Soapberry Contest Offers Flashbacks to Delicious Days Gone By at Sealaska Celebration 2016

Soapberry, a traditional delight, drew participants who whipped up the frothy treat onstage at Sealaska Celebration 2016.
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For Leonilei Abbott, it was a flashback to childhood, when her mother, Helen Watkins, would whip up a batch of her favorite treat.

“She always made it fun,” said Abbott after sampling the sweet-sour soapberry froth that contestants had created onstage in the competition dedicated to Watkins. “She would smash the soapberries up first, then add just tiny bit of water, and she’d start whipping it, then she’d add just a little bit of sugar, and sometimes some berries or bananas or both, and just whip it all up.”

Sampling the effervescent treat sent her right back in time, to her family’s fish camp in Klukwan, according to a news release from the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“I go back home, to when she would make it,” Abbott said of the memories evoked by the contest held on Friday June 10 at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, part of Sealaska’s four-day Celebration 2016.

Photo: Brian Wallace, Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute

The soapberry contest was dedicated to Helen Watkins, whose photo, left, presided over the proceedings as contestants whipped up their concoctions onstage at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, part of Sealaska Heritage Institute's Celebration 2016.

The soapberry, or Shepherdia Canadensis, is also known as the Russet Buffalo berry or the soopolallie, according to the American Indian Health and Diet Project, a website devoted to highlighting indigenous foods and their health benefits. The berries grow on bushes up to 13 feet tall, the website said, with buds and oval leaves coated in thin fuzz. The “small and rather dull” flowers give way to bright red or orange berries, which are combined with other ingredients into a foamy concoction.

Photo: Brian Wallace, Courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute

Soapberry contestants whipped their ingredients into froth onstage at Celebration 2016.

Electric beaters whirred as participants whipped those “tiny, bitter berries into a frothy pink dessert with electric beaters,” Sealaska said in a media release. Watkins, a longtime soapberry contest participant, walked on earlier this year, so the competition was dedicated to her.

Fran Neumann won second place, and Charlene Baker came in third. Winners of both that and the seaweed contest were announced onstage during Friday night’s dance performances at Centennial Hall. The three top winners of each contest received $500, $250 and $100 for first, second and third places.

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Watkins was widely known for her teachings about Native foods, Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl said, and she led the crowd in chanting Watkins's name to call forth her spirit.

“She is still with us in many ways today,” Worl said. 

Photo: Brian Wallace, Courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute

Audience members sampled the soapberry concoctions after the judging at Sealaska Celebration 2016.