sassafras -- 3/09/15

Today's selection -- from The American Plate by Libby H. O'Connell. In the seventeenth century, Virginia sassafras was esteemed for its medicinal value and was the second largest export from the British American colonies after tobacco itself. Years later, its popularity having dimmed, it was used as flavoring for drinks such as sarsaparilla and root beer that were used as substitutes for alcohol -- especially as part of the American temperance movement:

"The first British settlers in the 1600s eagerly sought valuable trade goods to ship back home to England. Indeed, profit motivated their adventurers, the optimistic investors who, rushing to replicate the Spanish gold and silver treasure from South America, underwrote the first expeditions of English colonists. Most settlers arrived hoping for opportunity, even the ones who emigrated primarily for religious reasons such as the Separatists (the ones we call Pilgrims) and the early Puritans in Massachusetts.

"Tobacco, furs, fish, and lumber became vital exports within the first generation of colonization, with the noxious weed of Virginia leading the list in terms of value. But a medicinal herb and culinary flavoring would rank second only to tobacco as the most valuable export from the mainland colonies in the early years, and it's one that Columbus would have kicked himself for missing, if he could have lived another hundred years.

"It was the dried leaf of the common sassafras tree, and at first Europeans hoped it was a miracle cure. Sassafras is not a native word and may derive from the plant name of Saxifraga. But the word makes a wonderful, swishing sound when spoken, which perhaps added to its magical reputation.

"Algonquians along the East Coast had a variety of uses for sassafras. Village women harvested the mitten-shaped leaves in midsummer and dried them. Then the women crushed the brittle leaves into a powder that might be stored in decorated deerskin pouches. Used as a flavoring herb in traditional native dishes, sassafras also frequently appeared in a native healer's collection of medicines. Healers used sassafras as an aromatic tea for lung ailments and for fevers. They grated the root bark as a treatment for kidney disease and rheumatism.

"When white settlers observed the indigenous use of sassafras as a healing agent, they thought they had stumbled upon a miracle cure, especially for a disease that had literally plagued the Renaissance era: syphilis. For a remarkable moment in the seventeenth century, Virginia sassafras was the second largest export from the British American colonies after tobacco.

"Unfortunately, the combination of good marketing and magical thinking did not turn the leaves into effective medicine for the particularly virulent form of syphilis that grimly reaped more than one million Europeans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sassafras quickly returned to its minor status as a local culinary herb once it proved no match for sexually transmitted disease. Later, Americans used it as a flavoring for temperance drinks such as sarsaparilla and root beer."



Libby O'Connell


The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites


Sourcebooks, Inc.


Copyright 2014 by Libby H. O'Connell


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