The origin of the Coney Island hot dog is a uniquely American story
The hot dog is a quintessentially American food. It has been associated with Coney Island, America's most storied amusement resort. Hot dogs have been associated with Coney Island since frankfurter first met bun. But Nathan's century-old triumph of entrepreneurship is only part of the Ellis-Island-meets-Coney-Island story. Thanks to immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe alike, the name "Coney Island hot dog" means one thing in New York and it means another in the Midwest and beyond.
Historians disagree on the hot dog's origin story. But many credit Charles Feltman. He was a Coney Island pie-wagon vendor who 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 in 1871. He sold 3,684 sausages that year. Sausages took Feltman far and by the turn of the century, he'd gone upscale. He created Feltman's German Gardens, a huge complex of restaurants. It was on Surf Avenue and 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 slicing rolls. According to Handwerker's 1974 New York Times obituary, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor encouraged Handwerker to strike out from Feltman's and 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, 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 for Britain's George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. She is the late mother of the now-reigning Queen Elizabeth II.
But 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, plus 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 in the 1900s and 1910s. The restaurateurs were part of the great wave of Greek migration to the U.S. that included 343,000 people between 1900 and 1919. They fled the economic desolation 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 authenticity. Back then, the name "hot dog" was out of favor; amid the concern about meat-packing standards inspired by Upton Sinclair's book “The Jungle.” It still carried a hint of suggestion that the cheap sausages were made of dog meat. Handwerker called them "red hots," 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, claiming 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, 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," wrote 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: 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, mostly on the East Coast. It's added a chili dog to its menu. Coney Island blogger and historian Michael Quinn is reviving the Feltman's red-hots brand, which went extinct with Feltman's restaurant in 1954. He's teamed up with a sausage-maker to make a red hot in homage to the original, which he's selling at pop-up event