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August 2012

Michigans

To enjoy this North Country specialty you have to get sauced

Illustration by Hawk Krall*

TRAVELING ALONG THE Champlain Valley or across the northern Adi­rondacks, there’s no quicker way to stamp “outsider” on your forehead than to saunter up to a screened takeout window and ask for a chili dog. If you’re craving a spicy condiment around these parts, you’d best order a michigan. Better still, ask for one “with, buried” (code for onions tucked under the sauce or dog) and you’ll be taken as a bona fide native.

As if what’s inside a hot dog isn’t mystery enough, North Country folks have layered on another enigma. What does a meat-blanketed hot dog, born in Clinton County and available almost exclusively in northern New York, have to do with a state 500 miles away? Who created it? How is it made?

Ask a dozen locals those questions and you’re sure to get a dozen answers. Most can agree that michigans are garnished with a thick hamburger-based sauce, a mix of tomato puree and spices that’s simmered for hours. (Sure, it’s similar to a chili dog, but a michigan is never, ever contaminated with beans or cheese. Onions and a squiggle of yellow mustard are the only sanctioned additions.) The hot dog variety is of secondary importance, although purists insist on red-skinned Glazier’s from Malone. Buns are steamed top-loaders—similar to New England–style, but sturdier. When the operation that once made michigan rolls for regional restaurants went belly-up, it caused an epic bun crisis. The resulting flood of sauce-and-onion overflows was only stanched after a new bakery resumed production of the custom foundations.

Riffs on the basic michigan recipe vary from town to town and family to family. Clans can be territorial and dismissive of neighboring knock-offs, and almost everyone claims access to an authentic formula cooked up by one of Plattsburgh’s earliest stands: Nitzi’s (est. 1935), Clare & Carl’s (est. 1942), Gus’s (est. 1951) or Ronnie’s (est. 1959).

Plattsburgh, a few bun-lengths outside the Blue Line, is the uncontested epicenter of the michigan movement, though how the delicacy made its debut isn’t clear. There are about as many creation stories as there are fake se­cret recipes traded around the area (my own Clare & Carl’s counterfeit included; see page 54).

One account stars frankfurter entrepreneur George Todoroff, who, some believe, moved from Jackson, Michigan, to Coney Island, New York, in the early 20th century. Todoroff took the place’s signature snack—Coney Island is often tagged as the birthplace of the hot dog—and slapped a chili-like sauce on it. Soon a traveling salesman with a regular route be­tween New York City and Montreal introduced the Michigan native’s treat to his favorite stopping places in Plattsburgh. Another yarn claims Plattsburgh residents “Nitzi” Rabin and his wife discovered Todoroff’s zesty franks while on vacation. They loved them so much they brought the idea back home, opening Nitzi’s near the shore of Lake Champlain.

Rabin did run an early michigan stand on Route 9 and George Todoroff, of Jackson, Michigan, was a coney dog pioneer. But just about everything else surrounding those tales is bunkum. Since Todoroff never left Michigan, where he founded the Jackson Coney Island restaurant in 1914, no one could have hijacked his saucy creation from New York City’s amusement capital. Besides, as Press-Republican columnist Gordie Little points out in a myth-busting exposé, michigans hit the Plattsburgh scene almost a decade before the Rabins set up shop.

Eula and Garth Otis, Little explains, first hyped their “Michigan Hot-Dog Stand” in a 1927 newspaper ad. And, as it turns out, the couple was from Detroit, where meat-topped hot dogs peddled by Greek immigrants were all the rage. Rabin admitted the connection in a 1984 Press-Republican article: “Nitzi said his sauce came from Mrs. Eula Otis, who first coined the name ‘michigans.’… She met her husband in Detroit, Mich., where she learned to make meat sauce, and they moved to Plattsburgh in the 1920s.”

