As big as us Michiganders are on our coney dogs, few us actually know where the coney dog was invented. Oh sure, most would probably guess Detroit if asked, or – more specifically – American Coney Island, but then they’d be terribly wrong. Every real mustard-stained coney aficionado knows that Jackson, Michigan, was the true birthplace of the coney, and that Greek immigrant George Todoroff was the One Man, the Father, the Almighty Maker of chili and steamed buns.
Legend has it Todoroff created his now famous coney sauce in 1914, when he first opened Jackson Coney Island. At the time, Jackson was booming as a parts supplier for the emerging auto industry, a veritable perfect storm of low-brow tastes and money. Jackson’s factory workers wanted quick, affordable food, and coney dogs fit the bill perfectly. Overnight, an institution was born.
Indeed, in just a few short years, Coney Islands dotted Michigan like greasy pimples on a hormonal teenager, from Monroe and Kalamazoo to all points north. But no other city made ’em quite like Jackson. Detroit’s diners opted for a saucier chili, while Flint’s restaurateurs insisted on fancy all-natural casings that snap when bitten into. How pretentious.
Jackson’s take remained a little more primitive, befitting its status as the faithful originator. In Jackson, the hot dogs are more mystery meat than natural-casing beef dogs. The chili is dry, drier even than on a Flint-style coney, like a pile of ground beef. And the onions – my God, the onions! My eyes about popped out of my head when I first saw the mountain of finely chopped onions on top of the coneys at Jackson Coney Island. These guys don’t mess around! Some real tears must go into onions diced like this in such quantities – combined with the sweat from the brows of the overworked cooks and the residual traces of blood in the meat, you basically have the perfect trifecta of true dedication.
It’s hard to mess up a coney, and Jackson Coney Island’s coneys are predictably good. The hot dog itself is admittedly average, but the chili has a heartiness to it, a satisfying potpourri of beef heart and fat with a touch of savory spices. And yes, sometimes the onions are a bit overpowering, but the expertly applied mustard underneath generally helps offset the sharpness. While I wouldn’t call the Jackson-style coney my favorite, it at least makes for a venerable entry into the pantheon of hallowed Michigan coney recipes.
Interestingly enough, Jackson Coney Island has a competitor a few doors down called Virginia Coney Island, but to tell you the truth, I can’t taste the difference between the two. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the locals from the UAW Local and Jackson State Prison from debating which is better. The Jackson Patriot even had an impassioned vote on it, with Virginia Coney Island finishing first.
In Jackson – a classic industrial Michigan town – Coney Islands are the de facto gathering places. Which one you patronize regularly is a big deal. After all, how often are you really going to visit places like the Jackson Symphony Orchestra Performing Arts Center with your buddies, to listen politely as converted car mufflers belch out impassioned renditions of Mozart sonatas?
No, a Coney Island suites the majority of life’s moments just fine. And at such establishment it’s the intangibles that add up, like a waiter that never gets your order wrong and tops off your coffee without being asked, or a seat that fits your ass just right. And history, too. That’s what’s important.
Now, if I only I could still use that last notch on my belt….