Detroit is hundreds of miles from the beaches of New York’s Coney Island. Yet the “coney dog” name can be seen advertising hot dog stands and restaurants city-wide. Detroit is the coney dog capital of the world, with hundreds of businesses devoted to selling them.
Understanding the makeup of a coney is the first step to figuring out how the name for a New York seaside resort came to describe a Midwestern hot dog. A coney dog is a hot dog in a steamed bun, coated in beanless chili with mustard and chopped onions. Coney fans can be forgiven for thinking that the chili-cheese atop their hot dogs has a Mexican origin. But according to Joe Grimm and Katherine Yung, authors of the 2012 book Coney Detroit, the sauce has its roots in spiced Greek red sauce. Which makes sense, because the first “Coney Islands,” in Detroit and beyond, were founded by Macedonian and Greek families almost a century ago.
In the early 1900s, Greek immigrants came to the United States in droves. A global economic crisis in 1893 and wars in Europe led almost a sixth of the Greek population to emigrate, mainly to Egypt and the United States.
Coney Island, in comparison, was booming. Americans had an insatiable appetite for fairs’ and exhibitions’ new foods, rides, and innovations such as the electric light. Many permanent pleasure parks put down stakes on Coney Island, and the massive seaside attraction soon ticked off all the boxes. It had the world’s first roller coaster (Switchback Railway, in 1884) and a park filled with more than a million electric lights (Dreamland, in 1904.) Plus, it kicked off the American craving for hot dogs.
Nathan’s Famous was founded in 1916, when Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker set up shop on the Coney Island corner of Surf and Stillwell streets. Handwerker had worked for another hot dog purveyor down the street and slept on the kitchen floor to save money. When he opened, he sold hot dogs for half as much as his former employer.
At five cents each, the hot dogs quickly became a hit, and they became inextricably associated with Coney Island in popular culture. Yung says she and Grimm heard stories about how early Coney Island proprietors (sellers of hot dogs in Michigan, that…
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