Inside Coney Culture

By | March 19, 2012

Interview
Jerry Abu El Hawa of American Coney Island in Detroit (Photo by Keith Burgess)

JERRY ABU EL HAWA OF AMERICAN CONEY ISLAND IN DETROIT // PHOTO BY KEITH BURGESS

There are few processed foods more quintessentially Detroit than the coney dog. No doubt, it’s a humble delicacy—a natural-casing hot dog topped with a special beanless chili, mustard, and onions, served on a steamed bun—but you can get them at literally hundreds of coney island restaurants in southeast Michigan. In fact, coneys are such a part of the culinary landscape here, many Michigan ex-pats don’t even figure out that coneys are a Michigan thing until they leave the state. And maybe because we take coneys for granted, no one has ever bothered to untangle the jumbled mess of legend and lore—the kind filled with epic chili wars, secret recipes, and contentious figures like George Todoroff (who claims to have invented the coney dog in Jackson, Mich. in 1914)—that passes for coney history. Finally, however, someone has written the book on coneys. Or at least a book on coneys. Detroit Free Press veterans Joe Grimm and Katherine Yung first decided to tackle the subject a couple years ago, and the result—Coney Detroit (Wayne State University Press, 2012)—is finally shedding some light on the lunch-counter culture that has silently shaped Michigan’s food landscape for nearly a hundred years. Recently, we met up with with Joe and Katherine to talk coneys, Flint versus Detroit dogs, and their quest to track down the coney’s true Greek godfathers.

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Detroit Free Press vets Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm, authors of "Coney Detroit."

KATHERINE YUNG AND JOE GRIMM, AUTHORS OF “CONEY DETROIT.”

Found Michigan: So for this book, how many coney dogs did you eat in the name of research?

Joe: We didn’t keep close track….

Katherine: Well, we kind of estimated that we probably ate more than 500.

FM: 500 each?!

Joe: No! Together. And I think Katherine ate more …

Katherine: Well, yeah, this book was a long process, so it’s not like we did it all in one year. And actually I love coney dogs so much that, for me, if two weeks goes by and I don’t eat a coney dog, I start to have withdrawals. I start to notice that I’m really missing something.

Joe: I think you have a problem.

Katherine: [Laughs] I’ve eaten coney dogs like three or four days in a row before.

Joe: I haven’t had a coney since Wednesday.

FM: You love ‘em that much, huh?

Katherine: Yeah, but I do try to pace myself.

FM: So pacing yourself would be like every other day…?

Joe: Actually, Katherine came back one day and she said “I’ve done a little research and I found out that coneys really aren’t all that healthy for you.”

FM: You’re just discovering this?

Katherine: Well, I have compared coney dogs to a Big Mac, and it’s no worse than a Big Mac …

FM: So that’s your defense?

Joe: Well there’s no mayo on it …

FM: [Laughs] Well anyway, let’s talk about your book. It’s called Coney Detroit, but we actually read, albeit on Wikipedia, that coney islands got their start elsewhere. Is Wikipedia lying again?

Katherine: Well, from the research we did, we were not able to determine exactly where coney dogs originated. The only thing we were able to determine was that there were a number of Greek immigrants in the early part of the 20th century that came to the United States and then went to different states and opened coney islands.

FM: Wait, in states other than Michigan?

Joe: Yeah, there are actually coney islands going back to the 1920s in Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma.

Katherine: So there are just way too many old-fashioned coney islands in different states to pinpoint an exact location or the exact person that started this. I should warn you that a lot of people like to claim they invented the coney dog.

FM: You’re talking about this guy Todoroff, from Jackson?

Katherine: I hate talking about Todoroff because he doesn’t exist anymore.

FM: He doesn’t exist?

Katherine: Their last restaurant went out of business a couple years ago.

Joe: Yeah, he built like a little sensation around himself that I don’t think is accurate. If you believe that the coney dog was invented in Jackson, then you have to prove all these other places that claim similar vintage are wrong. How did the coney island hot dog—that quickly—go from Jackson to Port Huron to St. Petersburg to New Jersey to Texas? How did that happen?

Katherine: Yeah, so it’s still a mystery. But what we do know is that Michigan is the coney capital of the world. Not every state has a coney island. Many states have just one or a few in the whole state.

