Celebration food contest highlights traditional staples

Seal oil with cracklings — crunchy seal fat — reminds Joe Nelson of early fall mornings growing up in Yakutat.

Nelson, Board Chair of Sealaska Corporation, was a judge in the Celebration 2018 Food Contest held at Centennial Hall Thursday afternoon. Nelson said he did not know he was going to be asked to be a judge in the contest but was happy it turned out that way.

“It is a great privilege to me,” Nelson said of his first experience as a judge at the event. “We would have the seal oil with cracklings, which I always call ‘bubblegum,’ in the morning before going fishing. It would keep us warm and give us energy for the day.”

Along with the seal oil with cracklings, the judges also judged seal oil without cracklings and black seaweed. Judge Barbara Cadiente-Nelson said while some preferences may differ, finding the top choice in those categories had a lot to do with texture.

“For the seal oil, you want to have the crackling really crunchy,” Cadiente-Nelson said. “Some of us like our seaweed chewier and some of us like it to dissolve in our mouth, but freshness was critical.”

Cadiente-Nelson said when the judges, who tasted the food Thursday morning before the contest, were sampling the entries, she heard fellow judge Jodi Mitchell’s bite of seaweed. That snapping sound intrigued her.

“I asked her what number that one was,” Cadiente-Nelson said.

Donald Bolton, of Metlakatla, won the black seaweed and seal oil with crackling competitions. He also finished third in the seal oil without cracklings. RaCean Fredrickson, of Angoon, took home first in the seal oil without cracklings competition. None of the winners were available for comment at the event.

Before the winners were announced, Rosita Worl, President of Sealaska Heritage Institute, spoke about the importance of the traditional foods.

“We do know that subsistence really is the basis of our culture,” Worl said. “Whenever we use the land, we know that we are obligated to share the food with one another. It is that sharing of our food and resources that really bind us together as Native people.”

Soapberries, which has normally been a staple in the contest, was not judged this year. In its place, former winner Louise Gordon gave a demonstration on how to make the whipped dessert in Doris McLean’s honor. McLean, who had won the soapberry contest in the past, died in January.

Gordon said the best way to start making whipped soapberries is by first collecting them in the fall when they are ripe. After canning them and turning them into a jelly-like consistency, a little soapberry goes a long way. Gordon said she usually makes her recipe with two teaspoons, but used three since she wanted to make sure everyone in the audience got to sample the finished product.

She likes to start the mixer slow at first and as the consistency becomes thicker, she will turn up the speed. After a certain point, when the berries take on a pinkish hue, she will start adding sugar. After a few teaspoons of sugar and about five minutes of mixing the whipped mixture is complete. Gordon stressed the use of a clean bowl when making the dessert. Gordon said any residual oil in the bowl may not allow the whipped berries to gain texture and it will fall flat.

The perfect texture is almost like that of a soft-serve ice cream. Gordon walked around giving samples and handed this reporter a spoon to try the whipped soapberries. I expected to taste a berry ice cream. For me, it was sour and somewhat bitter but balanced out with a strawberry-like taste.

While it may seem simple enough, Mark Wheeler, who owns Coppa, an artisan ice cream shop downtown, said he had his fair share of struggles making his own. Coppa is currently using the whipped mixture for a soapberry ice cream.

“It really is a craft,” Wheeler said. “I thought after watching (Gordon) I thought had it down, but it was a complete failure.”

Complete list of Food Contest winners

Seal Oil with Crackling

1st Place — Donald Bolton, of Metlakatla

2nd Place — RaCean Fridrickson, of Angoon

3rd Place — Wannita Bunny James, of Kake

Seal Oil

1st Place — RaCean Fredrickson, of Angoon

2nd Place — Roberta Revey, of Kake

3rd Place — Donald Bolton, of Metlakatla

Black Seaweed

1st Place — Donald Bolton, of Metlakatla

2nd Place — Lindarae Shearer, of Metlakatla

3rd Place — Johnny Jack Jr., of Angoon

• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at gphilson@juneauempire.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.