The Feisty Forager: Sassafras
March Madness — Day 14
Sassafras has always held a certain magic for me. First of all there is the word itself. Four “s’s”, three “a’s”, an “f” and an “r”. Only four different letters to make a word that sings all by itself. Then there are the leaves. Three different kinds on the same tree. One tear shaped, one like a snow angel with three prongs, and the last shaped like a mitten with a thumb on one side. When I was a child I used to try to sew two of these mitten-shaped leaves together, but they always ended up tearing before I could get my hand in.
It’s amusing to chew on sassafras sticks, especially the green ones. They become slightly glabrous after just a few chews, reminding me that I can take the leaves, dry them, crush them to a powder (filé), and use them to thicken gumbo.
I can also dig out the roots (there are usually multiple trees growing together, so thinning them out a bit is okay), whittle off their outer layer, dry it, and steep it into a richly-spiced, red-tinted tea.
Root beer used to be flavored with sassafras root (hence the name) until it was found that quantities might be carcinogenic. Native Americans have long used it for numerous beneficial effects, and some diehards still seek it out to make their own renditions of the real deal.
This article is one of a month-long series of foraged treasures. For more recipes from the field and forest, check out Appalachian Appetite: Recipes from the Heart of America.