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Ice cream and nostalgia at Sassafras

I’ve been hearing my whole life from sensible and sensitive people about how we shouldn’t take things for granted. And while it is pretty good advice — right up there with not judging a book by its cover and looking before leaping — I’ve found that even the most rational and reasonable of people still do it anyway. I should know. I’m one of them.

Taking things for granted is one of life’s simple pleasures. What can be more comforting than assuming that something, or someone, will always be there for you? Do we really want to live our lives in constant worry, wondering when the people and things that bring us joy will go away? Isn’t it better to go to bed at night secure in the fact that they will be there when we wake up? The answer should be obvious.

Unfortunately, my little theory was put to the test last week when I awoke to learn that the Sassafras diner had been significantly damaged in a fire. This little family-owned restaurant was something I had come to take for granted over the past 30 years and now it might be gone.

I was 14 when it first opened, to a level of anticipation and excitement that was unprecedented back in what was then small town of Shelton. Kids and adults alike were amazed by their decadent ice cream offerings: The smiling Mr. Sassafras cone, the candy covered Hunk Of Junk and, most glorious of all, the Belly Buster, which even by ’80s standards was pretty extreme. Usually reserved for entire baseball teams — or the rich kids from “The Berries” — it was always an event when someone ordered the 12-scoop, all toppings Belly Buster. My friends and I could only look on in envy as we content ourselves with pooling our money to split a Hunk of Junk, which was a much more reasonable $4.95, and just as tasty. After placing our order, we’d surround the sundae with our spoons until there was nothing left but an empty dish and a lousy nickel tip.

And since it was conveniently located right next to our pediatrician’s office, Sassafras was also the spot to go after a check-up. Stickers and smiles from Nurse Gail were great, but shots from the doctor really lost their sting when followed with some shots (or sprinkles) on an ice cream cone.

But as I grew older, and Shelton grew larger, my friends and I found cooler places to hang out. Okay, maybe Sawmill City and Forest Parkway were not all that cool, but we were able to get away with things there that we couldn’t do under the watchful eye of Mr. Sassafras. And as the years continued to pass, I continued to bypass the little diner in favor of chain restaurants and trendier bars. In fact, it was not until my teaching mentor, Bruce Sandberg, invited me to meet him there to discuss my lesson plans that I realized it had been 15 years since I had last set foot in the place. And while I admit I felt a little embarrassed going there, it was instantly washed away by the nostalgic wave that hit me the moment I walked through the doors. The place had not changed a bit. And as I slid into the booth and found myself automatically reaching for the ice cream menu, I realized, neither had I. Unfortunately, as a student teacher, I still could not afford the Belly Buster!

Fast forward another 10 years, and things had come full circle. I was once again a frequent customer, bringing my own son in for dinner and a Mr. Sassafras cone, so long as he ate most of his macaroni and cheese. And while Mary Beth, the waitress, fawned over him much more than any attention I ever received as a kid — even letting him go behind the counter to decorate his own sundae — everything else was pretty much the same from how I remembered it. Of course, now that I could finally afford to buy a Belly Buster, I couldn’t afford the extra calories, and had to settle for picking at my son’s sundae instead. But that’s the price you pay for growing up.

And while I can totally understand if the Poniros family decides not to rebuild after the fire, I selfishly hope they do. I want my son to be able to grow up in the shadow of Sassafras and one day enjoy the freedom of sharing a sundae with his friends. God knows I’m not letting him ride his bike on Bridgeport Avenue, so Sassafras might be his only chance. Plus, I want him to know that you don’t have to be flashy, or trendy or even all that good, to make it in this world. For 28 years, Sassafras has gotten by in a cozy corner of a small shopping plaza, serving food that at best could be described as decent. Many other restaurants have come and gone in that same time, some with much better menus, service, and atmosphere, but Sassafras managed to survive. And I think that’s what really kept people coming back. Any chef can whip up a meal, but Sassafras served history. Three decades of memories. Two generations of happy faces coated in ice cream. And one place to find them: Sassafras.

At least, that was until last month. Unfortunately, a fire like that does more than structural damage. It causes owners to look inside themselves and question whether they really want to keep on doing this. And even though the Poniros family has already told this paper that they intend to reopen, in this economy, it will be a struggle. And that’s where we come in. Chances are, like me, many of you have taken Sassafras for granted as well, driving past on your way to the Outback or Chili’s, secure in the knowledge that if you wanted to stop in, you could. But you didn’t. And I don’t blame you. I like a glass of wine or beer with my meals. I enjoy haute cuisine. I want to sneak peek at the Mets game on the big screen above the bar. But I also want a place that preserves a piece of my childhood like a time capsule. I want a place that lets my son go behind the counter to make his own sundae. I want a place where the only thing cool is the ice cream. And I want that place to be there for another 28 years.

So if and when they reopen, I want you all to promise to be better patrons.

From what I’ve been reading in the news and on Facebook in the wake of the fire, many of you claim to love the place, but we need to start showing the love. I’m not saying you have to give up a Friday date night or special Saturday evening to hang out at Sassafras, but would it hurt to show up on some random Tuesday? Or Sunday morning? And if I’m there, maybe I’ll split a Belly Buster with you. My treat!

Mike Wood is a life-long Shelton resident and author of the coming-of-age novel, Alchemy, available locally at Written Words and nationally at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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