Hot dogs, and similarly coneys, are ubiquotous across the United States. There isn’t a state that doesn’t have one or the other, and in most cases they have both.
But there’s something a bit odd about them. Something we’ll use in the overall discussion of Cuisinology.
There are too many hot dog styles to count. Wikipedia’s page on hot dog variations lists probably close to 100 variations across the U.S. and around the world. We know from a quick glance that’s not a complete list: Nothing is listed for Hawaii, where the Puka Dog is a popular favorite on Kauai. But the Puka Dog, it appears, is also strikingly similar to the “párek v rohlíku” in the Czech Republic.
What’s particularly odd about hot dogs, coneys, and similar foods such as Kielbasa, Hungarian sausages, Pennsylvania Dutch sausages, etc., is the depth of regionality they enjoy. Cincinnati has their Chili Cheese Dog, Toledo has the Hungarian sausages at Tony Packo’s, Chicago is adamant about their all-beef Chicago Dog with either its neon-green sweet relish or the spicier Giardiniera, pickled in vinegar or oil, and countless others across the country.
Regional pizza styles also enjoy this kind of popularity, but few other foods do. Hamburgers don’t, nor do most others.
Arguing about regional, or even personal, food favorites of any kind is quite honestly a complete waste of time and energy. It stands to reason that you will like the foods you grew up with. Regional, cultural, religious and family-specific preferences will always be a factor in what kind of foods you will enjoy or even prefer. If you’re from Detroit, you might like American or Lafayette Detroit Style coneys, while thinking a friend who likes Flint or Jackson styles is crazy. A person standing by from Chicago will tell them they’re both nuts since they’ve never had a Vienna Beef dog with Giardiniera, while the Hawaiian resident and the West Virginian will be arguing Puka vs. Sam’s Hot Dog for an hour. Similarly though, a person from the deep south will avoid Zehnder’s fried chicken like the plague since it “will never be like my mama’s”, Chesapeake Bay crab lovers will always be at odds with those who love Bering Sea ophelia, and a new Chinese visitor to the U.S. will always have a difficult time figuring out why a so-called Chinese restaurant serves that incredibly popular General Tso’s thing he’s never heard of.
In all of this, the arguing always seems to get worse when it comes to coneys or pizzas. Here though we’ll focus on hot dogs and their counterparts.
Many people will look at a proper coney in Michigan and think it’s just a hot dog on a bun topped with a “beanless chili”. If you know someone from Michigan and you offer them a chili dog, you might hear a response similar to “Well it’s not a coney, but alright.” And if you’re the person from Michigan in that conversation, you’ll know there’s nothing that can replace the coney you know and love. It has to have the “snap” of the natural lamb or sheep casing on a properly-grilled “coney dog”. The coney has to be topped with a flavorful meat topping having the memorable flavor of ground beef heart (although they might not have known this is the source of that flavor), and maybe ground beef, along with some other organ meats (depending on your style and/or restaurant of choice), minced onion, cumin, chili powder, and paprika. Coney “purists” will then be sure to always have that meat topping garnished with a couple lines of good yellow mustard, topped with more onions that have been minced to be silky smooth.
If you’re the kind of person who gets deeper into this sort of thing, you’ll know that in Michigan there are four basic coney varieties: The dry-sauced Jackson Coney, developed by George Todoroff in 1914, another dry sauce that’s served on a Koegel’s Skinless Frankurter at the circa 1915 Kalamazoo’s Original Coney Island, the juicier-sauced Detroit Coney, developed by someone at either of the side-by-side American or Lafayette Coney Islands (there are too many versions of the story to sort out) in 1917, and the Flint Coney, with Simion Brayan’s Flint Coney Island restaurant opening just south of the Flint River on Saginaw St. in 1924.
There is serious debate about which coney in Michigan is “best”. Even between the two Detroit Coney shops that sit next to each other, American and Lafeyette, there are “turf wars”. But honestly, you’ll like what you grew up with, and what you like will always be “best” for you. It really is that simple. None are “best”, they’re all good, and they all have their followers and detractors. That will never change.
There is also regular discussion about which of these three styles evolved into the other two. But common sense dictates that neither the Jackson nor the Detroit Coney shops had any bearing on the development of the Flint Coney. The originators of all three Coneys likely had no clue what the others were doing until long afterward. In fact, Ft. Wayne Famous Coney Island also opened in 1914, the same year as Todoroff’s in Jackson, and there is no known connection between those two whatsoever.
