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Archive for the ‘Sassafras Tea and Fried Oysters’ Category

“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground.” Genesis 2:7

In the very beginning no beaten paths or black top roads pierced the innocent and inaccessible woods.  Yet by the time I arrived there, ancient and anonymous feet had already pounded out for me a few venerable foot trails, well-packed, black and shining, winding deep into the wild green of my Lower Alabama forest and the swamp that leaned in on either side and hung low above.

At the start I never really knew for sure where the paths were taking me, although I held it as an article of faith that all tracks led somewhere even if they were unmarked or uncharted.  And, too, I did not actually understand, as it was happening, the meaning of what lay along the way.  Nevertheless, while I did not fully appreciate the importance of what I risked on my wanderings and while I insisted on trudging along in a general youthful obliviousness, it was precisely then that I heard the Sassafras call to me; it was then I received my invitation to taste her root.

She spoke directly to me—quietly but unmistakably—calling out from among the trees of the emerald-tangled depths of the South, wooing me off the path and into the woods, and—although her voice grows faint now from a distance of the better half of a century—I hear her call still echoing from afar in the way of a swamp bird’s shrill cry ricocheting for miles from cypress and water oaks.  Hers is a song, subtle and poignant, even if it only persists now as a whispered memory.

Sassafras, the American Herb

Sassafras, that uniquely American and peculiarly Southern spice, is as common as dirt and at the same time is as exotic as any other herb that commends to the world the alien Spice Islands over the horizon of the Gulf, beyond the mouth of Mobile Bay, beyond Dauphin Island, beyond the unseen but fabled ocean. Yet I know only a few of my countrymen who have really tasted the Sassafras, few, I say, who have answered her call and have intentionally searched for her; fewer still who have stumbled on her without seeking; precious few, indeed, who know her as intimately as I.

Sassafras, in my eager anticipation, was an exotic herbal notion.  In the hunt she was high adventure, but, in the end, her brew was an anticlimactic disillusionment to imbibe, lying some place between flat root beer and creek water, nearer bitter than sweet.  I discovered this extraordinary fact for myself barefoot among the brambles; but, to tell the truth, I am convinced that such knowledge is now even more inaccessible to city-shod feet than it was then to me.

Such wisdom is indeed rarer since the day that the Food and Drug Administration declared that the principle and most flavorful ingredient of Sassafras, a compound called “safrole,” is carcinogenic, at least in the livers of rats who dine on pounds of the root.  So, long gone is the chance to taste Sassafras in innocent and blissful ignorance—up and gone since the FDA proscribed its consumption by humans.  Therefore, it is a certifiable fact: without the forbidden safrole, root beer no longer tastes exactly as we remember it in “the Good Old Days.”  But then, not many things do.

Even if Sassafras may be ultimately an over-rated and an unrepeatable gustatory experience, it was, nevertheless, an unforgettable proposition in the doing, an event that is worthy of revisiting, like many other unique and singular events that form us by their oft-relived memory.  I did not appreciate the import of this or many other events at the outset, innocently walking in the moment as I was, before I had tasted much of the root or of life and had awakened to what was passing about me.  It was only by stint of later manly exertion and resolute perseverance—and providential grace, I admit—that I came to such a profound knowledge of the Sassafras root.

Mobile Did Not Remember

As rare as such knowledge is today, even in the 1950’s and 60’s I did not know many who had tasted this thoroughly authentic American elixir; not among Mobile’s patrician families who traced long and distinguished genealogies in the South, unapproachable aristocrats who inhabited the reconstructed white-washed Greek Revival city houses I saw on Government Street.

I stared at their alabaster manses that lolled under the ancient live oaks and knew that these were homes to socialites and Mardi Gras Crewe members whom I imagined sipped orange Pekoe or Oolong tea from Delftware or Wedgwood cups amid polite conversation in drawing rooms with damask chairs and oil portraits that lay behind the shut and leaded glass doors, but whom I supposed were also the masked revelers who tippled pre-Lenten Bourbon and Scotch.

In either case, they were incognito to me.  Sassafras, I suspected, had been long forgotten by most of such genteel Mobilians, although I am sure their great grandparents knew well of the home-brewed tonic in plantation days, even if only from visits to the cabins behind the big house in the country.

Nor Pritchard or Birdville

Nor did I know any herbalists among the Jesuit fathers at the college on Spring Hill, the most venerable institution of higher learning in Alabama; nor was I acquainted with any herb-sipping suburbanites with model families of two parents and 3.7 children who occupied the streamlined, modern “Southernaire” brick houses that sported sleek car ports aligned in neat rows arrayed under the pines of Cottage Hill.  Indeed, I heard none report of Sassafras among those who dwelt in these bungalows and ranches that are, by now, mature, vintage, ”Mid-century” relics that still ring—like a camellia bush hedge—New Orleans’ elder and more sedate sister, Alabama’s seaport, the azalea city, Mobile, Alabama.

