A Michigan is a "stick to your ribs" kind of food: A beef or pork hot dog, or sometimes a Malone-made Glazier, slathered in mustard, onions, and a rich meat sauce. The michigan first appeared in Plattsburgh in the 1920s and has a storied history in the Champlain Valley.
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. And why are they called michigans anyway? And most importantly, what makes a michigan different than a run-of-the-mill chili dog?
Retired radio personality Gordie Little says the michigan is a “cultural institution.” And he’d know, because 28 years ago, Little wrote the authoritative article on michigans in the Plattsburgh Press Republican. When I first speak to Little, 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 Air Force 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.”
Little says he’s eaten thousands of michigans since, and they haven’t changed too much. The waitress brings us a tray with our hot dogs. They’re nestled in paper containers and loaded up with beef sauce. It’s kind of imposing, but I give it a try, and to my surprise, I like it.
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 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 hot dog's birth swirled wildly around the city for decades, and everybody claimed it was his or her 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 earliest reference he could find to michigans was in a little shop on the first floor of a local movie theatre. "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…The jury is still out, Mrs. Otis is long dead, I hope she made some money with her michigan sauce!"
We finish up our hotdogs. I have to admit, my stomach hurts a little. 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, a sweeter tomato-based sauce that’s the original used since 1959. But anything more detailed than that, she tells me, is a secret.
She tells me guarding michigan sauce recipes is the norm—“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, and that if I’m going to keep trying all these michigans, I might want to take up jogging.
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 dogs 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 members 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. The spices, the buried onions, the meat and the sauce, sure, 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 buddies.
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.