Ricardo Worl, left, congratulates 2022 Celebration traditional food contest winners Mike Allard (seaweed),  Sharon Olsen (seal oil) and Donna James (dried fish) at Centennial Hall on Thursday shortly after a secret judging at the Walter Soboleff Building. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Traditions set the table for Celebration food contest winners

Winners say subsistence traditions feed bodies and souls during pandemic.

Mike Allard’s seaweed is a decades-old recipe and Donna James’ dried fish is a first-time effort. But both of the first-place winners in this year’s Celebration food contest say they’re relying on traditions that have nourished the body and soul for thousands of years — and are proving that time-tested worthiness as today’s society is struggling to obtain their groceries.

Allard, a Pelican resident who’s a member of the city council as well as a full-time fisher and trapper, said about half of his family’s diet is from subsistence and they give away about one-third of what they catch and gather. He said that’s a longtime custom that remains consistent today, unlike many in modern societies who are experiencing disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It really hasn’t changed for me,” he said. “When I was growing up my dad gave away much of the catch to people who needed it.”

Allard said his decision to enter the food competition — where judges determined who prepared the best seaweed, dry fish, and seal oil — was spontaneous, although his preparation process was not.

“It’s just the same recipe I’ve been using for years,” he said. “I was coming to town, so I thought I’d take a chance.”

James, who said she’s long made dry fish from salmon, said her entry into the competition was also spontaneous, along with a decision to try drying halibut for the first time ever.

“Friends and family said that your dried fish is really good and you should submit it,” she said, noting that she prepares it with the help of her partner, Ken Willard Jr.

First prize for seal oil was awarded to Sharon Olsen, who lives in Juneau and Tenakee Springs. In a prepared statement, said the secret is she’s tender, patient and picky about her craft, and is careful to ensure that no blood, hair or fat remain in her prize-winning oil.

“I know I’ve been successful when I can see clearly through the jar,” she said.

The judging was conducted Thursday at the Walter Soboleff Building just before the winners were announced early during the afternoon at Centennial Hall. One of the three judges was ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake, a Juneau Assembly member and director of the Alaska Native Policy Center, who offered a decidedly anti-Ramsayesque assessment of the overall quality of entries.

“This was a really tough job,” she said. “The food was so amazing and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be chosen to taste all the gloriousness of all the communities.”

Blake, a Haida, of Tlingit and Ahtna Athabascan descent and belonging to the Káat nay-st/YahkwJáanaas Clan, said her traditional food experiences include her dad generously giving away the salmon she smokes without fully knowing the effort she puts in, but such things are what nourish the soul and serve as lessons to pass on to future generations.

“I prefer to call (subsistence) our way of life because when we’re talking about food it’s more than just food into our bellies,” she said.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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