In our Michigan Moments: Food series, we’re checking out the history behind iconic Michigan foods and beverages. This is the seventh article of the series. Look for a new one every Wednesday!
MICHIGAN—Midwestern cooking often combines culinary traditions from our families’ immigrant backgrounds, locally grown and produced ingredients, and the foods of Indigenous tribes. And in Michigan especially, our home cookin’ includes provisions that were concocted, bottled, and packaged by mitten-state entrepreneurs. If you’re curious about the history of some of your favorite foods and beverages, read on to discover how Michigan history creates Michigan culture.
It seems you can’t throw a rock in Michigan without hitting a Coney Island restaurant.
These diners serve up a Michigander favorite, the coney dog—a beef frankfurter with a steamed bun, covered in a beanless meat chili and topped with diced white onions and yellow mustard. Though often called the Detroit-style hot dog, the coney dog didn’t really come from Detroit.
Culinary legends state the cuisine was the product of Greek and Macedonian immigrants. At the beginning of the 20th century, the immigrants passed through New York’s Ellis Island on their way to America. On the way, they often stopped by the Coney Island amusement park, which sold America’s first hot dogs. Multiple immigrants later brought the Coney Dog to Michigan, resulting in slightly different variations—and the distinct Michigan nostalgia—that persist today.
The Mid-Michigan town of Jackson holds a possible claim to fame as the home of the state’s first Coney Island. Macedonia immigrant George Todoroff opened Todoroff’s Original Coney Island there in 1914. Originally, the Jackson coney was sold at the Jackson Train Station, where both passengers and workers alike enjoyed Todoroff’s creation—served up 24 hours a day.
Coney Island Kalamazoo—which bills itself as the city’s “original hot dog stand”—opened in 1915 and remains the oldest continuously operating Coney Island restaurant in Michigan.
Perhaps the more famous Coney Island origin story involves a century-old family feud in Detroit. Two Greek immigrant brothers, Gust Keros and William Keros, started the two most popular Coney Islands side-by-side, and the debate as to which is better rages on to this day.
Gust may have been selling Coney Dogs even earlier than Todoroff, as he sold hot dogs from his street cart shortly after his immigration in 1903. In 1917, he opened American Coney Island and brought his brother, William Keros, to America a few years later. In 1924, William opened Lafayette Coney Island next door, where both remain to this day. William’s Lafayette Coney supposedly used a family recipe for their beefier chili sauce, while Gust’s American Coney had a spicier sauce. Both Food Wars and Man v. Food have now featured the two feuding restaurants.
Coney dogs are relatively similar regardless of which Coney Island you find them, but the chili-like sauce is perhaps the most distinct difference between variations. The Flint and Jackson styles eschew drenching dogs as the Detroit tradition dictates, instead opting for drier loose-meat sauces, which was created by Macedonian immigrant Sam Brayan in 1919. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also find a variation that uses cheese sauce and a hard corn shell.
The drier sauce uses beef hearts, making Jackson the top beef heart consumer in the nation.
Regardless of which style you prefer or from which place you prefer it from, you haven’t truly experienced Michigan cuisine until you’ve had the Coney Island experience and all the Americana nostalgia that comes with it. Third-generation American Coney owner, Grace Keros, calls the Coney Island experience “delightfully tacky”—but we just can’t get enough of them.
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