Recipe for “Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs”, a Flint Style Coney Sauce


updated Oct. 8, 2014

January 25, 2015 update: We’ve asked David Gillie about this particular recipe, and he was quite open about it. He verified for us that this is a minor variation what he makes at Gillie’s Coney Island. “The book recipe was slightly modified for publication [from what we make] just to accommodate being done at home. I made one change in that published recipe: I changed the normal extra fine raw ground ‘beef, beef heart, soy texture’ that I buy from Abbott’s Meat in 25# bags with suggesting they use lean hamburg and grind it extra fine. (I might have suggested trying to find beef heart?)” While he may have suggested this modification, it did not show up in the final publication.

“However some time after that, Abbott’s Meat started making a 10# Coney Sauce pack so that homes, bars and small restaurants could also make their own Flint style coney sauce. I would recommend this now instead of trying to find/get extra-fine ground hamburger.”

October 8, 2014 update: After we’d discussed the conclusions of this test of Gillie’s recipe, Monica Kass Rogers updated her “Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs” recipe with a small-batch version that she likes. It’s definitely worth trying.

Most online recipes and recipes in-print are about as far from Abbott’s original sauce as they can possibly get. They involve ground hot dogs, or maybe haven’t been tested and should never be made.

Still, in scouring the web for variations and specific versions of recipes for Flint-style coney sauce, we’ve stumbled across what appears to be a “diamond in the rough”. This one is seriously as close to the original as we’ve seen so far.

Over on her Lost Recipes Found site, greater-Chicago-area food writer Monica Kass Rogers has posted what she wrote up as the recipe for “Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs“. Her notes on the recipe included the following statement:

“Gillie’s Coney Island [circa 1985 in Mt. Morris, Michigan] … shared this large-volume recipe for Flint-style Coney Island chili in a Michigan Restaurant Association cookbook more than 20 years ago.”

It turns out that the Michigan Restaurant Association published a spiral-bound cookbook titled “A Taste of Michigan“ in 1991. There are a couple things uniquely interesting about this particular recipe that illustrate its authenticity. For example, there is the process for this recipe as described by Ms. Rogers, i.e.:

  • Over medium heat, melt shortening. Heat until quite hot.
  • Add onion and saute for 1 minute
  • Add spices and stir, heating for 2 minutes
  • Add 10 lbs of hamburger; reduce heat to very low and cook for one hour

This is extremely interesting because it matches the description regarding the making of the Abbott’s sauce given by none other than Edward Abbott himself to an interviewer from the Flint Journal:

“According to Edward Abbott, who eighty plus years later is still making the ground meat base for Flint’s coney island sauce, the only meat ingredient is beef heart, regardless of the stories and rumors of other meat parts being used. Abbott’s added some seasoning … The sauce is made by boiling commercially prepared beef suet for several hours, then browning finely chopped onions in it and adding the spices and the meat. Taste varied according to the size of the chef’s hand … ‘They still sell the traditional sauce; the meat base … The Abbott product has always been sold uncooked …’”

“Two to Go: A Short History of Flint’s Coney Island Restaurants”, 2007 by Florine, Davison & Jaeger (Genesee County Historical Society)

Here is the recipe as it appeared in “A Taste of Michigan”:

We’ll re-post Ms. Rogers’ version here with her kind permission. We’d like to thank her for inadvertantly pointing us in the direction of this “diamond in the rough”.

Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs

Makes 10 lbs of chili

Flint-Style Chili Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 cup fine-diced onion
  • 3 Tbsp each paprika, cumin powder, chile powder
  • 10 lb extra-finely ground hamburger

Hot Dog Assembly Ingredients

  • hot dog buns
  • Koegel Vienna hot dogs
  • mustard
  • ketchup (optional, frowned upon by some)
  • diced sweet white onion
  • Gillie’s Coney Island Chili

Instructions

  • Over medium heat, melt shortening. Heat until quite hot.
  • Add onion and saute for 1 minute
  • Add spices and stir, heating for 2 minutes
  • Add 10 lbs of hamburger; reduce heat to very low and cook for one hour
  • Assemble hot dogs: Grill hot dogs (preferably a Koegel Vienna dog from Flint, MI)
  • Place dogs in buns and top with Gillie’s chili, mustard, (ketchup optional) and raw diced sweet onion.

To be honest, this is a lot of Gillie’s coney sauce. If you eat coneys as much as we do this might be a worthwhile venture. But the amount this makes simply isn’t at all “family friendly”. We’ll adjust these amounts to something that makes more sense for a home kitchen.

Ground beef it now specified in ratios of lean meat to fat. In most foods, especially burgers, we’ll use an 80/20 ground chuck. But for this sauce we’ll use more of a utility beef, a 73/27. Since it’s readily available in 3 lb. chubbs, that’s the amount we’ll adjust the recipe for and divide the other measurements by about a third.

Also, the spices simply specify “paprika”. Most people don’t realize there are numerous kinds of paprika available. If a cook happens to have the Hungarian style in their pantry and use it, the sauce will end up far too sweet. We’ll make sure to specify the more savory Spanish paprika.

