A pair of Flint-Style Coneys at Mega Coney Island in Fenton, using Abbott’s sauce and Koegel Coneys.
If you know someone from Michigan and you offer them a chili dog somewhere, you might hear a response similar to “Well it’s not a coney, but alright.” If you’re the person from Michigan in that conversation, you’ll know there’s nothing that can replace the coney you know and love. It has to have the “snap” of the natural lamb or sheep casing on a properly-grilled German “coney dog”, which is a variation of the European-style Frankfurter Würstel or Vienna sausage. The coney has to be topped with a flavorful meat topping having the memorable flavor of ground beef heart and maybe ground beef along with some other organ meats (depending on your style and/or restaurant of choice), cumin, and paprika. And purists always have that meat topping garnished with a couple lines of good yellow mustard, and onions minced to be silky smooth.
If you’re the kind of person who gets deeper into this sort of thing, you’ll know there are three basic coney varieties: The dry-sauced Jackson Coney, developed by George Todoroff in about 1914; The juicier-sauced Detroit Coney, developed by someone at either of the side-by-side American or Lafayette Coney Islands (there are too many versions of the story to sort out) in about 1917; And of course the Flint Coney, with the Flint Coney Island restaurant opening north of the Flint River on Saginaw St. in 1924.
There is serious debate about which one of these is “best”. Even between the two Detroit Coney shops that sit next to each other, there are “turf wars”. Honestly, you’ll like what you grew up with, and what you like will always be “best” for you. It really is that simple. None are “best”, they’re all good, and they all have their followers. and detractors. That will never change.
There is also regular discussion about which of these three evolved into the other two. The Jackson and Detroit Coney shops actually had no bearing on the development of the Flint Coney. Likewise, the originators of all three Coneys likely had no clue what the others were doing until long after the fact.
One thing I’m doing my best to correct, is peoples’ perception of what a Flint Coney really is. So before we go any further, let’s get something straight:
There is no such thing as a single restaurant recipe for Flint Coney sauce.
Here’s how it works: Abbott’s Meat provides a 25# bag of sauce base to the restaurants, consisting of beef heart, beef, and soy texture. That product is the foundation for each restaurant’s individual recipe for the sauce, and how it’s used is why there are so many minor variations in flavor.
The Abbott’s Coney Sauce described below and shown in these photos, available in 4# and 10# bags, is a very recent development, and most restaurants don’t use it.
Some restaurants that serve the Flint Coney are decidedly more popular than others. Certain Flint Coney restaurants might also have a group of local followers, or might be on an interstate or tourist travel route with visitors from out-of-town viewing it as a “destination”. Ask anyone who’s been through town, grown up there recently, or seen recent news reports where to get a real Flint Coney and they’ll likely mention Angelo’s or Tom Z’s. In “Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America,” by Bruce Kraig, for example, he mentions Tom Z’s as one of the top ten places to get an “unusual” hot dog in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the true story of the Flint Coney has become shrouded in a sort of fog created by decades of rumors, folklore and serious misinformation. So many restaurants have used the word “original” in their menu or signage that the actual original is lost in the shuffle. And out-of-towners are regularly taken to Angelo’s where their local “guides” likely tell them that’s where the Coney was invented. (Angelo’s is excellent of course, and this author has enjoyed many Flint Coneys there.)
Maddeningly-enough, a “Flint Coney sauce” recipe listing ground beef and ground hot dogs as ingredients was also published in the Flint Journal in the late 1970s, a recipe that has become folklore in and of itself. That recipe has been re-published in print and re-posted on the internet more times than can be counted, with stories ranging from “My aunt/uncle/step-dad/mom/second-cousin-twice-removed got this from the owner/former-owner/ex-employee of the original restaurant” to “The original owner’s wife allowed this to be published after his death!” Not only are there no ground hot dogs in any “real” Flint Coney sauce, but both of those “explanations” are patently false.
Just what does a real Flint Coney sauce consist of? From the Products page on the Koegel Meats web site:
Item: Abbott’s Coney Sauce … Description: This is ‘Flint Style’ coney sauce base, manufactured by Abbott’s and distributed by Koegel … Ingredients: Beef Hearts, Beef, Water, Textured Vegetable Protein (Soy Flour, Caramel Color), Onions, Spices, Salt, Monosodium Glutamate, Sodium Nitrate, Garlic Powder, Sodium Erythorbate, Dextrose, Sugar, and Sodium Nitrite.
