Appalachia Appalachian Food

Sassafras – A Spring Tonic

sassafras-tea

“Drink sassafras tea during the month of March and you won’t need a doctor”
—Old mountain saying

Sass Tea? My Lord, yes we made it!” Frank Pressley, hardy scion of the western North Carolina mountain country, was remembering the heady “growing-up” days of his youth on four-thousand-foot-high Cullowhee Mountain.

“We’d get the roots of the sassafras, and my mom would boil it for medicine. Some people liked to drink it as a tea. They all said it would thin the blood and refresh the spirit. But to me, that dark red drink had a sickening taste.”

Sassafras tea is still popular across the Appalachian South. Dick Frymire of Kentucky is one of its great advocates. He says that not only will sassafras tea pick you up, chewing on a sassafras root will calm you down. Besides that, Frymire claims the versatile wild root will whiten your teeth! And to top it all, sayeth Mr. Frymire, if you want to give your flower plants more vigor, sprinkle some strong sassafras tea on them.

The hardy pioneers pouring down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to settle the Appalachian used many plants, leaves, roots, and barks for hot and cold beverages. But sassafras was the most popular.

There was a little ditty used to promote  the sassafras tonic in earlier days:

In the spring of the year,
When the blood is too thick,
There is nothing so fine
As a sassafras stick.
It tones up the liver,
And strengthens the heart,
And to the whole system
New life doeth impart.

—Excerpt from “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine” by Joseph E. Dabney

—-

Pap and Granny never made any sassafras tea that I can remember. For the past several years we’ve played at a Cherokee Festival held in Marble, NC. There’s always a gentleman there with sassafras tea. I make sure to get a cup of his tea before we play.

Tipper

Appalachian Cooking Class details

Come cook with me!

MOUNTAIN FLAVORS – TRADITIONAL APPALACHIAN COOKING
Location: John C. Campbell Folk School – Brasstown, NC
Date: Sunday, June 23 – Saturday, June 29, 2019
Instructors: Carolyn Anderson, Tipper Pressley

Experience the traditional Appalachian method of cooking, putting up, and preserving the bounty from nature’s garden. Receive hands-on training to make and process a variety of jellies, jams, and pickles for winter eating. You’ll also learn the importance of dessert in Appalachian culture and discover how to easily make the fanciest of traditional cakes. Completing this week of cultural foods, a day of bread making will produce biscuits and cornbread. All levels welcome.

Along with all that goodness Carolyn and I have planned a couple of field trips to allow students to see how local folks produce food for their families. The Folk School offers scholarships you can go here to find out more about them. For the rest of the class details go here.

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Pamela Green
    July 10, 2019 at 12:57 am

    I grew up in New Jersey and we had a huge old sassafras tree in the back yard. I remember my Dad making tea in the spring, but he used to cut off a few budding twigs instead of digging up the roots.

  • Reply
    Leslie
    April 1, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    I think they have the prettiest leaves in the fall.
    Don’t care too much for the taste though.

  • Reply
    Marshall Reagan
    April 1, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    I love sassafras tea but can,t find any around here anymore we may have dug it all up years ago

  • Reply
    Quinn
    April 1, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    I love the smell and taste of sassafras but I’ve never dug up roots to make tea. If I ever find enough in one place to dig up, I’ll try it. Most of the small sprouts I see are along roadsides where they sprout after being mowed every year, and I don’t ever eat plants that grow along well-travelled roads because I figure they are absorbing who-knows-what from car exhaust and road run-off. But I’ll keep my eyes open in the woods this year. I’m too late for the “March” health benefits, though!

  • Reply
    Gigi
    April 1, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Tipper, as i had said before, my dad as a child would chew on it because he said it would whiten your teeth. I love chewing it. It taste good. I let my grandson try it also, and he liked it to. God Bless! 🙂

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    April 1, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    Granny had a tree in her yard. Never had the tea but loved to chew on a twig.

  • Reply
    Ray Davies
    April 1, 2019 at 10:57 am

    I remember it well and I used to love to chew on the leaves when I was a kid. It doesn’t grow this far north but I can occasionally find the candy.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    April 1, 2019 at 10:50 am

    We used to make Sassafras Tea and my Dad had a recipe that carbonated it. I was quite good.

  • Reply
    Nancy Schmidt
    April 1, 2019 at 10:42 am

    I have read that in earliest days of the English on the east coast, ships would depart American shores laden only with sassafras’s root, which had been unknown in Europe. It was prized as a medicinal and recreational drink.
    And even the crushed leaves smell so fresh and spicey!

  • Reply
    Dee
    April 1, 2019 at 10:12 am

    My grandmother made it back when she was raising her family; in fact, I think I remember both of my grandmothers made it. I don’t think I ever tasted it. Over in Lancaster, PA., the Amish do the homemade rootbeer. A couple of weeks ago, our son went over to pick up a shoofly pie and brought us the pie and a jug of the homemade rootbeer. They put yeast in their rootbeer and I really didn’t care for the taste. Give me the old “A&W Rootbeer” in a frosty mug. I do remember my grandmother always having a large root laying on the counter. Mother said she made a tea with it and it was good for digestion and blood.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    April 1, 2019 at 8:40 am

    For those who don’t want to or can’t dig roots, there used to be – maybe still is – Pappy’s Sassafrass Tea Concentrate sold in the grocery. It was in a glass jar. Someone gifted me a jar once and it was good. (I just went looking and it is still sold. Amazon has it for example but at a high price.)

    Speaking of sassafrass, I’ve read that the Cajun spice, file powder, is supposed to be made from the leaves but seems to me ground bark from the toots would be better. And I wonder if it would make tea as well. Or would it be bitter?

    My brother and I once grubbed out a big sassafrass root when we were making one of our hideouts. We decided to boil it and make tea. Well we made a jello-like sorta liquid that was strong and bitter. Without knowing just how, we learned there is at least one wrong way to make sassafrass tea.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    April 1, 2019 at 8:07 am

    This was a staple at our house every spring. I think we drank a bit every day for about a week.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 1, 2019 at 8:03 am

    Tip, I made some sassafras tea once a long tome ago, from fresh root. Once was enough for me, it irritated the whole inside of my mouth. I think I may have drank too much cause it tasted so good. I suppose being fresh instead of dried may have had something to do with it as well. I never drank it again

  • Reply
    Annie R.
    April 1, 2019 at 7:57 am

    Dad, would make some tea every spring.
    I loved the smell of the sassafras root,
    and would ask for a little piece of it just to carry around.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    April 1, 2019 at 7:38 am

    I used to drink sassafras tea with my Dad when I was a kid and loved it! I haven’t had any in years but would love some.

  • Reply
    Tommy Counce
    April 1, 2019 at 7:00 am

    When i was a kid i remember “real” rootbeer (the good kind) was made from it.

  • Reply
    Tmc
    April 1, 2019 at 6:25 am

    I use to dig the root in the spring and make a tea, haven’t done it in a while, but it’s good, some folks don’t like it, but I do.

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