Two of Michigan’s most storied Coney Islands—American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island—co-exist side by side in downtown Detroit. It’s a tense peace. In the 1960s, the two went to war (and eventually court) over accusations that someone stole heavily guarded chili recipe secrets.

FM: So the real question then is not where coney islands started, but why they blew up in Detroit?

Joe: Yes, that’s the question.

FM: So what are your theories on that?

Joe: Here’s what we think: Only in this state, at the time that coney islands were taking off, did you have the auto industry. It was so busy here that the occupancy rate was over 100 percent. Everything that could be rented was rented, and some of it was rented two or three times a day. If you had a room, you had to be out by 8 o’clock in the morning because another person was coming off his shift and needed your bed. So when Greeks were starting coney islands in lots of states, only Detroit was going crazy. And coney islands were a great thing for a city that was full of young men who wanted a hot meal for not much money, in a hurry.

Katherine: And there’s something about people and hot dogs here, too. Detroit has been really blessed through the decades, because—and I really think this is one of the reasons why we love coney dogs so much—Michigan has a lot of local, family-run hot dog makers. These are places that, for decades, have been making high-quality, premium hot dogs. In fact, Michigan used to have higher quality standards for hot dogs than other states.

FM: Really?

Katherine: Yeah, and to make the coney story more complicated, there are actually two kinds of coney dogs in Michigan: There’s the one we eat here in Detroit and the one in other places like Flint and Jackson.

FM: So what’s the difference?

Katherine: Well the one we eat here in Detroit is topped with a beanless chilli and the one in Flint and Jackson has a loose, dry meat topping.

FM: But there’s more to it than that, right?

Katherine: Yeah, well, I would define a Detroit coney as a grilled natural casing hot dog, with a beanless chili—and there could be many varieties of this beanless chili—with mustard and onions. And the onions have to be chopped—preferably by hand. And it’s gotta be on a warm bun.

Joe: Steamed bun…

Katherine: Right, steamed bun.

Joe: And there’s a certain way they make the buns so they don’t get mushy…

Katherine: It’s a sponge-dough method. It’s an old-fashioned method of making the buns. To have a really great coney, you want the bun to be made the old-fashioned way—the way bakers used to make them.

Joe: We’re not sticklers about sponge dough though.

The quality of Michigan hot dogs is a huge reason coneys became a religion here. In fact, Michigan used to have higher quality standards for hot dogs than other states. Most hot dogs used in Michigan coneys come from just two places—Koegel’s of Flint and Dearborn Sausage.

FM: And the sauce?

Joe: People don’t like to talk about the sauce.

Katherine: Coney islands are really protective about what they put in the beanless chili because that’s what differentiates one coney island from the next. At Jackson Coney Island, for example, there’s only one woman—Lisa—who makes the sauce. She told me that customers come in and try to buy the recipe from the employees. But the secret is so closely guarded that she’s the only one who knows how to do it right.

FM: But is there really that big a difference between coney islands anyway?

Joe: HUGE!

Katherine: Yeah, if you just go around to a lot of coney islands, you’ll find distinct differences.

Joe: I think our official position though is that you should try a lot of coney islands so you can find your coney.

FM: So, how about your top three favorite coney islands?

Katherine: Oh … we can’t do that. We made a pact not to do that because we love coney islands so much. It’s hard to pick favorites.

Joe: We know each other’s favorites though.

FM: So if we follow you around and stalk you …

Joe: … You’ll go to a lot of coneys! The point is: We’re not exclusive. We have an open relationship with the coney island. In fact, on our website, coneydetroit.com, right now we’re doing “100 Coneys in 100 Days.”

FM: Wait, you’re eating a coney dog every day for a hundred days?

Joe: No, that would kill me! I’m visiting them. I’m not eating at all of them.

FM: So one last question: There’s all this talk of tradition, but who says what a true coney dog is anyway?

Joe: We do. Dude, we wrote the book.

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This article was originally published on March 19, 2012. To see if your favorite coney island is on Joe’s “100 Coneys in 100 Days” or to pre-order the book, visit coneydetroit.com. All proceeds from the book benefit Gleaners Community Food Bank of metro Detroit. 

 

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2 Comments

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Ted Fines on March 19, 2012 at 9:05 pm.

I’m hungry!

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