The Sandpoint Eater:

Helga’s last hurrah

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist

For the past six or eight months, I’d tried to plan an annual sojourn to the Davenport Hotel with longtime Missoula friends, Lynda and Helga. Sadly, each trip was postponed due to Helga’s recurring health issues. Near August’s end, Lynda phoned with news and a request. It seemed that Helga’s health would find no recovery, and so, faced with endless pills and painful treatments, she decided to forego any further medical intervention. With limited time in her future, Helga advised Lynda that she’d love a trip to Sandpoint and a final week-end in my home. Saddened by the news and honored by the request, I began planning. It would be Helga’s last hurrah.

There were no dietary restrictions for Helga, reported Lynda, only a much diminished appetite. Seafood was a favorite of Helga’s, and wanting her to experience every lovely taste from the sea, I carefully planned a menu for their second night in Sandpoint, selecting Cioppino as the main course and a rich, silky chocolate pots de crème as our finish.

I readied the house and made up the master suite for Helga so she’d have no stairs to climb. I polished my best stemware and shopped for plump martini olives. Emotions ran the full gamut. I was excited and nervous and sad (talk about a going away party!).  I was relieved upon their arrival to find Helga looking as radiant as ever, and after a short rest she was ready to hit the town for cocktails and dinner. As we lingered over our wine, I was taken aback just a bit when Helga asked for my input regarding her imminent funeral, or really her “Celebration of Life.” Throughout my life I have been called upon to offer advice and expertise for most things party and event-related.So while it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, I was not prepared for this query. “Hmm, let me think about that for a bit, Helga,” was my pensive response.

Saturday morning I prepared a breakfast of scones, eggs and bacon for the ladies, and after watching Helga polish off six pieces of bacon, I had to tease her, “Just how many pieces could you eat before you lost your appetite?”

We took a lovely drive by favorites old haunts, did a bit of shopping and finally settled into a comfortable spot at the Pend Oreille Winery. As the wine flowed, so too did the inspiration for Helga’s pending event. The music, the program and even floral arrangements were discussed in detail. Feeling satisfied and accomplished, she was ready to head home and rest before our dinner party.

We each had a role in the ritual of the dinner party. As I cooked, Lynda set a magnificent table and, as always, Helga held court, occasionally sharing warmth and wisdom but typically claiming victory over a much-heated debate. Maybe it was the hardships she endured in Berlin that drove her—Helga was disciplined (nearly to a fault), opinionated and pretty darn feisty. She was a retired German professor and translator and a lover of culture and the finer things, especially language arts, music, flowers, food and wine. Helga had a soft side too, and took me aside in private to make certain, once she was gone, that I would look after her best friend, Lynda.

Our table was beautiful, complemented with a striking bouquet of burnt-orange roses. Lynda lit the candles, and I opened my most prized bottle of wine to breathe. I stirred an icy pitcher of martinis and we toasted a friendship that has endured life’s blessings, surprises and challenges. Then, we sat at the table to share the pot of Cioppino.  We shared every sip of the rich, red broth and every morsel of goodness from the sea: shrimp, mussels, clams, baby scallops, salmon and halibut brought satisfied nods. We savored the wine and the friendship. We did not raise our glasses for recovery but for love, comfort and peace-filled days.

Last week, as the end of autumn’s leaves fell to the ground, I drove to Missoula to assist Lynda with the final details of Helga’s celebration.  “Don’t go cheap on the paper,” I had had insisted, only six weeks earlier. And she hadn’t. The program, on heavy card stock was filled with epitaphs of a life well lived. As we’d also discussed, the take-away gift of a CD (with program-matching cover design) included Helga’s favorite music, with selections in four languages, and in her richly accented voice were poems she had carefully recorded for us in English and German.  The CD also included a poignant farewell message from Helga, and finally to no one’s great surprise, the final selection: Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”

It only seemed fitting to come home, pour some wine and while listening to Helga’s Way, prepare another batch of Cioppino. Abschied von Fräulein.

You’ll want to serve lots of crusty bread with this fish stew.


CioppionoServes 4-6

How do you spell mmmmmmmmm?

How do you spell mmmmmmmmm?


•4 tablespoons olive oil

•¼ cup chopped fennel

•3 tablespoons chopped yellow onions

•3 tablespoons minced shallots

•3 garlic cloves, minced

•¼ cup dry white wine

•1 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

•2 tablespoons minced parsley 

•1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 

•1 cup bottled clam juice 

•1 cup water 

•salt & freshly ground black pepper 

•½ cup unsalted butter 

•8 ounces mussels 

•8 ounces littleneck clams 

•8 ounces fish fillets, cut into chunks 

    (combination of halibut, cod, or salmon)

•4 ounces large shrimp, peeled and 

    deveined, tails on (21 to 30 per pound)

•4 ounces baby scallops

•2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

•Fennel fronds



1. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the chopped fennel, onion, shallots, and garlic and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft. Stir in the wine, then the tomatoes, parsley, red pepper flakes, clam juice, and water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low and simmer for an hour. Add the butter and stir to melt, then remove from heat.

2. In a large cast iron skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and toss in the mussels and clams. Cook for 4 minutes.

As the mussels and clams begin to open, add the fish, scallops and shrimp, season with salt and pepper. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shrimp turn pink. Discard any mussels or clams that don’t open. Add 1 cup of the tomato mixture and simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer the contents of the skillet to the saucepan with the remaining tomato mixture and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Ladle into soup bowls. Sprinkle with fresh basil, garnish with the fennel fronds, and serve immediately with lots of crusty French bread.

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