So the North Country’s most iconic dish is descended from Midwestern Greek immigrants. Its cousins include the Flint Coney (a closer relation than versions in neighboring Detroit that sport beef hearts and, I’m told, a distinct offal taste) and Hot Texas Weiners (which are actually from New Jersey—don’t get me started). But there’s only one michigan, and whatever magic those Plattsburgh pioneers sprinkled into their pots made it wholly our own.

The Secret’s in the Sauce
You can find about a googol michigan recipes online with as many combinations of spices. True to their Greek roots, most call for cumin—and some even include allspice or paprika—plus chili powder, black pepper and more. A popular (but now long-gone) place on Chazy Lake pepped its up with chipotle. There’s also a faction that prefers vinegar and brown sugar over spicier mixes, though that’s a camp I can’t support.

Some natives of Port Henry insist that Gene’s Michigans, a local institution since 1948, adds cabbage to its sauce. Current owner Walt Wojewodzic says he asked the family about that rumor when he bought their secret formula. “Hell, no” was the response.

I was born in Plattsburgh, so my recipe came from a friend whose mother’s sister knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Clare Warn, founder of the venerable Clare & Carl’s. But Terry Spiegel, Clare’s granddaughter-in-law, who now runs the stand, confirms what I had always suspected: no one else in the universe—not even her own employees—knows Clare’s tasty tricks.

Doesn’t matter. I’ve spent almost 20 years conforming the original index card to my own specifications, adding prepared mustard, substituting fresh onions and garlic, and throwing in beer, cider vinegar, hot peppers or wild leeks according to mood or season. For those of you who don’t know a guy who knows a guy, just mix up the in­gredients scrawled to the right. Make sure to add the ground beef raw—never trust a mich­igan recipe that calls for browned hamburger—and simmer on low heat for one to two hours. How you warm your weenies or steam your buns is your own business.

*Love the michigans illustration? Buy the T-shirt!

You can pick up a saucy dog just about anywhere in the Champlain Valley; or along Route 3, from Plattsburgh to Tupper Lake; or on Routes 9N and 86, from Keeseville to Lake Placid. Below is just a sampling of stands; since most are open seasonally, call for hours.

Clare & Carl’s
Route 9, Plattsburgh, (518) 561-1163

Devin’s Deli
Route 9N, Jay, (518) 946-2235

Ethel’s Dew Drop Inn
Route 22, Willsboro, (518) 963-8389

Gene’s Michigan Stand
Route 9N, Port Henry, (518) 546-7292

Gus’s Red Hots
Cumberland Head Road, Plattsburgh
(518) 561-3711‎

Hometown Deli & Bakery
Route 9N, Au Sable Forks, (518) 647-5338

Kelly’s Kitchen
Pleasant Street, Keeseville, (518) 834-6028

Little Supermarket
Route 86, Wilmington, (518) 946-2274

McSweeney’s Red Hots
Route 9S, Plattsburgh (former site of Nitzi’s)
(518) 561-1133, www.mcsweeneysredhots.com

Ronnie’s Michigan Stand
Route 3, Plattsburgh, (518) 561-3879

Skyline Ice Cream & Food
Route 30, Tupper Lake, (518) 359-7288

Teddy’s Ice Cream
Route 3, Bloomingdale, (518) 524-7088

Whitebrook Dairy Bar
Route 86, Wilmington, (518) 946-8383

Wind-Chill Factory
Route 9N, Ticonderoga, (518) 585-3044

Woody’s Brats and Hots
(home of the world’s only vegetarian michigan)
Parked across from Olympic Center, Lake Placid
(518) 524-8625

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One Response to “Michigans”

  1. Make your own michigans « All In Says:

    [...] If you want to give michigans a try at home, whip up one of these not-so-secret sauces. The first is from Gordie Little's wife, Kaye. He warned me that it's spicy and packs a real punch. The second is a less traditional sauce by Adirondack Life reporter Niki Kourofsky that's  featured in NCPR's Stories, Food, Life cookbook. And check out Niki's entertaining and thorough exploration of North Country michigan culture here. [...]