The sassafras tree, kvfi in the Choctaw language, has been a part of the American landscape for a very long time. 65 million years ago, dinosaurs walked beneath its branches. Its leaves, bark, and roots, have a sweet, rootbeer-like aroma. This plant has cultural significance for the Choctaw people. A month in the Choctaw calendar is named after it. Sassafras features in Choctaw traditional medicine. Sassafras is the source of a beautiful dye that changes hue with the temperate. Sassafras is also an important and nearly forgotten flavor of Indigenous Choctaw cuisine.
This weekend, we were honored to have Sarah Lohman fly in to spend a day with us at Nan Awaya Farm. Sarah is a culinary historian, author of a #1 Bestseller on Amazon, and a person with a really neat job. Researching a chapter for her upcoming book, Endangered Eating: Exploring America's Vanishing Cuisine, she had asked us to cook a couple of the sassafras recipes featured in the Choctaw Food book with her.
Like the tree itself, the sassafras dishes that we cooked this weekend are truly ancient. They come from long before Columbus, long before Stonehenge, and long before the Choctaw ancestors had developed the technology to make clay pottery. There is beauty in the way that these recipes transform common materials that can be found and gathered almost anywhere on the land into sophisticated cooking utensils using little more than bare human hands and ingenuity.
The first dish that we made this weekend was file'-rubbed rabbit, roasted in an earth oven. The roots of earth oven cooking go back 8,000 years in the Choctaw homeland. The basics of the recipe come from our friend Mike Fedoroff, who studies earth ovens in the archaeological record of the Pine Hills region of the Choctaw homeland as part of his graduate research. Most years, Mike shares a hands-on cooking demo with Choctaw youth as a part of the Indigenous Immersion Camp. The earth oven technique has a lot in common with the way that Ian learned to heat-treat flint for making arrowheads as a teenager.
To do the recipe this weekend, we began by digging a pit into the earth about a foot deep, a foot-and-a-half across, and two feet long. Then, we coated the bottom and sides of the pit in a thin layer of soft clay. Next, we built a small fire in the bottom of the pit to begin heating up and drying out the clay lining. After about two hours, we added more wood to the
fire and tossed in some fist-sized rocks to start absorbing heat (image above right). These rocks act like the heating elements of the earth oven. In the meantime, we gathered big, green sycamore leaves and also yucca leaves from the land and soaked them in clean water. We stuffed the cleaned rabbit with blackberries and rubbed the outside with file' powder. File' is a Choctaw spice made from dried, finely pulverized sassafras leaves. It is used in Cajun cooking as a thickener for gumbo, but when rubbed on meat, it gives it a lemony flavor. Next, we wrapped the rabbit up in the sycamore leaves and tied it together into a neat package using strips of green yucca leaves.
By this point, the earth oven had a layer of hot coals and hot rock in the bottom, and the clay sides were hot too. We covered the coals and rocks in a thin layer of the sandy soil that we had dug out of the pit earlier that morning and set our rabbit package on top (above right). Next, we made a lid for the earth oven.
To do this, we first, laid two sturdy, green oak saplings on the ground on each side of the pit. Then, we laid a number of green leafy saplings over the first two, sealing the top of the earth oven. We completed the earth oven's lid by putting a layer of soil on top of the saplings. Lastly, we built a fire on top of the lid (above right). Inside the earth oven, the rabbit was protected from the coals and slowly cooking via heat radiating from the bottom, top, and sides of the earth oven. With a little experience, earth can be operated as easily as an electric stove. We left our rabbit to slow-roast for 4-5 hours.
Our second recipe was sassafras-encrusted fish. We picked some green sassafras leaves, then tore and crushed them into tiny peaces. We sprinkled the minced sassafras leaves onto the fish and then wrapped the fish up in sycamore leaves, tying the packages up with strips of yucca leaves. For our Choctaw readers, the result looks kind of like green Bvnaha packages (above right). These, we coated in a thin layer of soft clay. We laid the clay-covered packages in the coals of the fire burning on top of the earth oven's lid. When the clay cracks, the fish is done (right). As we pulled these from the coals, we could hear the fish sizzling inside.
When the fish was done, Amy and I grabbed the ends of the two saplings that supported the earth oven's lid. With Sarah's help, we lifted the lid off, exposing the leaf-wrapped rabbit underneath. Both the rabbit and fish were cooked to perfection, tender and flavorful. Along with the sassafras, the sycamore-leaf wrappings added their own lemony, slightly charred element to the depth of flavor. With some wild rice and sassafras root tea, it was a delicious meal.
The image below is one of the fish after the clay coating was cracked off and the sycamore leaf wrapper pealed back. You can see the minced sassafras leaves on the fish.
Below is the roasted rabbit after taking it from the earth oven and pealing back the sycamore leaves.
Below Sarah and Amy are holding up the rabbit (now with a few bites missing). Sarah, thank you for coming to visit us! Amy and I really enjoyed our day of cooking these recipes with you.
Check out Sarah's book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.