In Flint, as is elsewhere, some restaurants that serve the local coney style are decidedly more popular than others. Certain Flint Coney restaurants might also have a group of local followers, or might be on an interstate or older tourist travel route with visitors from out-of-town viewing it as a “destination”. Ask anyone who’s been through town, grown up there recently, or seen recent news reports where to get a real Flint Coney and they’ll likely mention Angelo’s, Starlite, Palace, or Tom Z’s.
Unfortunately, the true story of the Flint Coney has become shrouded in a sort of fog created by decades of rumors, folklore and serious misinformation. So many restaurants have used the word “original” in their menus or signage that the actual original has been lost in the shuffle. And out-of-towners are regularly taken to Angelo’s where their local “guides” will likely tell them that’s where the Coney was invented, perpetuating the myths of multiple “original” locations. (Angelo’s food is excellent of course, and this writer has enjoyed many Flint Coneys there.) The fact is, Flint Original Coney, originator Simion Brayan’s shop, closed in 1979.
In early 2012 journalists from MLive put together what they called the Michigan Coney Dog Project, resulting in what they determined to be Michigan’s Top 10 Coney Dogs. That they put the Flint Style Coney further down on the list (at position #4) than the Detroit Style Coney (at positions #1 and #2) is not at all surprising since only one of their members is from Flint. That “Coney Detroit” co-author Joe Grimm was along for the ride is even more telling as a partial reason for those results. And a brief look at the more-than 75 comments below that article will show proof of liking what you grew up with.
The arguments in those comments regarding who was first in coney development is interesting. The Jackson Style was supposedly in 1914, the Detroit Style was somewhere between 1914 and 1917, and the completed Flint Style was in 1924. Whether or not those people even knew what the others were doing or how they were doing it will never be known, making any argument relatively pointless. The simple fact that these developments occured within 100 miles of each other is what matters, as it puts the development of the Coney itself squarely in southeastern Michigan. That’s something to be proud of.
The Squeamishness Of Westerners
Bear with me a moment here so we can look at something people don’t seem to want to think about.
Americans, and others in western cultures, generally have no idea where their food comes from. This is particularly true about meat, poultry, fish, and other proteins. They see it in stores, throw it in their cart, take it home and cook it, and think nothing else about it. They’ll see cows and chickens in their travels, they’ll go to farms with petting zoos … and think nothing of the connection between what they’re seeing and what they’ll eat when they get home.
It’s been less than a century since butchering was taught in public schools. In their 1922 “Home Economics Cook Book for Elementary Grades” the teachers of Domestic Science in the Department of Home Economics in the Toledo Public Schools in Toledo, Ohio, included cut diagrams for various cattle and hogs. The chapter on poultry also included detailed instructions for cleaning chickens:
Singe by holding on a flame of any kind to remove long hairs. Cut off the head and draw out the pin feathers with a small pointed knife.
By putting the first two fingers under the skin close to the neck, the wind pipe may be easily found and removed; also the crop, which is found fastened to the skin close to the breast. Draw down the neck skin and cut off neck close to the body, leaving skin enough to fasten under the back.
Cut through the skin around the leg an inch and a half below the leg joint. Be careful not to cut the tendons; place the leg at this cut on the edge of the board and snap the bone and pull off the foot with the tendons. In an old bird the tendons will have to be drawn out separately.
Cut through the skin below the breast bone large enough to admit the hand. Begin at the top and with the hand loosen the intestinal organs, keeping the hand close to the side, being careful not to break the gall bladder which is removed with the liver, being near it. Remove the lungs which are enclosed by the ribs on either side of the back bone; the kidneys in the hollow near the end of the back bone; the heart found near the lungs; and eggs if any. Remove the oil bag near the tail and wash the fowl thoroughly by letting water run through it.
If there is a disagreeable odor, wash in soda water. [Boardman, Mary; Duncan, Katherine; Ellis, Mary B.; Fisher, Lila; Hoyt, Louise; Knights, Gertrude; McGinnis, Marguerite; Mallory, Effie; Malone, Elizabeth; Sanger, Ruth; Semple, Margaret; Watson, Della Marie; Weeks, Harriet G.; Wylie, Helen. Home Economics Cook Book for Elementary Grades, Toledo, Ohio. Toledo Public Schools, 1922.]
