The Annals of Geographically Confused Foods: Michigan Hot Dogs from New York | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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The Annals of Geographically Confused Foods: Michigan Hot Dogs from New York

The legend of the michigan is as murky as the water in a hot-dog vendor's cart at the end of the day

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The origin of the michigan hot dog is murky (courtesy of flickr user scaredy_kat)

It’s taken me all summer, plus the six years I’ve lived in Northern New York, to finally taste the region’s signature warm-weather specialty: michigan hot dogs, also known simply as michigans. That’s michigan, lowercase m—though some cap it—as opposed to the state, where these franks topped with spicy meat sauce are emphatically not from.

Unless they are. Like most food-origin stories, the legend of the michigan is as murky as the water in a hot-dog vendor’s cart at the end of the day. One widely accepted version has it that Eula and Garth Otis, who opened Plattsburgh, New York’s first michigan stand in the 1920s, were from Michigan. Another claims that it was a different Michiganer, George Todoroff, who first brought the secret recipe to Coney Island before it made its way to the northern reaches of the Empire State. Locals don’t much care for the latter story, or anything else equating their beloved heartburn-on-a-steamed-bun to other weenie varieties. They will insist it is not a chili dog, though the uninitiated could be excused for being unable to differentiate. That every michigan recipe seems to be a secret doesn’t help matters. Some say allspice is the key to the unique flavor of the tomato-based ground beef sauce; others say it’s cinnamon, or cumin or cider vinegar or—you get the point.

In any case, don’t try to order a michigan in Michigan, or outside of a 100-mile radius of Plattsburgh, lest you be greeted with blank stares. If your travels do bring you to the North Country—the most likely scenario being that you are en route to Montreal—there are dozens of spots where you can give the dogs a go: Gus’ Red Hots is conveniently located near the ferry to Vermont. (The grammar nerd in me always wants to add an “s” after the apostrophe on their sign, so that the name doesn’t appear to be the plural possessive of Gu.) Clare and Carl’s Texas Red Hots, established in the 1940s, adds yet another unrelated geographic reference into the mix. Red hots, by the way, refer to the snappy, nuclear-red casings used in a locally produced brand of hot dogs, which are typical but not required in a michigan. Chopped onions—ask for them “buried” if you want them under the sauce—and a bit of mustard are considered appropriate finishing touches.

I chose to finally try a michigan at Woody’s Brats and Hots, a seasonal stand in Lake Placid, because it is the one and only place that makes a meatless version. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat beef, a restriction that had previously precluded my eating a michigan. In any case, I’ve always found meat-on-meat a little vulgar, or at least overkill, and the same goes for fake meat on fake meat. I prefer my (turkey or tofu) hot dog topping to provide some contrast, like the crunchy zip of sauerkraut. My faux michigan was pretty good, but probably not something I’d crave.

To be fair, judging all michigans by a soy version is a little like basing an opinion of chocolate on carob. So you’ll just have to take the word of my more carnivorous neighbors.

About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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