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Coney: The Hot Dog That Fueled Detroit's Middle-Class Dreams

Hundreds of eateries selling chili-topped hot dogs dot Detroit. The story of how this food became the city’s signature dish is deeply entwined with its auto industry and the workers who flocked to it.

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Photos: David Gilkey/NPR

What does it mean to be middle class in America? Nearly a century ago, in Detroit — which was then the burning core of the country’s middle class — the answer might have looked like a hot dog: a Detroit Coney, to be precise.

At its most basic, a Detroit Coney is a kind of chili dog — “a steamed bun, with a natural-casing hot dog, beef and pork,” explains Joe Grimm, author of the book Coney Detroit. “And on top of that hot dog — which should be grilled, not boiled, not deep-fried — goes the sauce, the most important part.”

All along the streets of Detroit, you see big neon signs advertising Coneys — a word that refers not just to the hot dogs but to the hundreds of eateries that sell them. Eateries like Red Hots Coney Island, which has been serving up Coneys since 1921.

Owner Rich Harlan has been working there for 48 years. He says his great-aunt and -uncle started the restaurant after immigrating to Michigan from Greece. “We are a block away from the first assembly plant that was made by Ford Motor Co.,” Harlan says. “That’s how they got started.”

Indeed, the story of how the Coney became Detroit’s signature dish is deeply entwined with the history of the city’s auto industry.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Detroit teemed with workers drawn there by Henry Ford’s promise of a $5-a-day wage. “People came here from around the world to get that money,” Grimm says. As a result, “the [city’s] occupancy rate went over 100 percent.” Housing became so tight that rooms were sometimes rented for eight-hour stints — long enough for one renter to sleep while another occupant was working a shift at the Ford factory, Grimm says.

“They called that hot boxing,” Grimm explains, “because the sheets never cooled off. So you had all these men living here, and they didn’t have any place to be when they weren’t at work. So they went around the city looking for hot lunches, fast lunches. And so we had a lot of lunch-counter-style restaurants.”

Coneys blossomed in this atmosphere. As The Salt has reported, among those streaming into Detroit during this era were newly arrived Greek immigrants like Harlan’s great-aunt and great-uncle. But before heading to Michigan, they first had to pass through New York’s Ellis Island — “not too far from the famed amusements of Coney Island, where Nathan Handwerker was already peddling his famous hot dogs.”

These Greek immigrants, Grimm notes, saw the hot dog as an all-American food — one perfectly suited to the demands of bustling Detroit. And hot dogs, he says, were a relatively cheap business to break into, especially for workers with limited English skills.

“So I think they said, ‘We’re gonna make the hot dogs we saw people eating when we got here, and we’re gonna add this sauce to it,’ ” he says of the Coney’s signature chili sauce. “If you go to Greece, you can’t find a Coney Island. But you’ll find something called a red sauce, and I think this is descended from that Greek red sauce.”

Coney fever took off. In the 1920s and ‘30s, says Harlan, Detroit workers with “20 minutes or so for lunch” would cram into Red Hots and similar Coney shops.

“You could see them swarming here to get two hot dogs,” Harlan says. “And they would run to the bar, which was across the street, get a shot and a beer, and then run to the plant and read their paper and eat their two hot dogs. Because they were not to be late or you got fired, back then.”

Carol Harlan, Rich’s wife and co-owner of Red Hots, says that “back in its heyday, this little Coney was open 24 hours a day — didn’t even have a lock on the door.”

“When they could hear that whistle blow at the Ford plant,” she adds, “they would put two Coneys in a bag and set them on the steam table. And the guys would run in, throw their money in a box — it was all honor system — and just grab the bag of Coneys and run back, because they were not gonna be late for work.”

This story is part of The New Middle, a series examining what it means to be middle class in America.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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