My grandmother would on occasion make her version of Coney Islands. In reality they had more of a Tex-Mex heritage rather than a Michigan heritage, and the only real relation to a Coney Island was the hot dog in the bun.
If one has ever been to Michigan, one has most likely been exposed to the hot dog called ‘Coney Island.’ There are as many versions of this classic dog as there are versions of chili in Texas, but just like chili, there are two basic approaches. In Texas, the chili is either red or green. In Michigan, the Coney Island is either dry or wet.
My grandmother would stick a boiled weenie (aka wiener, frankfurter, sausage) in a bun, add some hot mustard and pickles (jalapenos) along the side, and top it with chow-chow, chili, grated cheese, and big chunks of yellow onion. She would place eight of these into a baking dish like enchiladas side by side and slide the dish into a hot oven for a few minutes until the cheese was bubbly and brown. Oh were these good! But they weren’t Coney Islands.
I had business meetings in Michigan one fall, and in the city of Flint I was introduced to the wet Coney Island. I didn’t know at that time the difference between the wet and dry versions, nor did I know the rivalries and loyalties each incurs, I just went with some of the store employees to lunch.
When I looked at the two dogs I was served, I thought, “Okay, it’s sort of like my grandmother’s version.” However, I was wrong. This was nothing like hers. The smooth slightly thickened sauce was reminiscent of chili, but it didn’t taste like chili. It was definitely its own thing, and it was good. In fact it was so good, I stuffed myself stupid on these things, and I paid the resulting price in the days before Beano.
I couldn’t leave these dogs alone. I was in Flint for four days, and I must have consumed close to thirty Coney Islands. When it came time to rent a car, drive to a store in Detroit, and leave behind the Coney Islands, I made certain to have a box in the front seat of my car with another dozen within easy reach. I was convinced I couldn’t live without having a Coney Island as a traveling companion.
Then I arrived in Detroit. My first night was spent alone in my hotel room wishing I had maintained better control of my appetite for the past few days. The next morning I had a simple breakfast of hotel room coffee and the last two Coney Islands in my possession, and I was almost glad they were gone.
The morning meeting with the store manager and his staff went well, and about 1:00 the manager announced the lunch he had ordered was waiting for us in a nearby room. When we opened the door to the room, the first thing I saw was a huge tray piled high with Coney Islands. Yeah!!! But they weren’t the same. These were the dry version preferred in Detroit. The sauce had a similar taste, but the texture was coarse and dry rather than wet and smooth. It was similar to a loose meat burger, but the taste was all Coney Island.
Once again, I couldn’t stop myself. Everyone in the room watched as I packed away four or five of these things. And since there was a dozen or so left over, I wrapped them up for dinner and a late night snack.
Again I spent a few days living on Coney Islands, and I even put a few in my suitcase to take on the plane when I flew back to my office in Denver. When I checked my luggage at the airport, the Skycap commented that this must have been my first trip to Detroit. He was very familiar with the smell of Coney Islands emanating from luggage.
Back home in Texas I told my grandmother about the Coney Islands I had tasted in Michigan (I didn’t tell her how many I had tasted), and she said that is where her idea for them came from. One of her sisters had traveled there sometime in the thirty’s and had worked for a time in a restaurant where these dogs were the top selling item on the menu. Back in Texas they had tried to copy the idea, and her baked chilidogs were the result.
I thought I could do the same thing. At least my grandmother’s chili dogs were on the right track. Mine, well, a bun and a wiener were about the only thing in common with the Coney Island. Toasted buns are a given—usually. An all beef wiener is also a given—sometimes. And so is mustard and/or ketchup—most of the time. After that, all bets are off.
French fries with cream gravy.
Salsa and Guacamole.
A big cheese enchilada (my favorite).
Velveeta cheese. Lots of Velveeta cheese. Melted. Or not.
Fried onions, mushrooms, and peppers (hot or sweet).
Mac and Cheese.
Spaghetti sauce—with or without spaghetti
Any combination of the above.
Name your own.