That's the dilemma facing nearly a dozen communities in upstate New York. After a massive prison construction boom...
This isn't the first time...
When I first learned about michigans, I was pretty skeptical. I’m not a north country native, so it's not like I've been eating the gooey hot dogs since birth. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to cover your already meaty hot dog in, well, meat sauce.Why are they called Michigans anyway? And most importantly, what makes a michigan different than a run-of-the-mill chili dog?
Gordie Little gave me a definitive answer. He proclaimed, "A michigan is a cultural institution."
Little is retired now, but he was a radio personality in Plattsburgh for a long time. And 28 years ago, he wrote the authoritative article on michigans in the Plattsburgh Press Republican. We agree that the best way for me to unravel the mystery of michigans is to eat one. So we meet up at Ronnie’s Michigan Stand in West Plattsburgh for lunch. I start to ask Gordie about his michigan expertise when he interrupts me and launches into a story.
"Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, look at this belly and tell me I haven’t had plenty to eat in my day. And when I first arrived in Plattsburgh it was the early 1950s and the Plattsburgh airforce base was being built. And I was a struggling college student trying to make my way and worked on construction. So the first things I found in town were bars . . . and michigans," said Little.
Little says he’s eaten thousands of michigans since, and they haven’t changed too much. The waitress brings us a tray with our hotdogs. They’re nestled in paper containers and loaded up with beef sauce. It’s kind of imposing, but I give it a try. "Alright here we go . . . mmm. I think what I like about this is the onions are crunchy and add a sort of zing," I say with my mouth full.
"They’re not cooked," Little replies.
"Yeah. I like it," I say. "I’m not so sure about the mustard. And the sauce is sweet. . . . it’s almost like a pasta sauce."
"It’s mild, and it’s sweet," says Little, "but it’s very very special. It’s unique!"
So to my surprise, I like the michigan. There are a lot of things that make it at least a little different from a chili dog. For one thing, there's no beans or cheese. The bun is hand-cut at the top and steamed. You can have onions on the top, or you can can have them buried, at the bottom of the bun, beneath the dog and the sauce. Ground beef and tomatoes are staples for the sauce, and a lot people use cumin and chili powder to spice it up.
While I nibble away, Little tells me about the michigan’s origin story. Tales of the hotdog's birth swirled wildly around the city for decades, and everybody claimed it was their mom or uncle who first invented the recipe. So, 28 years ago, Little decided to bust the myth. He started looking through old newspaper advertisements.
"The first reference we could find for michigans occurred in a little shop which was held on the first floor of a local movie theater," Little told me. "The lady’s name was Otis, and she sold michigans in a little stand and the earliest reference we found – and I’m guessing now and I’m old – is 1929."
It was actually 1927. The article that Little wrote says that Mrs. Otis met her husband in Detroit, where meat-slathered hotdogs were popular among Greek immigrants. They moved to Plattsburgh, started a hot dog stand and named their product for the place that they met: Michigan.
But Little says that story could be legend, too. "They’re called michigans for an unknown reason," he said. "Nobody has ever decided why this Mrs. Otis started calling hers michigans. And it’s possible that in the deep dark misty past somebody from Michigan either made the first one or ate the first one here in Plattsburgh."
"Yeah we’ll never know I guess," I say.
"The jury is still out, Mrs. Otis is long dead, I hope she made some money with her michigan sauce!" says Little.
We finish up our hotdogs. I have to admit, my stomach kinda hurts. The michigan, while tasty, isn’t exactly light. I wander into the kitchen to talk to Peggy Rabideau, who’s the manager at Ronnie’s. She tells me what makes their michigan unique.
"It’s the original recipe that Ronnie Jette started in 1959…it’s a sweeter tomato based sauce."
"What’s in it, can I know?" I ask.
"No, it’s a secret!" she replies, grinning.
"Does everybody guard their sauce recipes like very protectively?"
"Definitely," says Rabideau, "that’s what makes them so special."
Rabideau says only she and the owner know the exact combination of spices that go into the sauce. She puts them together at home and then brings them into the restaurant. This, I learn, is common practice at michigan stands. The sauce recipes are closely guarded because the sauce is what makes a michigan a michigan. Little and I decide that I better keep sampling.
If you were to travel to 10 michigan restaurants here in the North Country, you would find that every one tasted different," he says.
"I think I have to do that," I reply.
"I think you should," says Little. "I’ve done it many times. You’re going to have to start jogging, lady!"
So I head south down route 9 to Clare and Carl’s, another michigan joint. The sign says Texas Red Hots in bold letters across the top, and inside, people are sitting at an old-fashioned counter on red stools.
Sue Heller and Lucy Hoit are giddy with anticipation. They’re in town for their 50th college reunion, and are eager to see if the michigan still tastes like they remember.
"We were in summer school that year, our senior year," they explain. "We had classes in the morning and then after that we headed to the beach. We’d pick up a quart of beer…we’d have a hot dog….a michigan! And spend the afternoon at the beach. It was a lot of fun."
The hotdogs arrive, all covered in sauce, all cozy in their little paper baskets. Heller and Hoit each take a bite and smile. Hoit said, "They got it just right. Don’t you think so Sue, they’re just like I remember."
I decide I need to try one more michigan. So I head back north, and get up the courage to eat a michigan at Gus’s. The staff are quick to tell me that their michigan is the best in town. Their sauce is tangy, which I really like.
But it’s not nearly as fun eating a michigan alone. And that’s
when I realize, I’m onto something. The spices, the buried onions, the meat and the sauce: they’re
all part of the michigan experience. But a michigan is one of those tastes as
much about a place and a time as it is about food. I realize that nobody I talked to was eating a michigan alone.
They were with their cousins or their college friends or their motorcycle
Little said, "When I taste a michigan that tastes like those early michigans, I retrieve or regurgitate if you will those great old memories and it’s wonderful."
So, what makes a michigan a michigan? People will tell you it’s all about the sauce. But it’s also a hot summer afternoon in the North Country, when you sit down, talk and laugh with your friends, and take a gooey bite of your favorite hot dog.