But there’s also one other adjustment we want to make. This recipe calls for 1 1/2 cup shortening. When this recipe was apparently printed, shortening had different characteristics than it does now, back in the pre-trans fat ban era of the 1980s. Still, shortening is vegetable oil, not an animal fat, and we can certainly do better in the interest of flavor.

We can replace the shortening with lard to get better richness. But remember, lard is made from pig fat. Mr. Abbott specifically mention boiling beef suet for several hours, the result of which is beef tallow. This would certainly give the sauce a more accurate flavor profile. Premium edible beef tallow is readily available in jars from FatWorks. (It’s also available from Amazon at an inflated price, so we’ll go with ordering directly from FatWorks.) What we can do is specify both the lard and the tallow as options, forgoing the shortening completely.

The end result of these adjustments, along with modifying the list of ingredients to match currently-available products (and obviously ditching the ketchup), is below:

Gillie’s Coney Island Sauce (Home Version)

  • 1/2 cup edible beef tallow (available from FatWorks) or lard
  • 1/3 cup fine-diced white onion*
  • 1 Tbsp Spanish paprika
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin seed
  • 1 Tbsp mild chili powder
  • 3 lb 73/27 ground beef
  1. Over medium heat, melt the tallow or lard. Heat until very hot.
  2. Add onion and sauté for 1 minute.
  3. Add the spices and stir, heating for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the hamburger; reduce heat to very low and simmer for at least one hour to let the flavors develop. Stir regularly to ensure the meat is broken up to be as small as possible.
  5. Assemble hot dogs: Grill hot dogs (preferably a Koegel Vienna dog from Flint, MI.)
  6. Place dogs in steamed buns and top with Gillie’s chili, mustard, and raw diced onion.

* Notes:

  1. For the onions, just cut a couple medium onions about 1/8″ small chop, then set aside 1/3 cup for use in the sauce.

Conclusions

  1. This recipe turned out to be quite bland. During testing, 1/2 tsp Kosher salt was added to kick up the other flavors. Doubling the amounts of the spices would certainly help. But we’re not so sure paprika of any kind is a necessary part of the equation, while garlic powder or granulated garlic would certainly be a nice addition. So the spices should probably be 2 Tbsp ground cumin seed, 2 Tbsp mild chili powder and 1 Tbsp granulated garlic.
  2. The extremely dry and loose but greasy/oily nature of this particular sauce indicates the real need for the textured vegetable protein or soy flour, in the circa 1924 Abbott’s sauce package. It’s obviously used there as a binder to give the sauce at least a bit of body. The Bob’s Red Mill version of textured vegetable protein is a good option, while soy flour from either Bob’s Red Mill or Hodgson Mill would also work.
13 comments on “Recipe for “Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs”, a Flint Style Coney Sauce
  1. Tom Brooks says:

    I worked at Hank & Don’s Bar in Swartz Creek, Michigan, right outside of Flint, for 26 years and made many batches of coney sauce. The owners bought the original recipe in downtown Flint. There are two differences to the recipe posted; 1. Use beef suet, not shortening, 2. always use Spanish paprika. Additionally, the more of the three spices you use, the richer the taste.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Tom. A lot of people don’t realize how many different kinds of paprika there are. Specifying a particular type is key to the right flavor.

  3. Dave Porter says:

    I never made the sauce myself but have been looking for a good version of it to try. Thank you for the in depth advise it is greatly appreciated. Now I have a question-I used to work at the A&W across from the city Jail in Flint. The Managers name was Gerald. He was a big guy. I always saw him adding sugar to the mixture. I remember him telling me, that he never used anything to cook the sauce in other than a stainless steel pot. Aluminum gave it a different flavor. wondered if he was just pulling my leg on that one!But in all the recipes I see here there is no mention of sugar. was it just a different variation that he made or did he know something that the rest of us just wondered about. respond to my E-mail if you can. Thank you in advance.

  4. admin says:

    Hi Dave … A&W sauce is completely different from what a Flint Coney sauce is. Flint Coney sauce is just ground beef heart with a binder, spices and chopped onion. The A&W sauce is more like the following, which is one of many sauces which can be found online. As you can see, sugar is in the list of ingredients:

    =====
    A&W® Coney Island Chili Dog Sauce

    1 pound ground chuck
    1 six ounce can Hunts® tomato paste
    1 cup water
    1 tablespoon sugar
    1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
    1 tablespoon dried, minced onion
    2 teaspoons chili powder
    1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon celery seed
    1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (heaping)
    1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

    In a saucepan, brown the ground chuck over medium heat, breaking into very small pieces. Salt and pepper lightly while cooking. Do not drain the fat.

    Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, 30-45 minutes until it thickens.
    =====

    As to the aluminum pan, there are reactive and non-reactive pots and pans. Reactive are made of aluminum and cast iron, more porous materials, and react to acidic ingredients such as citrus. As the A&W recipe apparently has tomato-based ingredients, non-reactive cookware such as stainless steel or copper would be better as the acidic properties of tomato would cause an unwanted change in the flavor.

