When your great uncle was known as “Blind Willie,” and when the tools of his trade, which are still in use, are 116 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 as once told while showing his craft at the Jazz Fest. He makes a product called Uncle Bill’s Creole Filé which, he is proud to proclaim, has been “hand made since 1904.”
Key’s great uncle, William Ricard, a native of Rougon (Pointe Coupee Parish) was born blind, so as a boy he had to scramble for work that he could do with his hands. That included making brooms and mobs. In 1904 an uncle who was a carpenter made a wooden mortar and pestle for Ricard. That allowed him another opportunity—to ground the leaves from a sassafras tree into filé, a seasoning use 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 Ricard 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 the web order form says, “When it is gone it is gone until the next year.” The off-season allows time for demonstration: a relative was working the mortar and pestle while Key took a break at the Jazz Fest. 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 flavor of its own.