All around the world, we're fixated on foods that remind us of the good old days, of growing up. In Iceland, the nasty “rotten shark,” though avoided most of the year, is trotted out in its full ammoniac glory in February for a nostalgic eating binge that celebrates national foods. In Hong Kong, I've been feted with bird's nest soup — which has the opposite problem, practically no flavor. “Why do you serve this?” I always ask my generous Cantonese hosts. “Because our parents served it!” they reply.
All around the world, we’re fixated on foods that remind us of the good old days, of growing up. In Iceland, the nasty “rotten shark,” though avoided most of the year, is trotted out in its full ammoniac glory in February for a nostalgic eating binge that celebrates national foods. In Hong Kong, I’ve been feted with bird’s nest soup — which has the opposite problem, practically no flavor. “Why do you serve this?” I always ask my generous Cantonese hosts. “Because our parents served it!” they reply.
Our own Detroit, Michigan, has an interesting spin on this motif. Coney dogs, the iconic dish of Michigan, have millions of fans in the state who devour them year-round. The only problem is that the locals find it very hard to brag in specifics about this hot dog variation.
“I love them!” says Jared Bobkin, executive chef of the Bayview Yacht Club in suburban Detroit and a Detroit native. “Absolutely love them. I eat at least one a week, though I’d eat more if they were better for my heart.”
I asked Bobkin, “Why? Why the love? Why do the locals in Michigan love them so much?”
Uh-oh. Pause. The sky changes. Bobkin is under intense scrutiny. His eyes widen as he searches for reasons. Finally, he says, “Well, actually, they’re all right, I guess. But there’s nothing better at 3 a.m. after a night of partying than a Coney dog.” In his voice I hear many, many Detroit parties.
What it is — and isn’t
First things first. What is it? A Coney dog is a typical American hot dog, steamed. Bobkin says it’s sacrilegious to griddle it or grill it. It’s served on an also-steamed bun.
“The good places take the trouble to steam the buns,” says Bobkin.
It’s topped with a chili-like ground-beef sauce now known as “Coney sauce,” and finished with yellow mustard and chopped onions. That’s all, folks. As people always say when introduced to the details of this dish, “So it’s a chili dog, right?”
Not exactly. The story actually begins with Greek immigrants who arrived in the Midwest in the 1910s and 1920s. Most of them came through Ellis Island, and many of them got to visit, early in their American experience, the nearby thriving playground of Coney Island, where Nathan Handwerker — yes, that Nathan — was bringing notoriety to the hot dog.
In 1918, Alex Tahou, a Greek immigrant, opened a restaurant in Rochester, New York, today called Nick Tahou’s Hots. Hot dogs were obviously dominant, but Tahou developed an odd chili-like sauce that he ladled over “red hots,” or “Rochester white hots.” Years later, the creation evolved into Nick Tahou’s Garbage Plate, featuring French fries or home fries, baked beans, macaroni salad, hot dogs and more, all topped by the chili-like sauce, plus mustard and onions.
A few years later in 1922, Tom and John Kiradjieff, Macedonian emigrants to Cincinnati, opened a hot dog stand at which they ladled a similar type of “chili” over hot dogs. They even called the hot dogs “Coneys,” presumably having seen hot dogs like these at Coney Island soon after arriving in America. But the brothers Kiradjieff didn’t go down in history for hot dogs. Soon, probably trying to emulate a Greek pasta dish like pastisio, they invented Cincinnati Chili, which involves the same kind of chili-like sauce, this time ladled over spaghetti. Today, at Skyline Chili and many other Cincinnati places, you can order your chili with various toppings. Get five of them and it’s five-way Cincinnati Chili.
The mysterious “chili” weaved its way through the Midwest including to Detroit, where a peculiar kind of restaurant evolved. Coney Island must have made one hell of an impression on these immigrants, for Detroit soon gave birth to a diner-like restaurant known, generically, as a “Coney Island.” There were, and still are, Greek dishes, burgers, breakfast and many other things at these Coney Islands, but the sensation, then and now, is Coney dogs, topped with that same kind of “chili” already established by other Greek immigrants in Rochester and Cincinnati.
I asked Bobkin to give me a description of a good “chili sauce” that he might see today on a Coney dog.
“Well, first of all,” he said, “you gotta get the naming right. My father would have called it ‘Coney sauce.’ Me and my generation, we call it ‘Coney chili.’ And the next generation? The kids are calling it ‘chili sauce.’”
What does it taste like, today, in Michigan?
“Well, it looks like a brown sauce with a lot of ground beef in it,” Bobkin said. “It’s not chunky meat. It has a very soft consistency. It’s somewhere between sloppy joe’s and a soup. If meat could be liquid, this is what it would be.”
There are regional variations. In Flint, Michigan, for example, the texture of the “sauce” is much drier, more like crumbled meat.
Fully exhibiting their Greek origins, all of these sauces throughout the Midwest have a Mediterranean herb-and-spice component, including oregano. Also common are tomato, paprika, brown sugar, celery seed, cumin, cinnamon or clove, and tons of other things. These coney sauces do not taste like anything a Texan would identify as “chili.”
The Detroit Coney sauce has one ingredient, traditionally, that makes it stand apart — beef heart.
“It leads to a wonderful, iron-y, mineral-y kind of flavor,” Bobkin says. “People who prepare this sauce don’t usually brag about beef heart's inclusion or even mention it, but you can see the Depression-era roots in this, cooks trying to extend the pricier ground beef they were using.
“A good Coney dog,” Bobkin enthuses, “is served with a heaping amount of Coney chili running all over it. Enough to dip your French fries in it.”
The dog itself is also a key factor. Some focus on type of meat, and a blend of pork and beef is very typical, though there’s a faction that prefers 100 percent beef Kosher franks. The texture of the dog is also important. A good natural casing leads to a great “snap,” an artificial casing less so.
Just as Chicago has its Vienna Beef factory for hot dogs, so do Detroit factories have fans. Bobkin names among his favorites for hot dogs Butcher Boy Meats, Dearborn Sausage, Winters Sausage and Koegel Meat Company. It is the latter that gets the most love, I discovered, thanks to its 100-year-old recipe, a secret blend of spices and the use of hardwood to give the dogs a wisp o’ smoke.
If you want controversy you could step into the snake pit concerning the best Coney Island in Michigan for Coney dogs. The big battle is between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, which stand right next to each other in Detroit. Another popular Coney Island, National, freezes blocks of Coney sauce that Bobkin has seen in use as far away as Arizona.
Detroit expats who have settled into other parts of the country have taken Coney dogs with them, but they definitely don’t have the popularity nationwide of, say, Philly Cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings or California fish tacos. Search them out, travel to Detroit to find ‘em, or come to the Flavored Nation event in St. Louis in October, where Bobkin will appear along with cooks from his favorite Coney Island serving up their specialty.
David Rosengarten is content director for FLAVORED NATION. He has won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “It’s ALL American Food,” and another Beard Award for his newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report.” Rosengarten appeared in the first show on the Food Network, and went on to appear in approximately 2,500 Food Network shows, including his cooking show “TASTE.” Find out more at flavorednation.com.