I did not know anyone who had tasted Sassafras, either, in Pritchard or Eight Mile or Africatown, reeking of paper mills and diesel trains, or on the Causeway or among the Docks or even in the projects of Birdville where I started my life, flocking with thousands of other “Boomers,” the fledgling offspring of war brides, mobbing the drab roosts that sprang up across the railroad tracks from the Brookley Field aircraft hangers.

I doubt that I or they would ever have even seen a Sassafras tree unless by a wrong turn or on a lark, or by fate or blind chance, we had found ourselves wandering the paths in the swamps that lay at the lower margins of this belle of the South.

Bartram and my Trees

Mobile reclined then, as she does now and as she did for centuries, on a chaise lounge beside seven rivers, and there she dangled her toes in the tides of Mobile Bay where the bridge drew up over Dog River for sailboats and shrimp trawlers before the lifting span was demolished and replaced by a thoroughly modern high arc of nearly a half-mile length.

It was here Sassafras and I could be found in those days.  It was here, as well, in the trackless tidal marshes near my home site—before there ever was a river bridge—that the eighteenth-century botanist, William Bartram, Audubon’s Audubon, tramped about in 1775, while visiting a Creole plantation on the bluff at the mouth of La Riviève aux Chien.

 I often wonder if the colonial explorer chanced to observe a grandmother or great grandaunt of the trees I knew in the swampland of Dog River. For even as he tramped about the swamp, nearby a quarter-acre wooded plot of land lay, yet unsurveyed, where would later stand—from about the middle of the last century until today—a small frame house in which my family of five would live after I turned eight. The resolute house that faced bravely hurricane squalls and mosquito-clouded summers for decades grips still with clinched cinder-block fists the barely dry ground roughly equidistant Perch Creek and Mobile Bay, not far from Dog River Bridge and the long-ruined Plantation Ronchon.

There, too, God or Nature had planted many species of the arboreal family—pines mostly; pines with evergreen needles; loblolly and slash pine.  But also there were wild cherry and ash.  Oak and hickory.  And a lone Sassafras tree.   Although to call it a tree is a most generous hyperbole.

More a tall bush it was—but I must be fair—it was taller than I, and yet still small enough for my thumb and forefinger to grasp it at shoulder height, my fingertips just touching without strain.   I reckoned the tree to be only as old as I was.  But as I think on it, that fact is of no account, since such a tree will outstrip a boy at the start only to be blown down in a gale off the Bay long before the man is felled by his own calamities.

I do not recall the precise day when I first recognized the mysterious aromatic properties of this spindly tree with the three-lobed leaf.  But I do remember dropping down, bare-bellied, onto the wet ground that day, my nose a mere inch from the black earth.  When I scratched with my forefinger the bark of its root, the unmistakable scent of root beer and a hint of the Cajun filé rose up to fill my nostrils.  I salivated as if Pavlov had rung his bell. I could make my own root beer or at least sarsaparilla!  What an adventure!  What an irresistible invitation!

The Miracle of Adam

I was enthralled by the wonder of this plant.  I had been warned about atoms, the invisible but palpable essence of all material things.  Somehow I got the notion that they were something mystic as if they were the soul of stuff: of the air, the water, the earth, and of fire, and who knew of what else?   Thus, no matter where a tree is planted, I reasoned, whether by chance or by design, the place gets in at the root and must mingle inescapably among the tree’s atoms even if it is ultimately uprooted.

This, at once, I knew must be true, not just about trees, but about people, too: no matter where you wander, the place where you begin gets into you at the root.  I had been told about Adam, too, God’s own clay doll slapped together by His very hands from the swamp mud and animated by His holy breath.

Therefore, Man, I deduced, is made primordially of the place of his genesis. In the innocent conflation of a child’s ear, I confirmed my hypothesis in the commonality of the name of the first “atomic” (or was it “Adamic”?) man and the elemental dust that formed him.  I slept and dreamed of me standing in the Swamp; I saw her atoms flowing upward through my bare feet, insinuating themselves in among my atoms slowly like the brown stain from Luzianne tea leaves that always crept out of a silver ball when Mother made iced tea in the clear glass pitcher.

Strange it seems now that this vision did not much trouble me.  Perhaps it was because of the Sassafras tree.  By some strange and wonderful alchemy of grace the stuff of the black and sandy earth and of the leaf-stained creek water was transformed into a unique aromatic and singular living thing.

If a tree could inhale the mephitic vapor rising from the tannin-brown bog ever reeking of rotten eggs and then metamorphose it into something grand and exotic, then perhaps there was hope for me too.  I had to sample this elixir for myself.  And maybe also I could be the first to prove Ponce De Leon right in his claim that the only original New-World spice was indeed a draught from the mythical Fountain of Youth.

The Sassafras Safari

But I was restricted by my parents to sniffing the bark of only a few roots that grew near the surface and that radiated from their prized ornamental bush before I, too, was driven from Eden, the earth likewise refusing to yield its bounty to me just as it was forbidden to Adam.  Undeterred, I recruited my next-door neighbors, Pete and Dean Cooper, my usual collaborators in harmless mischief and grandiose exploits.

