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Sassy Sassafras

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By: Angela Gillaspie Copyright © 2021, All Rights Reserved

cold sassafras tea

Sassafras tea was America's first tea.

As the first English settlers explored the New World, they must've seen Native Americans smacking their collective lips on citrusy, spicy, aromatic Sassafras Albidum products. The settlers tried it and soon became addicted to it. In the 1600's, England imported boatloads of sassafras tonic because they believed it was the fountain of youth. Sassafras became so popular that England demanded it from the colonies as condition of charter. I can't imagine a time when the tea tax was so high that it spurred a rebellion, but if it happened today, I would be the first patriot to rebel!

They say the Boston Tea Party was the result of oppressive taxes, but I wonder if it was because the colonists got tired of getting all dressed up in their powdered wigs and ruffles, looking down their noses and properly sipping their imported Chinese tea during High Tea. I think they wanted to flip their wigs, unbutton their britches and slurp sassafras tea from a jelly jar.

These American pioneers used sassafras wood to build fences, boats, buckets, barrels, poles, posts and crossties. They even made bed frames from this wood thinking that it would help get a restful night's sleep because the fragrance chased away bedbugs and evil spirits. It's probably a good thing PETA wasn't around in those days to protect the rights of bedbugs.

All through the years, folks found uses for sassafras. They extracted a yellow dye from the bark, chewed the bark to break the tobacco habit, dried and ground the leaves to thicken stews, and used the oil to make perfume. Sassafras tea had the most uses including:

  • Washed on the skin to cure blemishes and chase away flies
  • Drank to cure that nasty spring fever slump
  • To ease digestive problems
  • To ward off evil revenuers
  • Dabbed behind the ears to attract men and kill lice, cooties and transplanted bedbugs

Most hill doctors (also known as MDs or Mountain Doctors) said that if you drank sassafras tea during months with an "R" in them, they'd treat you for free during those months without an "R." Unfortunately, this well-meaning advice was pretty much lost on most folks because either they couldn't spell or they couldn't hear and as a result wasted a lot of time looking for mounds with oars in them (months with R's - get it?).

Like all good things, sassafras has its controversy. Since early American times, sassafras bark and roots were fermented with molasses to make rootbeer until 1960 when the FDA banned the ingredient safrole in sassafras oil as an additive because massive doses of sassafras oil caused liver cancer in rats. Why researchers used rodents, I don't know - I'll get more worried when 9 out of 10 sows get liver cancer. I figure I'm closer in size to a pig than a rat.

In 1976, the commercial sale of sassafras tea was banned because the government feared we were like lab rats and would drink sassafras tea until we exploded. Many argued that a 12-ounce can of alcoholic beer was more cancer causing than a 12-ounce glass of sassafras tea and the law was just plain silly, but they agreed while the tea was more tasty, the beer was much more fun (and they should shut up before the government outlawed beer too).

Nowadays, the oil is treated to make a safrole-free product (which has no where near the taste of the original stuff). However, the government recently loosened the law a bit so that we could buy filé (powdered sassafras leaves) to make our gumbo. You can make gumbo with or without filé as shown in this New Orleans gumbo recipe online. The history of gumbo is quite interesting since it was influenced by many cultures.

It's a good thing that sassafras grows wild all over North America, especially down here in the South. I'd hate to see a government revolt like the Boston Tea Party just because Momma couldn't get enough roots to boil for her springtime sassafras tea.

Sassafras Recipes!

Got a hankerin' for some sassafras? Try these recipes and don't forget that you can freeze and reuse the roots several times.

Sassafras Jelly
Sassafras roots
1 package powdered pectin
3 cups honey
2 tablespoons sassafras root bark, ground fine

Boil sassafras roots for 30 minutes and then strain. Measure 2 cups of the sassafras tea into a large saucepan. Add pectin and just barely bring to a boil. Add honey and sassafras root bark that has been grated to a fine powder. Simmer for 6 minutes. Put into sterilized glasses. For pints, process them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, and for half-pints, process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.

Sassafras Tea
Sassafras roots

When you get the roots of the sassafras tree, scrub them careful not to wash away the root bark. Granny used to say that the small roots had better and fresher sap than the large roots. Put water into a pan and let the water boil. When the water comes to a boil, add the roots. Boil. I usually boil until the liquid is a deep reddish brown. The darker the liquid is, the stronger the flavor. Remove from heat. Put a coffee filter in a metal strainer and pour liquid through this into a pitcher, add enough sugar to your liking and serve hot or cold. I like mine icy cold.

Sassafras Mead
Sassafras roots
3 pints molasses
A pint and half of white honey
A heaping tablespoon of cream of tartar

Carefully wash roots and boil in water until desired strength, strain through cheesecloth (or coffee filter), stirring in molasses and honey. Place in saucepan and bring slowly to the boiling point, allowing it to simmer for about ten minutes; again strain and add cream of tartar and seal in airtight bottles. The size of the bottles doesn't matter - use whatever size you have.

To Serve: fill tall slender glasses half-way with iced water. (Using 8-ounce glasses, this would mean you need 4 ounces of iced water.) Add one tablespoon (1T) of mead and a half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. Stir vigorously with a long-handled spoon. The baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) will make the drink foam.

Sassafras Candy
This candy can be made year-round, either by using stored roots in the freezer or by going out and digging a fresh supply of roots. The key to making an intense-flavored sassafras candy is to add the root pieces near the end of the process rather than at the beginning, because the flavor in the oil will cook off.

2 cups sassafras root pieces or bark (i.e., enough roots to yield at least 1/2 cup of pulverized bark peeled from the roots)
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1 tablespoons butter
1 well-buttered large glass baking dish or cookie sheet, with a rim of ˝ inch or more

Lightly scrub roots in cold water to remove any residual dirt, then peel the bark off the root pieces with a knife or carrot peeler. Bring the water to a low boil and (optional: throw the peeled roots in and simmer them for awhile to give the water a little preliminary flavor and color boost).

In the meantime, put the peeled root bark in a food processor and pulverize it until the root is ground up quite fine. You should have at least 1/2 cup of pulverized bark pieces when you're done (less will result in a less intense flavor in the candy).

Pull out root pieces (if any) from the simmering water and add the remaining ingredients to the liquid. Boil at high temperature and get a candy thermometer ready. When the boiling liquid approaches a temperature of between 290-300 degrees, stir in the pulverized root bark and mix well. The mixture will sizzle and drop in temperature about 20-30 degrees as the moisture in the root bark boils off.

When the temperature of the mixture gets back up to between 300-310 degrees (the "hard crack" stage), remove from the heat and then pour it out into the baking dish or cookie sheet and spread evenly. As the candy begins to solidify, you may want to score its surface with a knife to help you break it into uniform pieces later. Store whatever you don't eat right away in tightly sealed glass jars in a cool place, and it should retain its flavor and hardness for a year or so.

Quarreling Recipe
1 root of sassafras
1 quart water

Take 1 root of sassafras and boil in 1 quart of water for 20-30 minutes. Put in a bottle and when your hubby comes home to quarrel with you, fill your mouth full and hold it until he goes away. Granny said it was a "sure cure."

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Revised: 06/04/04 - 04/28/2021
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