Sassafras is one of those rich childhood memories that I savor and crave from time to time. Rich is the aroma, flavor, and the memory my mother’s love and attention. When the world around me was not just right, my mother Alice would brew me a cup of healing “sassafras tea.” Her mother brewed it and her mother before her brewed it. Just knowing that Alice had stopped everything she was doing to sit with “just” me in the kitchen, was probably the most medicinal part of my “sassafras tea” experiences.
Sassafras is native in our “neck of the woods.” The Boston Mountains
are alive with sassafras trees. In the Spring, the native American
Cherokee tribe steeped the roots to make a drink they felt helped cleanse and purify the blood. They used it as a remedy for diarrhea and for those they thought were a bit “too fat.” They also knew using it for a prolonged period of time could become counterproductive and make you ill.
Early Anglo settlers are said to have made a “root” beer using young sassafras sprouts, sorghum molasses, spring water, and allowing the resulting mash to ferment. I suppose that these inventive spirits deserve the title of being our earliest mountain “moonshiners.”
In the 1960’s the FDA said “NO.” It found that large doses of the volatile oil
“safrole” resulted in cancer in rats and mice. They also found later that it was a key ingredient used in the production of the drug MDMA
“ecstasy.” So, they said “NO” you cannot use it to produce food products and if you are caught with large quantities of safrole oil, you are “BUSTED!”
As a chef I know the wonderful use of the dried leaves. I naturally use them to thicken my gumbos. The thickening action of the ground, dried leaves [file’ gumbo] has a slippery texture different than using corn starch or flour. There is a subtle flavor that the Cajun
folk crave like I crave a cup of the tea.
I called my 92 year old mother Alice yesterday and found that she had been treated like a “queen” on Mother’s Day. She treated me like a “king,” on those very brief moments in the kitchen of my childhood, when she stopped everything and brewed me some healing “sassafras tea.”