Image: When you write about Coneys, you have to have some
Cincinnati-style chili is inarguably unique to our area because, well, it's right there in the name. However, we are not alone in our enjoyment of Coneys. Around here, of course, a Coney is a hot dog topped with Cincinnati-style chili, cheese, and perhaps onion mustard if one is so inclined. Sorted.
In other parts of the country, Coneys are enjoyed in a variety of ways, though most are somewhat similar to what you’ll find in the Tristate. In fact, the concept predates the introduction of Cincinnati chili by a few years.
As the name implies, the concept it traces its roots back to Coney Island amusement park in New York. Well, sort of. Around the turn of the century, newly-arrived Greek and Macedonian immigrants in New York were selling hot dogs at Coney Island in Brooklyn, among other places around the Big Apple. These hot dogs were often covered with meat sauces made from recipes brought from the Old World.
They became Coneys when, according to The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, New York health officials feared people would think hot dogs were made of actual dogs. This notion was fueled by the 1906 book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair which exposed the unsanitary practices of the meat packing industry.
At about this same time, Greek and Macedonian immigrants were moving to other parts of the United States. Many opened eateries where they served up, among other things, hot dogs covered with meat sauce.
These meat covered hot dogs, even in places far from New York City, were called Coneys. One theory for this holds that the immigrant hot dog sellers also used the name Coney in their new Midwestern hometowns so as to seem less foreign. Also, the recipes, while all from the same region of the Balkans, varied slightly from place to place in the U.S. as different influences found their way into the mix.
In Ft. Wayne, for example, the sauce is a spicy sausage-based mix. In Flint, Michigan it’s thick ground beef made primarily from beef hearts, almost like Texas chili in its consistency, but with Balkan-inspired ingredients as opposed to south of the border spices.
In Detroit, two competing stands, American Coney and Lafayette Coney, sit right next to each other and have since before 1920. Apparently, Lafayette was started when the Keros brothers, Gust and William, had a falling out. William, it goes, stormed out to open the rival stand. Others say there was no split and that Gust, who founded American, brought his brother William over from Greece and helped him set up his own operation, Lafayette. Still, others say it was the other way around and that William brought Gust over.
In any case, Detroit Coneys are similar to ours but in consistency only. And they don’t put cheese on theirs. In fact, they have little patience for our Coney shenanigans. Mike Dell, the host of the Michigan-based podcast, The History of Fast Food, states in an episode about Coneys that ours aren’t real Coneys, perhaps oblivious to the fact that we put the word “cheese” right in front of it. We all seem to agree that mustard and onion are acceptable topping options.
Cincinnati, oddly, sometimes gets left out of the Coney conversation probably because our chili/meat sauce was first put over spaghetti, and of course still is, with the Coneys coming a few years later. To further confuse matters, we also have a Coney Island amusement park.
Duluth, Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota also have a rich Coney heritage, though some Mexican-style spices have crept into the recipe of the latter. Duluth's Original Coney Island restaurant closed on 2017, and Coney fans are still mourning that loss.
Even in the heart of Tex-Mex chili/chili con carne, the Greek, and Macedonian Coneys thrive. Which brings us to the distinction between a chili dog and Coney. Traditionally, a chili dog is topped with chili con carne and often topped with, oh, look, cheese. A Coney, on the other hand, is topped with a thinner meat sauce, usually from a recipe of Greek or Macedonian origin.
Therein lies another culinary debate. But we’ll leave that to the chili dog crowd.