By Kate Payne
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
I grew up in the Southwest, and as much as I thought I wasn’t a creature of my surroundings, having lived in the suburbs of Phoenix, I still find myself drawn to the more redeeming qualities of life in the desert. I treasure my early exposure to things wild—the idea of outlaws, a prodigious expanse of sky, eccentric desert flora, craggy mountain—all of which resemble each other in some way or another as storied, solitary, impervious and self-sufficient.
I remember childhood car trips to various Arizona old-town throwbacks, like Tombstone and Wickenburg, and visits across town to an otherwise high-end Scottsdale area called Old Town. These touristy magnets all featured some configuration of saloon-looking establishments, a smattering of Native American crafts, Western wear and, of course, the ubiquitous old-fashioned ice cream and soda counter.
Even in the midst of these festive environs, I never came close to tasting a true, old-fashioned root beer made from sassafras root bark. And today, root beer sodas are nothing more than an inelegant mingling of artificial flavors and sometimes colors that have, literally, lost their roots.
The root bark and leaves of the sassafras tree were banned by the FDA in 1960 after scientists extracted safrole—the oil found in the root at a level of 1 to 2 percent—and injected it into rats in doses of 5 to 100 times the amount we’d ever consume. Unsurprisingly, the rats got liver cancer. And Louisiana nearly seceded from the Union upon being told they could no longer use filé (fee-lay), the sassafras-leaf-based thickener often used in gumbo. Eventually, Louisiana got to keep their precious filé since there’s hardly any of the controversial safrole in the leaf, but sassafras root was otherwise relegated to the realm of herbalists who sell nonfoods.
The history of sassafras root use in the U.S. stems from Native American tribal groups, spanning the Northeast to the Deep South regions, who used it in beverages and as a seasoning and thickener for foods. A tea made from sassafras root bark was considered a blood purifier and thus used as spring blood tonic, and the root was also believed to treat rheumatism and arthritic pain. Herbalists today advise against consuming sassafras root infusions very often or for extended periods of time (longer than 4 to 6 weeks), or at all if pregnant or breast-feeding.
Sassafrass trees grow wild in Central Texas, and we Austinites can dig up fresh roots (from invasive saplings, not from large trees) like our East Coast and mid- to Deep South friends who are up to their ears in fresh sassafras root. In addition, both dried sassafras root bark and sarsaparilla root (used in the recipe below) can be purchased locally at herbal shops and online.
Now make some homemade root beer! Just promise you won’t drink three glasses of it a day for more than four weeks in a row, okay?
Traditional Root Beer
Makes about 2 quarts
1/3 c. dried sassafras root bark
8 t. dried sarsaparilla root
2 t. dried burdock or dandelion root
3-in. piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise (optional)
8 c. water, divided
1 c. sugar
Pinch ale yeast or active dry yeast
2 T. warm water
Add the roots, vanilla bean (if using) and 4 cups of the water to a pot. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then reduce the heat to a simmer for 15 minutes. Strain out the roots and add the sugar to the hot liquid. Pour half of the concentrate into a 1-quart SodaStream bottle (or another plastic bottle) and the other half into a swing-top bottle or Mason jar. Pour 2 cups of cold water into each bottle. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water (no hotter than 110°) and split that mixture between the bottles. Cap the bottles tightly and let them sit at room temperature. Check the carbonation level at 48 hours by squeezing the plastic bottle (the bottle should be completely hard and the contents fizzy when opened). Place the bottles in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.