For generations untold, wild berries have been a prized food for First Nations people.
Blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, chokecherries, Saskatoons, raspberries and strawberries are gathered and dried, preserved as an important part of securing a food supply for the coming winter. The berries are added to bannock and other native foods.
All berries contribute nutritional value and flavoring to the First Nations diet. However, there is one kind that produces a most interesting treat.
Sxusem, or Indian ice cream, is a dessert that is made throughout the Pacific Northwest from buffaloberry or soapberry bushes. The bushes are common in the Cariboo.
Florence Thomas of the Canim Lake Band carries on the tradition of making Indian ice cream by gathering and preparing the fruit just as her parents, grandparents and generations of Secwepemc people have.
“In July, we find bushes we call sxusem. We lift the bottom branches and place an old sheet carefully underneath the bush. Then we use a small stick to beat the branches so the berries drop onto the sheet. We call beating the bushes ‘spamming’.”
Debris, such as leaves or small twigs, are then removed.
“The berries are put into a large stock pot. There may be a few green berries mixed in with the red but we leave them there. We add very little water, just even with the berries. We usually cook them for about 20 minutes. Then we jar them.”
She described the process of jarring the berries.
“We transfer the berries to sterilized jars that have been kept hot in the oven. After the lids are on, we turn them upside down for up to 24 hours which helps them really seal.”
The jarred berries are ready to be made into sxusem.
“Now, we use an electric mixer to beat the berries, but before, when we were out in the bush, we’d make a hand beater. You take small willow branches, peel off the bark and tie them to a stick.
“Before you start to beat the berries, you must make sure that your bowl and beaters are absolutely grease-free or it won’t work.
“If you add sugar as you beat the sxusem, it becomes thicker. The amount of sugar depends on how sweet you like it. I would use one-half cup of sugar to four to six cups of berries.
“Some people like the tart taste. I do. Long ago, there was no sugar to sweeten it. People were used to the tart taste.
“You can add vanilla. It gives the sxusem a different taste for people who don’t like the tartness. But you have to use real vanilla or else it will be runny.”
As the sxusem is beaten, it begins to thicken into pink creamy foam with tiny red flecks. Soon it resembles strawberry ice cream and is ready to be eaten.
Florence is from a family of eight children. She remembers berry-picking excursions with her parents and other families, when they would camp and everyone would work together.
She and husband, Nick, have continued the tradition of picking and jarring berries with their own eight children and “endless grandchildren.”
“I taught them how to jar and preserve all kinds of food. I’m hoping young people will carry on these traditions. So far my kids do … or else!”
Mobility problems now keep her from scrambling in and out of many berry-picking places, but Florence says she is still able to enjoy dip-netting, sitting by the Fraser River, at Soda Creek or Farwell Canyon. She adds her greatest pleasure is simply walking among the trees in a quiet forest.