Hank Williams And The Hunt For The Elusive Sassafras

It’s always been fascinating to me how a piece of music can trigger memories, but I suppose it’s really not that surprising. After all, one of the reasons music appeals to us as individuals is its ability to generate moods and feelings, so memories wouldn’t be far behind.

I was recently listening to an old song – “Jambalaya,” by the immortal Hank Williams – and had to chuckle a little when I heard him singing about “filé gumbo”, because it reminded me that for a lot of years I had no idea what he was talking about. I sort of knew what gumbo was, but wasn’t sure how the “feely” variety differed from the regular kind.

Of course, I eventually discovered that filé is a seasoning used in gumbo and other dishes, and it’s derived from the dried leaves of the sassafras plant. So finally we get to the point I was trying to make earlier — you know, about music and memories. Simply put, now that I know what filé is, whenever I hear that song I think back to my childhood and trips to the woods to find sassafras.

It might sound a little tame now, but in rural America at that time it was perfectly normal for entire families to tromp into the woods for a variety of reasons, most having to do with eating. Depending on the season, adults might be picking greens, or searching for sassafras so that the roots and bark could be used for tea or candy, or combing the woods for morel mushrooms. Meanwhile, the kids would be doing what kids have always done — running wild and having fun.

The best trips to the woods were those made on hot Summer days, because that’s when we’d agitate for a trip to Staley Ford for some swimming. In spite of its name, Staley Ford was not a car dealership with a swimming pool, and in fact didn’t have anything to do with cars unless you count how we all crammed into my Grand-dad’s old coupe to go there. I’m not sure who Staley Ford was named for, but it was the kind of ford that provides a way across a stream. Specifically in this case, a concrete slab that spanned a large, deep creek, creating a surface for vehicles to drive across. Depending on how much rainfall we’d had, it might be barely below the surface or as much as a foot down. In either case, the area on both sides was several feet deep and formed a natural swimming area.

We would seldom have the place to ourselves since it was a popular location, but that was OK — there was room for everybody. And in case you’re wondering, the thought of skinny-dipping would not have even occurred to these conservative country folks. We wore shorts or cut-offs, and had a ball playing in the water or running across the ford and diving in. Of course, we had to watch for the occasional car passing across, but that wasn’t a problem since they already knew that they had to drive slowly — a fast trip across a ford was asking for car trouble.

But let’s get back to sassafras. Ironically, the essence of the bark and roots, which was used for years as flavoring for a lot of things – including root beer – was banned as a food additive in the 1970’s. It turns out that there’s a component that can cause liver cancer in rats, so when I think about all the sassafras tea I drank as a kid, and couple that with the fact that Mrs. BigGeez often calls me “the world’s largest rodent”, it gives me pause. But at least I don’t have to stop eating filé gumbo. The sassafras leaves do NOT contain the bad stuff, so I’ll just try to think good things when I hear Hank singing about it.

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