of the hunt.

Likewise, I know in Boston I have cataloged hundreds of items with their neighborhoods and stores for sources. I also know that a couple of times a year, I’ll don my virtual pith helmet and pick up my virtual net for the hunt.

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2 Responses

  1. Adam Gaffin says:

    Sassafras grows wild (or used to) along the Far Rockaway line of the Long Island Rail Road. When we lived out that way, my father used to go on regular picking expeditions for sassafras tea – until he read somewhere it was one of the most potent carcinogens around. No more sassafras tea …

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Yeah, but there’s a lot more in the bark and roots (as in root beer) than leaves. Plus, it’s one of those silly things that required huge amounts to cause cancer in those mice.

    I remember my grandmother being upset by a flurry of those scares. It was sassafras, cranberries and even green beans. Those wacko medical researchers would parade one alarmist study after another providing this or that would kill you…leaving out the bushels of beans you’d need to ingest to equal what the lab victims got.


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