With my sister Cindy Lou and brother “Baby” Dale as uninvited but tacitly assumed tag-alongs, we five embarked down the path for an excursion into the wetland woods that crowded in on our sand-paved court of seven five-room, nearly identical square-box houses that the grandiloquent developer Mr. Taylor had extravagantly advertised as “Broadmoor Place.”

This clearing in the woods was our base camp for the grand expedition to collect Sassafras root.  Armed with a rusty shovel with a split handle and with a pair of sharp sticks, we made safari to track our prey in “the woods” that were actually owned by nobody, by everybody, or by nobody we cared to know.

Trophies of the  Woods

Bare feet trooped back and forth, eyes vigilant for water moccasins and copperheads or the occasional ‘gator, arms beating the brush like hunters in the Kalahari flushing lions; we flung aside the green scrim of the Swamp relentlessly until we exposed the shrub with the distinctive three-toed paw, cowering behind a sumac bush.  Quickly and bloodlessly we dispatched it, ripping the small sapling up by the trunk, its roots making a loud sucking sound as they lost their grip on the muddy bank.  On we pressed until another bush fell, and then another.

“Good enough! To the camp!”  I commanded , in my best impression of Henry Stanley, and pointed with a swaggering stick in the direction of the gaggle of houses.  At that moment I longed to be wearing a pith helmet, but imagination alone had to suffice. We returned to the backyard, the “big boys” carrying the fallen bushes over our shoulders like trussed up trophies, a tangle of roots at our bare brown backs trailing behind us clots of cool muck that caused Cindy to sputter “yuck!” as she stepped over the piles on the shiny beaten trail, while Dale danced ahead as “point” of our patrol.

With knife and hatchet we butchered the carcasses of our poached and uprooted quarry then bathed them clean in clear water from the hydrant at the corner of the house until their orange-red skin glistened in the afternoon sun.  At last we skinned the roots and set them out to dry on Sunday’s newspaper, no mean feat in a fetid July of a steamy Alabama swamp.

A day later half of the root-skins were still sodden and beginning to mold, but the other half had dried sufficiently to sample.  Five milk-glass mugs that Cindy had “borrowed” from Mother’s kitchen; a finger-full of the dry orange-hued bark; boiling water from a makeshift kettle-pot heated over a fat-pine-knot fire; it was tea time under the pines!

When the infusion had cooled enough to drink, we sipped tentatively, straining splinters of floating wood though our teeth.  At that moment I began to appreciate the art of Charles Hires, the pharmacist and entrepreneur who introduced to the American public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 a “small beer” extracted from the native roots.

“Could Use Some Sugar!”

“Could use some sugar,” I said, invoking a rule I have always held: “Anything, even swamp water, tastes better with a tad of cane sugar.”  Pete and Dean, Cindy and Dale all concurred.  In the South there’s tea—sweet, of course—and then there’s that other unsweetened and unpalatable tonic that Yankees and Limeys drink.  Sugar was for me a separate food group that, along with oleo margarine and a folded slice of “light bread,” comprised a rustic ad hoc delicacy, the “Butter” and Sugar sandwich that I loved, despite dire admonitions from my playmates that I would catch the “Die-bee-dees.”

Yet despite our saccharine amendments, even as we added two tablespoons of refined white sweetness to each mug, and then two more, and as the tan liquid began to look more like thick Sorghum syrup than like tea, we were still unsuccessful.  No matter how much we sweetened the brew, it never fizzed or bubbled or spritzed.

It slumped quietly in the cup, an anemic sepia-toned water, looking slightly bored, perhaps even somewhat sullen.  Still it smelled like the real thing that I had tasted at A&W.  It tasted vaguely reminiscent of root beer to be sure, but it was a pale fraud of what its aroma advertised.  All in all, I was more than a little disappointed by its performance, and I have always despised a false advertisement.

The Trees are Safe Once More

After that we never hunted Sassafras again, and I thought I heard the woods exhale a small sigh of relief.  But it could have been the evening breeze off the Bay.  In any case, the trees were safe again from the Sassafras hunters.

I was let down, as a matter of fact, but I since have learned that ours was not a wasted effort all together.  In the years since, I have come to see myself a brother of those trees, uprooted like them, carrying—mixed among the atoms of my body—residual parts of Sassafras and the Swamp.

I have on several occasions since encountered on woodland walks an actual phylo-typical sister of my boyhood trees, her identity betrayed by her Trinitarian-leafed finery, and I have left the beaten path to dig again with my finger at her root.  A fragrant nick of root bark under a nail always confirms those long-ago wrought memories and affirms again my wonder at it all.  Standing in the understory alone, I look about to see only the forest, then down at my fingers, stained orange with safrole.

Then I feel sorrow for all those who surge past on the packed trail unaware of the wonders underfoot.  As I said at the outset, I don’t know many who have tasted real Sassafras; not many, that is, beside me.  But those of us who have tasted it savor it all our lives—both in our memories and in our blood.

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