Harry’s Place in Colchester, Connecticut is a summer roadside food shack that gives its address as 104 Broadway, but it’s really at the intersection of taste, locale and biography. At Harry’s, space and time collide in a way that transcends flavor and satisfies more than hunger.
The happily rundown white plywood shack with a shed roof that rises toward front serves regionally renowned burgers, fries, chicken, clams, onion rings, and lobster rolls. There are culinary delights such as broccoli cheddar nuggets, cream cheese poppers, mini corn dogs, and even their own potato chips. But I go for the Mucke’s hot dogs made in nearby Hartford and laid into rolls from a family bakery not far away.
When I stand at the order window with its large wooden shutters suspended above me on chains and give my preferences to the eternally youthful and eager staff, I’m mesmerized by the grill. The smell and sizzle of frying fills the air and the scraping of spatulas on the hot metal stimulates both salivary glands and recollections. It seems Harry’s is not just a place to savor a good meal, but to taste memories that resonate not only in our culture, but in our personal lives.
As with many Americans, hot dogs were among my earliest favorite foods and they bring back thoughts of ballparks, backyard barbecues and road trips with family and friends. Since 1920, Harry’s has been serving ample portions of this national dream. But as with many patrons of the venerable stand, it’s not just a cultural nostalgia that brings me back year after year. It’s also deeply personal.
Though I live the better part of an hour distant, I made sure to stop here with my late father the last time he was healthy enough to visit from his home in Oregon. Having grown up in Brooklyn, New York near Coney Island, as a young man he was an aficionado of Nathan’s Famous where, he recalled, a hot dog could be had for a nickel. As I had hoped, a visit to Harry’s brought him back to that corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenues and he spent the afternoon telling me stories of his boyhood I’d never before heard and which I now cherish. He pronounced Harry’s dogs “the best I’ve tasted since I was a kid.” Ever after, coming to Colchester has been a kind of pilgrimage for me.
There is something singular about Harry’s, for I’m not alone in cherishing rich personal memories whenever I stop for a bite. The crowd ranges from clutches of teens to young families with squirmy children, adults with their parents, and elderly couples often with grandchildren. It’s a place that grows memories of warm summer days with loved ones. That’s what keeps people coming back.
I recently met Don at Harry’s. He was sitting at a picnic table in the shade of a big sugar maple as he munched on a cheeseburger. A middle aged man in glasses and a ballcap, he wore a Harry’s tee shirt. Living nearby, he ate there often. Though he was born far away, his wife’s father and grandfather had been regulars. “I like the food a lot,” he said, “but the best part is feeling connected to generations. I think of family as I eat.” About a month later I met 94 year old Marion Murphy who was enjoying a meal with her children. She’d spent most of her life on a dairy farm in a neighboring town, and had been returning to Harry’s for 87 years. A soft-spoken woman with a twinkle in her eye and a sweet smile that defied time, she liked the hot dogs best. But the food was secondary to the atmosphere of simple enjoyment and deep remembrance.
Picnic tables line the gravel parking lot and are squeezed between the stand and the road, but out back is a grove of trees and a close cropped lawn that seems oddly pastoral for a roadside joint. Beneath the trees are more picnic tables, some bright Adirondack chairs, and even a café table in a small garden. Under such unassuming circumstances, memories are made.
Sure, it’s a guilty pleasure, but sometimes a hot dog is more than just fun eats. “Memories are motionless,” wrote French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.” Harry’s is such a space, and that’s why Harry’s makes people happy.