When your great uncle was known as “Blind Willie” and when the tools of his trade, which
are still in use, are 107 years old, you have to figure there is a story there. And there is.
Baton Rouge resident Lionel Key Jr. is the heir to that story. He makes a product called Uncle Bill’s Creole Filé, which, he is proud to proclaim, has been “handmade since 1904.”Key’s great-uncle, Joseph William Ricard, a native of Rougon in Pointe Coupee Parish, was born blind so as a boy had to scramble for work he could do with his hands, including making brooms and mops. In 1904 an uncle who was a carpenter made a wooden mortar and pestle
for Ricard. That allowed him another opportunity – to grind the leaves from the sassafras tree into filé, a seasoning used in many dishes including, most notably, gumbo.Through the years, the boy figured out how to make filé better than anyone else. He sensed the right moment to churn the leaves and developed his own secrets.In 1982 Key learned the business from his great-uncle, who once told him, “A lot of people make filé, but they don’t make it like me.”
What secrets there are remain that way, but one part of the business that is totally open for public view is the grinding.
Key and kin even travel to festivals carrying the ancient mortar and pestle and demonstrating their ability to pound leaves by hand into powder. Don’t look for Key on the road during September, however. Filé-making
is a seasonal business, and the ninth month is the critical time when the leaves are right. Production continues until the workers run out of leaves – or, as a Web order form reports, “When it is gone, it is gone until the next year.” The off-season allows time for demonstrations. A relative was working the mortar and pestle while Key took a break at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. When Key returned, it was like a maestro positioning himself at the piano. As leaves were turned to dust, he was making his own music – a sound with a beat of its own.