Nancy Nyce has been eating soapberries for as long as she can remember.
“We always had it growing up,” Nyce said. “I don’t know where [my mom] got it, I don’t know if they picked it themselves. There are some around Kitimat, but I’ve never seen them here myself.”
With a bitter taste and stringy texture, they berries are usually crushed, strained and added to desserts with lots of sugar.
“People that are new to it probably shouldn’t eat a lot,” Nyce said. “It can create upset stomachs or other issues that won’t be so nice.”
Nyce grew up eating them, but she stopped for many years because she didn’t know where her mom had picked them. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that she began picking the berries again, when she went to visit a friend who had recently picked and preserved some.
“That was the first time I had, kind of picked a few. And I started to look around at where I could access it.”
She ended up finding some near the Nass River Valley, where her friend had picked them previously, as well as around Prince George. The last time she picked was in 2016 and she now has about six jars left, so Nyce said she plans to go out picking again sometime soon.
Nyce said she and her husband like to introduce their kids and family to traditional Haisla foods as much as possible, and soapberry has been one that they really enjoy. She collected enough berries that she ended up sharing a fair amount with her family and her community, and would often put a call out on Facebook for whoever wanted some.
“I used to have some regulars [I’d share with], but now it’s mostly just family. And I’m thinking, what happened to all my people?”
The main dessert Nyce makes with the berries is soapberry ice cream, a popular soapberry treat. The berries foam up when shaken and mixed in with water, and make a creamy texture when mixed with sugar and whipped.
“I never measure, so I can’t tell you my exact recipe,” Nyce said, but the process involves squishing the juice out of the berries and straining them, adding some water, and whipping it up.
Nyce said that once the berries’ foam has been whipped up to around 75 per cent volume, she slowly starts adding the sugar so it dissolves. Once it’s fully whipped, she then often adds some other fruits, such as bananas, strawberries, or raspberries to give it some more flavour.
“You have to be careful, though, how much [fruit] you add, because it takes away the volume, so it kills the foam,” Nyce said. “You can add fresh strawberries without any consequence, but if you add frozen strawberries that have the juice in it, then you’re in trouble, because it will deflate it.”
While it contains a lot of sugar due to the bitterness of the berries, Nyce said she likes to make it as a special treat every once and a while, especially as a way to keep the traditional dessert alive in her community.
“It’s a treat right, it’s a treat that we have, we don’t have it all the time,” Nyce said. “Right now, I’m thinking about the balance of healthy and unhealthy and I’m more on the balance of unhealthy because of all the sugar…[but] for me, I like it, my mother-in-law likes it, so I make it for her…and my sister-in-laws and their families, they all like it.”
Nyce and her husband process a lot of their own food these days, with oolichan fish in spring, then berry season, then salmon season through the summer, then clam harvest come fall, geese and duck in winter, then a month off in February until oolichan season starts up again.
“You know, everybody goes on vacation for July and August and we’re stuck harvesting!” Nyce said.
Along with all the food she makes and processes, Nyce also works as an Academic Advisor with Haisla Nation. But Nyce likes the work and doesn’t mind being busy with all her tasks because it reminds her of the Haisla phrase, aiks halilas, which means “have a good rest.”
“That’s about as close as we got to a holiday,” Nyce said, laughing.
Nyce said, as busy as she is, she doesn’t plan on giving up the food processing and ice cream making any time soon because she and her family like it and it allows their cultural tradition to continue.
“It keeps it alive, right? Kids love it and people are trying it and, you know, several of my grandchildren are trying it now and, you know what, if I didn’t do that it would’ve died within our family.”