Native women whip up soapberries, fond memories

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008

The buzz of electric mixers drew a small crowd Friday morning in the hallway of the Juneau Arts & Culture Center as five women whipped what looked like pink meringue in separate bowls.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But the recipes involved no eggs or cream. Instead, tiny red fruits called soapberries were mixed with sugar and water to make a dessert many Native Alaskans consider a special treat.

Louise Gordon, a contestant from Atlin, British Columbia, called it "Tlingit ice cream."

"When we were young we didn't have ice cream, so when we wanted a treat we'd make this," Gordon said. As a kid, she and her siblings would make the treat directly in their hands, but putting a few berries and some sugar in their palms, then rubbing them together until they turned pink and sticky.

Then they'd lick it off.

"I'd let the littler kids have a lick," she said. "It taught me to share."

The women passed spoons around so that everyone could taste each recipe. Some added apple juice or bananas, while others said they like it the traditional way: just a little bit of sugar and lots of whipping.

"I start at a slow speed with the beater then as the berries get bigger, I keep turning up the speed," Gordon said. "It comes with experience."

Meanwhile, judges tasted and made notes in a room next door.

Winners of the contest, along with winners of a black seaweed contest held Thursday, were announced on Celebration 2008's main stage in Centennial Hall on Friday night. Sealaska Heritage Institute, the event sponsor, awarded the top three winners $500, $250 and $100.

For the second time in a row, Ivan Williams of Angoon won first place in the black seaweed contest. Second place for black seaweed went to Marian Adams, who won first place in 2004.

It was the first soapberry recipe contest for the biennial cultural festival. Judge Pam Leabogda said she was looking for a certain taste and texture in the entries.

"You want to be able to taste the berry," she said. And for the texture, Leabogda had to reach back to a childhood memory, when her grandmother used to whip it the traditional way - with her hand.

"We would sit and watch her make it," Leabogda said. "My grandmother would take it and fling it. If it stuck, it was done."

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