Item: Coneys … Description: This is a blend of pork, beef and our unique spices stuffed into a natural casing and then smoked using natural hardwoods. We change the ingredients just a little from our Viennas so that the product can be held on a grill for an extended period of time … Ingredients: Beef, Pork, Water, Salt, Spices, Sugar, Sodium Citrate, Dextrose, Sodium Diacetate, Nonfat Dry Milk, Sodium Eryhtorbate, Spice Extractives, Sodium Nitrite, Garlic, stuffed into lamb casing.
Simion Brayan was working on the Flint Coney in the early 1920s when he went to Albert Koegel for the sausage itself. The issue was that Brayan needed a hot dog that would last longer on a flattop grill throughout restaurant service. According to “Coney Detroit”, by Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm, to create the Coney Koegel’s removed the nonfat dry milk and sugars from the Vienna. In addition, “Two to Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants” from the Genesee County Historical Society also indicates they changed the proportion of ingredients so they contained more fat pork than beef, while making the Coney somewhat slimmer. There was no indicated change in the casing as they both use lamb, but it’s possible they switched from a 24 – 26mm casing to something smaller, either a 20 – 22mm or 22 – 24mm, because of the slimmer sausage.
Now … Back in May 2015 apparently there was an issue with the casings becoming quite hard when cooked. Complaints appeard on Koegel’s Facebook page, and Mr. Koegel provided the explanation: “Thank you for your post inquiring about our casings. Please accept my apology for these incidents. Natural casings vary in tenderness based on the country of origin, age and diet of the sheep. We usually get the best selection because we are one of the largest producers of natural casing products in the midwest. We try to make sure that we stuff the casing fully without breaking them and steam them properly, steaming tenderizes a natural casing. Unfortunately, we do not know a casing is tough until it is being eaten and by that time we are into a new lot. We have not changed anything but it is a variable we cannot always control. Again, thank you for your post. Sincerely, John Koegel” While Mr. Koegel wrote “sheep”, remember that a lamb is a young sheep. Both the Vienna and the Coney use lamb casings.
What’s important is that no matter what changes cooks make in cooking their own sauce from scratch using the 25# bag of Abbott’s Meat’s sauce base, or whether or not they want to call themselves “original”, the sauce and Koegel’s Coney are the two basic components that have always defined the Flint Coney. Anything that’s termed a “Flint-style Coney” can always be traced back to those two truly original items.
I ordered this bag of completed Abbott’s Flint Coney sauce (not the restaurant Flint coney sauce base) in May of 2013 from Victoria Lynch at buykoegels.com. In ʺTwo to Go: A Short History of Flintʹs Coney Island Restaurantsʺ by Florine, Davison & Jaeger (2007, Genesee County Historical Society), Ed Abbott is quoted as saying, “The Abbott product has always been sold uncooked.” That explains the color difference between what’s in the bag in the first photo, and this couple spoonfuls of cooked sauce. Straight out of the bag you can tell the sauce is ground beef heart … that is, if you’ve ever seen ground beef heart before. As per Mr. Abbott in the same book from Genesee County Historical Society, “the only meat ingredient is beef heart, regardless of the stories and rumors of other meat parts being used.”
As it’s based off an organ meat, the sauce by itself has a bit of a livery flavor to it, mixed with the flavor of a nice sirloin. It can be a bit off-putting to people who don’t care for beef heart and other offal. Mary did try the cooked sauce off a teaspoon and elected not to have any of the sauce on her hot dogs. As I’ve written below, it stands to reason that you will like the foods you grew up with. I’ve been enjoying Flint Coneys since I was seven or eight, also having head cheese and other things people might see as “novel” or “bizarre”. I feel it’s a shame some of these flavors are falling out of favor, and really like hearing of places who are putting more “real food” out there for folks to enjoy.
After enjoying these two coneys I had to have Ryan make me a third. I’d missed that ridiculously-good flavor that much. I only cooked up two of the four pounds of sauce in the bag, putting the rest back in the freezer for later. But between John (a former Marine), Ryan (a high-school swimmer), myself and a twelve-pound Pomeranian named Samwise Gamgee (his dad’s name was Frodo), we finished off that two pounds of sauce on about 12 Viennas.