The people of today’s western civilizations, with their sanitized supermarkets and complete disconnect between farm and table, need to realize this is how many of their neighbors, many of their countrymen, and the rest of the world, prepare their meals. They need to stop being squeamish about what they eat and where their food comes from. When it comes to food, they need to return to reality.
Why This Matters In This Conversation
In a Metro Times interview with John Koegel published on June 27, 2007, Mr. Koegel specifically stated “Beef hearts are in our Koegel Detroit-style chili. National and Leo’s Coney Island and Kerby’s Coney Island use beef-heart products, though not ours.” [Broder, Jeff. The Daily Grind. Metro Times. [Online] June 27, 2007. [Cited: June 19, 2016.] http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/the-daily-grind/Content?oid=2187641.] In another Metro Times article by Michael Jackman dated February 18, 2014, Grace Keros, owner of the American Coney Island downtown and Canton locations, stated she owns the Detroit Chili Co. [Jackman, Michael. American Coney Island owner sets us straight. Metro Times. [Online] February 19, 2014. [Cited: June 19, 2016.] http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/american-coney-island-owner-sets-us-straight/Content?oid=2144081.] The Detroit Chili Co. sauce is available at GFS Marketplace stores, and the first ingredient listed is beef heart, meaning both American and Lafayette use the meat in their sauces. Of course there is another Michigan style of Coney Dog in Jackson, developed by George Todoroff in 1914. In a piece by MLive’s Brad Flory on June 4, 2014, Richard Todoroff stated beef heart wasn’t in the original recipe. However, he followed this by saying “Coney restaurants in Jackson began using ground heart during World War II because it was easier to obtain than regular ground beef.” [Flory, Brad. Brad Flory column: Feeding Jackson’s astonishing appetite for ground beef heart. MLive.com. [Online] June 4, 2014. [Cited: June 19, 2016.] http://www.mlive.com/opinion/jackson/index.ssf/2014/06/brad_flory_column_feeding_jack.html]
In explaining the Flint Coney to interested individuals, and in talking about coneys in Michigan, the reaction when they learn the toppings contain beef heart is generally one of four things:
1. If this is regarding the Flint Coney and they believe the topping contains ground hot dogs, the conversation may last a while until they understand Flint Coney sauce doesn’t include such a thing.
2. They knew already and have simply had the information verified again.
3. They had no idea, but the information just makes the coney that much more interesting.
4. They will never eat a coney in Michigan again.
This last one is a particular pet peeve of mine. My own rule for my own kids has always been “You have to try a food at least once before you can say you don’t like it.” If you merely look at a food or hear about it and decide then that it’s not for you, you’re likely missing out on a lot of possible favorites. It’s because of my rule that my kids enjoy foods many of their peers refuse to try. Foods such as alligator, squid, clams and mussels, German blood tongue sausage, grilled liver, liverwurst, head cheese, and countless other items too many are simply squeamish about and refuse to even try. My daughter was 12 when, at a dinner after a Daddy-Daughter Dance, I’d ordered a fried alligator appetizer at a friend’s restaurant. At first she refused, until I reminded her of my rule. She tried it … and we ended up fighting over each and every piece of meat.
That she doesn’t like cornbread is something I can’t figure out.
So when someone tells me they’ll never again eat a coney in Michigan because of the beef heart in the sauce, I have some solid questions. What changed? Did the taste change? Maybe the texture? No? So only your perception changed? Normally at that point I hear “I just can’t eat that.” Well … you have most certainly eaten that, and enjoyed it more times than you can probably recall. Therefore, your perception and level of squeamishness require adjustment.
Being a cuisinologist, amateur or otherwise, means not only being more accepting of flavors and textures outside your comfort zone, and being willing to try them, but also acknowledging our differences in food likes and dislikes, and celebrating those differences even though we may not agree for whatever reason. Saying a town “Doesn’t know how to do a hot dog” isn’t true. They don’t do your hot dog. They do theirs just fine. When you’re in their town, you’re actually the one who’s nuts. So try theirs. And remember to keep your mind and your taste buds open.