The origin of the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story
The hot dog is a classic American food. It is connected to Coney Island. Coney Island is America's most storied amusement resort. Hot dogs have been connected to Coney Island since frankfurter first met bun.
Nathan's century-old triumph of entrepreneurship is only part of the Ellis-Island-meets-Coney-Island story. The name "Coney Island hot dog" means one thing in New York and it means another in the Midwest and beyond. This is thanks to immigrants from both Northern and Eastern Europe.
Historians disagree on the hot dog's origin story. But many credit Charles Feltman. He was a Coney Island pie-wagon vendor. He is credited with inventing the fast food. He served hot dachshund sausages in milk rolls as early as 1867.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says Feltman opened a hot dog stand on Coney Island. This was in 1871. He sold 3,684 sausages that year. Sausages took Feltman far. By the turn of the century, he'd gone upscale. He created Feltman's German Gardens. It was a huge complex of restaurants on Surf Avenue. It employed 1,200 waiters. Seafood became Feltman's specialty. But he still had seven grills dedicated to hot dogs. In the 1910s, he sold them for ten cents apiece.
Nathan Handwerker was a Polish immigrant. He had a day job as a restaurant delivery boy. He worked Sunday afternoons at Feltman's German Gardens. His job was slicing rolls. According to Handwerker's 1974 New York Times obituary, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman’s. They told him to sell hot dogs for a nickel instead of a dime. Durante and Cantor worked as singing waiters on Coney Island before they found fame.
In 1916, he did just that. He opened a small hot-dog stand with his wife. The stand was at Surf and Stillwell. The subway's extension to Coney Island in 1920 brought countless New Yorkers to his stand.
"Society people and politicians. Actors and sportsmen flocked to Nathan's." That is according to the obituary. "They brushed shoulders with truck drivers, laborers, and housewives."
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously served Nathan's hot dogs at a 1936 lawn party. It was for Britain's George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. She was the mother of the now-reigning Queen Elizabeth II.
Outside New York, the Coney Island name evokes an entirely different hot-dog tradition. In Michigan, "Coney Island" doesn't mean an amusement park. Instead, it is but one of an estimated 500 diners in the Metro Detroit area alone. They serve Greek food and "Coney dogs." Coney dogs are hot dogs smothered in chili or ground beef. They also have mustard and onions. There are plenty more diners elsewhere in Michigan, across the Midwest and beyond.
The Coney dog was spread across the eastern U.S. by various Greek and Macedonian immigrants. That was in the 1900s and 1910s. The restaurant owners were part of the great wave of Greek migration to the U.S. This included 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919. They fled the economic ruin. It was caused by Greece's 1893 bankruptcy and a crash in the price of currants. Back then, currants were Greece's main export.
"Many of them passed through New York's Ellis Island. They heard about or visited Coney Island. They later borrowed this name for their hot dogs, according to one legend." That's according to Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm in their 2012 book “Coney Detroit.”
In that era, Americans associated New York's Coney Island with hot dog realness. Back then, the name "hot dog" was out of favor. This was amid the concern about meat-packing standards inspired by an Upton Sinclair's book. It is called “The Jungle.” It still carried a hint of suggestion that the cheap sausages were made of dog meat. Handwerker called them "red hots" and others "Coney Island hots."
Naming the inventor of the Coney dog – the first person to slather chili or sprinkle ground beef on a sausage – is a fool's errand. Various Coney Island restaurants in Michigan and Indiana vie for the title. They claim founding dates in the mid-1910s. But they don't appear in city directories from the era until the 1920s. Many Greeks and Macedonians likely hit upon the idea of dressing hot dogs in variations on saltsa kima. This is their homeland's spicy tomato-based meat sauce.
"The Coney Island's formidable beef topping with a sweet-hot twang has a marked Greek accent." That's according to Jane and Michael Stern in their 2009 book “500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late.”
It's easy, though, to locate the Coney dog's ground zero. The Midwest's version of Surf and Stillwell. That would be the corner of West Lafayette Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Detroit.
Today, Nathan's is an international chain, with more than 300 restaurants and stands. They are mostly on the East Coast. It's added a chili dog to its menu. Coney Island blogger and historian Michael Quinn is bringing back the Feltman's red-hots brand. They went extinct with Feltman's restaurant in 1954. He's teamed up with a sausage-maker to make a red hot in tribute to the original. He's selling them at pop-up events. In a history-minded revenge, Quinn sells hot dogs for half of Nathan's price.