Whip it! Bitter berries transform into whipped dessert at Celebration

• Three contestants, three different methods at Soapberry contest • Sealaska Heritage Institute dedicates event to late Helen Watkins

Francis Neumann used to whip soapberries into a light, airy meringue with a wooden stick. Now, she uses a handheld mixer.


She made the shift “when I could afford it,” Neumann said laughing.

Neumann was one of three contestants for this year’s Celebration 2016 Soapberry Contest at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center Friday. Her competition was her sister Doris McLean and her cousin Charlene Baker — all three are from Whitehorse.

Also on the stage was a spot for the late Juneau Tlingit elder Helen Watkins, who had entered the contest every year. Sealaska Heritage Institute, which organized the event, dedicated this year’s contest to Watkins. In her place on stage was her photo.

Watkins’ family members were at the contest, watching closely.

“It’s hard,” said Watkins’ husband, local carver Ray Watkins, amidst the whirring of handheld mixers. “All of this is hard. Being here at Celebration is hard without her.”

Watkins died in February. She was well known and respected for her traditional knowledge on processing an abundance of natural foods and products, like devil’s club, red seaweed, salmon caviar, seal oil and soapberries.

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Watkins harvested the tiny red, bitter berries in Haines Junction.

“Helen preferred the half-ripe ones. She thought they whipped up better,” Ray Watkins said.

After adding a small amount of soapberry to a bowl, Watkins would mash it up. “Then you add a little bit of water and start whipping it up, and then start adding sugar as it starts to thicken,” Ray Watkins explained.

“She would add bananas to it for extra flavor, sometimes blueberry,” he said.

The contestants on stage all used a similar method with slight variations. McLean, who’s won the Celebration Soapberry Contest before, said she doesn’t add other fruit to her soapberry.

“I don’t use nothing in my soapberry. What you’re tasting is soapberry,” she said.

“They put everything in it and they mess up their soapberry,” McLean said, referring to the other contestants.

McLean whipped up soapberries that she harvested, cooked and jarred; a little water and “sugar to taste” with a handheld mixer in a glass bowl.

“Soapberries are very finicky,” she said. Only use glass or steel; otherwise you won’t get the right consistency, she said.

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Contestant Charlene Baker mixed up her soapberries in a plastic, square bucket — her “berry bucket,” she said.

Baker also used a handheld blender as opposed to a mixer. Her dessert included a mix of unripe, green soapberries that she recently picked between Whitehorse and Carcross, soapberries that she bought from her cousin, and some mixed berries.

Baker’s dessert was dark pink and the most liquid of the three.

“I prefer a smoothie texture,” she said. “You can make your own dessert according to what your tastes prefer.”

Francis Neumann also added mixed berries to her soapberries during the contest. Her method was similar to her sister’s, except she whipped ingredients together in a metal bowl.

“It’s like whipped cream. When you whip up whipped cream, it foams up. Sugar added to it makes it foam more,” Neumann said.

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From start to finish, the contestants took about 10 minutes to make their desserts. After the three judges got their samples, the contestants eagerly shared their desserts with audience members, scraping their bowls to make sure everyone got a taste.

Celebration participant Bob Ridley missed the contest and the tasting, but he was eager to buy a jar of prepared soapberries so he could make the dessert himself.

“It’s probably been 50 years since I’ve had it,” he said. “I’m from Metlakatla and my mom and dad used to make it all the time. I always keep my eyes open for it and I just happen to be walking through, so I’d like to get a jar.”

Lucky for Ridley, McLean — who had brought three cases of soapberries to sell at Celebration — said, “I have one left!”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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