As I am, unquestionably, America’s hot dog authority, and everything you read on the internet is true, there is no reason for you to doubt anything you are about to learn in this post. Spoiler alert. We owe coney island style hot dogs to the Greeks, and more specifically to American Coney Island in Detroit, Michigan.
What is a “coney island style” hot dog? Quality natural casing wiener, on an appropriately sized fresh bun, with special meat sauce, yellow mustard, and diced sweet onion. This is what a hot dog is all about. None of that putting an entire garden on a bun for me, like those fancy pants people in Chicago, with their sport peppers and tomatos! (Lest you think I’m picking on the Windy City, I’m agin’ cole slaw on a dog, as well!).
I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where we had two competing coney island shops. Nothing to compare to the multitudes in the Detroit or Cincinnati areas, but for our small burg, a choice, although as a tot, I couldn’t tell the difference, unless it was the few pennies in price at the time.
No, coney loyalty in my family, if not my town, was decided by my ancestors. Between the two competing outlets, Deluxe Coney Island on West First Street, and Original Coney Island, on East Superior Street, my grandfather preferred Deluxe, often wandering down there after a snit and snort or two at Lofdahl’s bar. So maybe grandpa Paul’s loyalty was simply a geographically based decision – Deluxe was a block west of Lofdahl’s on even terrain; should grandpa have chosen Original, he would have had to return to the office from not only three blocks away, but also having to negotiate a pretty steep hill on his return.After grandad took his turn at Deluxe, it became one of my uncle’s traditions – same habit and timetable as his father, though my uncle’s culinary fascination was bowls of Deluxe’s “chili”, which was actually their coney sauce. Are coney islands “chili dogs?” Although sometimes the phrase is used in marketing coney islands, the two offerings are distinctly different.
My father took his turn on occasion, but skipping the pre-coney beverage time in favor of a daily swim at the YMCA. And in time, my brother and I called Deluxe our lunch (and sometimes the crack of dawn breakfast “six with, to go please”) home. We may have had an additional fondness for the two Greek brothers who owned the joint, they shared the same first names as me and my bro.
My brother and his posse still hit Deluxe on occasion, and when I’m visiting, it’s a sure stop. I love the suckers. Which got me to thinking about the origin of this style of hot dog, as I have hunted them down and consumed massive quantities all over the country, and in a few other countries, all in the name of ‘journalism.’ I’ve sampled the oniony “hot dog sauce” of the south, and witnessed the rivalry between Gold Star and Skyline in Ohio. I’ve made my way around the Detroit shops all in hopes of impressing a woman I was seeing in Ypsilanti for awhile….until I figured out she lived in….Ypsilanti.
So here, folks, is the story of how the coney island style hot dog came to be. Truth.
Thousands of years ago in a remote corner of Greece, in the wee little village of Dara, a relative of Constantine “Gust” Keros, had just finished participating in the early Spring ritual where the children of Dara chased all the mice from the village. The young man was resting, tending his flock, high in the rocky foothills surrounding the village, and was contemplating the distant view of the Aegean. He was sitting beneath an olive tree, having a small nip of Ouzo, and fretting over upcoming family festival preparations. It was a very special occasion, and he wanted to make a big impression on his friends and relatives by preparing a unique dish. He prayed hard for a solution.
All of a sudden, the skies darkened, clouds closed in, lightning flashed, and an apparition appeared before the young lad. It was Dionysus, the Greek god of the wine harvest and of ecstasy. His mouth opened, and in a deafening roar, he said “your prayer is answered, here is a recipe which will cause your guests to moan in ecstasy, and demand you cook this dish over and over again, for generations to enjoy. You, your relatives and descendants, in return for receiving this gift, will accept the mission of spreading this joy worldwide, do you agree?”
The young Greek meekly replied “yes,”, stuffed the recipe into his pocket, and ran off to begin the preparations. The festival was a huge hit, especially the recipe that delivered “the food of the gods”, a uniquely seasoned meat sauce to enhance food or to be served on its own in a bowl.
Centuries passed, and the Keros family kept their promise, spreading the magic meat elixir far and wide, but not around the world, per se, as the rest of the world had yet to be discovered.
As the ages rolled past, in 1903, the Keros family was finally able to start down the path of sharing the wonderful food with the world, when 14 year old “Gust” Keros emigrated to America. Landing at Ellis Island as most European immigrants of the time did, Gus quickly cleared the formalities and headed to shore to experience the wonder of America. One of his first stops? The Coney Island Amusement area, as an American institution as there could ever be. He sampled a hot dog, probably from Feltman’s German Gardens (as Nathan’s wouldn’t come along for another 14 years or so), and it made such an impression on young Gust that he said to himself “someday I will be the king of hot dogs!”
And he set out for Detroit, which had a large Greek immigrant population. He worked whatever jobs he could manage to find, until he saved enough money to purchase and operate a food cart, entering the world of entrerpreneurs a few short years after arriving in America. Prospering, he saved enough to open American Coney Island, in Greektown, downtown Detroit, in 1917, the same year Nathan Handwerker opened his hot dog stand at Coney Island, New York. Gust chose the name to have a very distinct connection with his new beloved homeland.
Gust sold hot dogs and other quick lunches, including bowls of the family secret recipe elixir, which had passed from the Greek gods to Gust’s ancestors and down to family members through the ages. One especially cold Detroit winter day, a customer asked Gust if he might ladle some of the special sauce on his hot dog. Gust added a schmear of yellow mustard, and some chopped sweet onion. And voila! (opa!) the Detroit coney island style hot dog had made it to America, and the family promise to the ancient Greek gods had been fulfilled!
Over the years, many people have tried to imitate the Keros recipe, but they will forever be known as ‘also rans’, no matter their claims. The only place to get a true coney island style hot dog is at the establishment that invented them, American Coney Island in Detroit, Michigan, in the very same location that Gust opened in 1917. Prosperity has enabled them to open a second location in Las Vegas, Nevada. Additional outlets can be found at Ford Field, the Detroit Zoo, and Canton, MI.
In order to fulfill their ancient promise, if either Detroit or Las Vegas are geographically off the beaten path for you, the Keros family makes a complete coney kit that is available to be shipped right to your door. You can even use the kits for some very creative fund-raising for your organization!
As the Keros family was kind enough to send me a kit, I am going to whip up some coneys at my house, and I hope I do an adequate job of remaining faithful to the family preparation method.
Since the beginning of operations, American Coney Island has sourced their special wieners, coney sauce, and buns locally from Detroit suppliers. I could tell you where, but Grace Keros, one of the current family members entrusted with the ancient secret said if I did, she’d make me sit in a tub of coney sauce in the middle of American Coney Island and customers could take turns pelting hot dogs at me. So I would never, ever………………wait a second….. that doesn’t sound so awful……so the secret suppliers are…………
(Tomorrow: the conclusion – cooking up American Coneys from their kit!)
American Coney Island