Recently I watched Karlee Kleinschmidt gather up freshly made eggnog wafers dusted with nutmeg, a seasonal flavor at The Parrot Confectionery on Helena’s walking mall.
Kleinschmidt is the head confectioner at this Helena institution, beloved by all who step inside the nostalgic sweet shop. She described other holiday specialties, including cranberry sorbet and ice cream in two distinct flavors, Nesselrode and Pralines & Cream.
Kleinschmidt graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and was clear she is living the dream being knee-deep in candy-making at The Parrot, using recipes that are 97 years old.
I looked up the meaning of Nesselrode once I returned home. History says it was a mixture of candied fruits, nuts, and maraschino cherries used in puddings, pies and ice cream centuries ago. A cook for Count Nesselrode, a 19th century Russian statesman, is credited for having created a frozen dessert that she named after the count. The Parrot version is a rum custard ice cream with pistachios, maraschino cherries and pineapple.
The Parrot’s roots run deep. It opened as a candy store in downtown Helena in 1922. The store relocated in 1938 to its present location, where it has been operating for 81 years. When I moved to Helena in 1974, the store was owned and operated by the good-humored brothers Dave and Dusty Duensing and their wives. Today the current and fourth owner is Jonny Plichta, a lanky fellow who moved to Montana from Los Angeles and bought The Parrot in January 2017. With his flannel shirt, work boots, a dark beard, and baseball cap, he blends in well with the Montana mystique.
Itching to get out of California, Jonny had his sights set on Montana. He fantasized about the wildness and freedom he associated with Big Sky Country. The idea of living where there are four distinct seasons was also very appealing.
He told me he moved on a whim to Helena, and then got word that The Parrot was for sale. In his earlier years, Jonny had gone to culinary school, so he figured, “Heck, I can run a candy store. But I had no idea what I was getting into with the history of this place and how much people loved The Parrot.”
It didn’t take long for Jonny to hear from his customers who were adamant that absolutely nothing should change — neither the décor nor the candy.
Except for improving the quality of ingredients that go into The Parrot’s signature chili, and adding a few items, including hot spiced apple cider during the fall season and divinity, The Parrot remains the same. The customers who’ve been patrons of The Parrot for more than 50 years bring the greatest joy to Plichta. He delights in the fact he is recreating for them the same experience they remember as kids.
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The Parrot goes through 10 tons of chocolate in a year, along with roughly 13,000 pounds of sugar. The candy is still crafted using the original methods, including hand-dipping the chocolate-covered pieces.
The store offers 130 varieties of candy, with some being seasonal. The Parrot, a chocolate-covered caramel with pecans, has consistently been the top-selling candy over the years. The Christmas season proves to be the busiest, with more than 2,000 boxes of chocolates mailed out, in addition to the endless flow of customers who stop by to pick up goodies or grab a quick lunch.
The Parrot isn’t just candy. It’s also an old-fashioned soda fountain and a lunch café, with a handful of olive-colored wooden booths anchoring the back of the store.
The Parrot is renowned for its chili, using a secret recipe that is 81 years old. Other options include Truzzolino chicken tamales, an assortment of original Campbell’s soups, and Sabrett hot dogs (New York’s No. 1 hot dog), served plain or topped with chili.
The lime soda takes the cake as the most requested drink. Customers can also order fresh fruit drinks, frozen phosphates and freeze drinks (ice slush served over a scoop of sorbet), as well as homemade hot chocolate. When it comes to The Parrot’s homemade ice cream, the options include ice cream sodas, milkshakes, malts, parfaits, sundaes and banana splits.
I asked him if customers ask for the candy or chili recipes. He nodded yes with a laugh. “Sure, I’ll share the recipes. I tell them all they have to do is buy the business, and they’ll get all the recipes for free.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I love the fact I can take my grandkids to The Parrot, have them sit on the swivel stools and watch a milkshake being made. I want them to see life unfold without the distractions of video games or cell phones, just as I did growing up.