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A Michigan hot dog, or "Michigan", is a steamed hot dog on a steamed bun topped with a meaty sauce, generally referred to as "Michigan Sauce". The sauce may or may not be tomato-based (but in its contemporary form in Northern New York is not a chili), depending on where the Michigan is purchased. Michigans can be served with or without chopped onions. If served with onions, the onions can either be buried under the sauce, under the hotdog itself, or sprinkled on top of the sauce.
Michigans are a particular favorite in the North Country of New York State, and have been so for many decades. Their popularity soon spread to New York City where they remain a fast food staple. In fact, one of the earliest known advertisements for Michigans appeared in the Friday, May 27, 1927, Plattsburgh Republican.
Michigans are also very popular in Montreal and other parts of Quebec, where the sauce that is put on them is invariably tomato-based and is often simply referred to as "spaghetti sauce". Lafleur Restaurants, a Quebec fast food chain, is known for its Michigans and poutine.
Oddly enough, "Michigan hot dogs" are never referred to by that name in Michigan itself, nor anywhere else in the Midwest. A similar food item, the Coney Island hot dog or "Coney dog", is a hot dog topped with onions and either chili or a beanless chili called coney sauce. Conversely, the "Coney Island" is not called as such on Coney Island, or anywhere else in New York State; it's called either a "Michigan" or a "Red Hot."
Although there are many different varieties of Michigan sauce available today, the original Michigan sauce was created by Mr. George Todoroff in Jackson, Michigan. The sauce was originally created to be used as Chili sauce on Coney Island hot dogs. In 1914, Mr. Todoroff founded the Jackson Coney Island restaurant and created his Coney Island Chili Sauce recipe. He retired in 1945. His son, Thomas Todoroff used George's Chili sauce recipe in his restaurants from 1936 to 1971 when he retired from the restaurant business. His grandson, Richard Todoroff, used George's Chili sauce recipe in his restaurants from 1958 to 2002 when he retired from the restaurant business. His great-grandson, Kurt Todoroff, used George's Chili sauce recipe in his restaurant from 2001 to 2008. Kurt closed his Todoroff's® Original Coney Island restaurant in 2008. Kurt still uses the original Chili sauce recipe (and the original Chili Con Carne recipe) in his food manufacturing company Todoroff Foods Incorporated.
In 1867, Charles Feltman, a German born immigrant, was selling pastry items from a small food cart at Coney Island. To make any money, he needed to sell a lot of food from a small space. His idea was to take a hard roll, steam it and wrap it around a German sausage. At that time, sports cartoonist Tad Dorgan caricatured German figures as Dachshund dogs and eventually coined Feltman’s sandwich a "Hot Dog"! The hot dog was a big hit and it didn’t take Todoroff long to capitalize on combining the hot dog and his chili sauce.
The name of the Michigan hotdog originally came from Plattsburgh, New York. However, how and when the Michigan Sauce arrived there is somewhat of a mystery. As mentioned above, the earliest known advertisement for Michigans appeared in the Friday, May 27, 1927, Plattsburgh Daily Republican. The ad announced the, "Opening of the Michigan Hot-Dog Stand Tuesday May 24, located between the two dance halls...."
It has been surmised that the hot dog stand mentioned may be the same one mentioned in the Plattsburgh Sentinel on Sept. 16, 1927, as being owned by a Mr. Garth C. Otis:
"Garth C. Otis has leased the quarters in the Plattsburgh Theatre building formerly occupied as the Locomobile salesroom in which place he will conduct an eating, place under the name of the Michigan Hot Dog and Sandwich Shop opening Saturday. Mexican chili con came will be one of the specialties. Mr. Otis promises a first class place for those who desire short order lunches."
That said, its also been reported that the Plattsburgh origin of the "Michigan" name came from Plattsburgh residents, Jack Rabin and his wife, who discovered the Jackson Coney Island Hot Dog while vacationing in Coney Island, fell in love with it, and subsequently recreated the sauce at Nitzi's, their "Michigan Hot Dog" stand on Route 9 just outside of Plattsburgh. One very large problem with this story, however, is that a 1984 Sentinel article indicates that Nitzi's was established in 1935, and says that Jack Rabin indicated that "his sauce came from Mrs. Eula Otis, who first coined the name "michigans" for her hot dog and sauce. Otis, or "the blonde," as Nitzi calls her affectionately, was originally from Nashville. She met her husband in Detroit, Michigan, where she learned to make meat sauce, and they moved to Plattsburgh in the 1920s, Nitzi said." Gus' Red Hots, Mr. Otis' original stand, remains a fixture on the Plattsburgh restaurant scene.
In any case, it is currently believed that the Nitzi/Otis recipe is currently in use at Michigan's Plus, located in the former iHOP building on Route 3.
At least one other story exists linking Plattsburgh to the "Michigan Hot Dog".
This story claims that a Canadian, possibly a salesman, traveled between Montreal and New York City and - on his way home - he would stop in Plattsburgh and spend the night at the Witherill Hotel. Apparently, he would bring back several of Todoroff’s "Jackson Island Conies" and get the cook at the hotel to warm them. The cook liked the flavor so well that he created a similar sauce with similar taste and it caught on and spread in several of the local restaurants. Soon thereafter, everyone in Plattsburgh began referring to them as, "Michigan hot dogs".
Finally, in Vermont, the Michigan dog is almost always split and cooked on a grill before the meat sauce onions and mustard are added. Often, but not always, the bun (or slice of bread) is also grilled. The first ones sold around the Burlington area were called Charlie's Red Hots and the small shop was started during WWII by a well-known and respected restaurateur. The family closely guarded the sauce recipe. The originals are no longer sold, but there are many Michigan copies around and many local families claim to have the "Charlie's" sauce recipe.