  5. Patrick Bergin says:

    I’ve made numerous attempts to re-create “The Original”, and you know what? It can’t be done because there AINT no original. Back in the day (the 20’s probably) the Coney joints just used what they had on hand. Sometimes they had more beef heart, sometimes they had a little ground beef that they wanted to get rid of. They’d toss in a handful of this, and a pinch of that and be done with it. According to what I heard from a guy who actually worked in those joints in the 30’s, they winged it for the most part.

    If you’ve ever tasted the stuff by itself it’s terrible! Way too mild. It absolutely requires the beef/pork Vienna, mustard and (for me) onions to taste good. Any Chili recipe without beans would probably taste pretty good. I’m a former competitive chili cook, and believe me, this stuff is pretty basic.

    • Patrick Bergin says:

      PS:

      I just made this recipe and it’s GREAT! When I think of all the time I wasted trying this recipe, adding this or that ingredient. The above recipe does the job just fine, and it’s a breeze to make. Go figure!

  6. admin says:

    Yup, that’s basically what I’ve said on the “What Is It?” page. Those are certainly concepts most Flintoids don’t understand, which is what this site is really about. Glad to see someone who understands already!

  7. Jami Danks says:

    For the first time I see someone has finally has “Gotten it right!!!” I often look up Flint Style Coney Sauce and in the end say, “This person has no idea with they are talking about.”
    However you are…you did your homework, and did it WELL.
    I worked for Angelo’s Coney Island during 1998 right after Tommy and Neil bought it and “tried” to expand it. Which was a total fail. But in the end I did learn how to make the Coney meat. They only thing that was left out that we used with a salt (we used Lawyer’s seasoning salt) Other than that….you’ve captured the correct way to make Flint Style Coney Sauce.

  8. Kevin Ranney says:

    Flint coneys are from Flint, chilly dogs are from Detroit. I’ve been eating Flint coneys for over 50 years. I have a recipe for original Flint Coneys from a 1959 Flint Journal article.

    • admin says:

      Hi Kevin … Historically, Coney Dogs began in both Jackson, Michigan, and Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1914. Detroit followed with theirs in 1917, with ohers around the country opening about the same time, while the Flint Original Coney Island didn’t first open until the early 1920s. As a latecomer to the field, those of us from Flint can’t claim others aren’t coneys.

  9. qazwiz says:

    I laugh every time i read an article about “Coney dogs”. and being a lifer of the “Angelo’s Coneys” anything about Flint’s and/or Angelo’s Coney Islands will set my ears to tingle.

    if you want an “original” you MUST get out of the Midwest. (remember, I grew up on Flint coneys, especially by Angelo’s.)
    anyone can figure out where the ORIGINAL was first served. It’s called a Coney Island because they are (trying) to replicate a dish from Coney Island, New York.

    from the lack of reference, i doubt New York even tries anymore. but that aside, the key to an authentic recipe now needs to reference where it comes from. Flint had AT LEAST THREE different recipes although the other two may no longer be in business (60 years is a long time) and Angelo’s is the only place mentioned from Flint anymore, plus i forget the name of the others now, although i could go downtown Flint and point to where the building of one use to stand, near the now gone original Angelo’s (no, Angelo’s #1 store isn’t their first location) I’m thinking the two were next door to each other but also thinking there was another non-restaurant shop between the two… memory not perfect but am positive they were close if not next door neighbors.

    that said, i believe reason Angelo’s survived was due to unique “dry” recipe. so dry in fact, i have breathed in some “sauce” as i take that deep breath just before trying to take first bite.

    now I’m hungry, UGH

    • admin says:

      Hi qazwiz, let’s go through a few things here …

      The Coney Island phenomenon did indeed occur when immigrants passed through that area of New York. This is outlined in the books “Coney Detroit” and “Two To Go: A short history”, as well as on the Red Hots Coney Island web site from Highland Park. But remember, no one in New York ever refered to it as a “coney island” and still don’t. It was the Greeks who immigrated to the Midwest who coined the term. That they were creating their own version of what they’d enjoyed there is rather common knowledge.

      Now, Flint has dozens of recipes for the sauce. The reason for this is that the beef heart base comes from Abbott’s Meat in a 25lb bag, as it has since the early 1920s. Each restaurant, and again there have been dozens, makes their own sauce from that base using their own recipe. That’s why the dry texture is similar but the spicing and viscocity will differ between restaurants. There’s no actual count of how many versions of the Flint sauce there has been, that’s just not possible to tabulate anymore. As to locations, there are multiple maps in “Two To Go” illustrating where many of those restaurants have been over the years.

      As to who’s the original anywhere, Ft. Wayne Coney Island (which is still open today) and Todoroff’s in Jackson opened in 1914, Kalamazoo Coney Island opened in 1915 and is still open as well, Lafayette in Detroit opened in 1917, with a cousin opening American right next door a couple years later (both are still open), the aforementioned Red Hots opened in 1921, and Flint’s Original Coney Island opened in about 1922, closing in 1979. Angelo himself worked at Flint’s Original for Simion Brayan at the age of 16, and didn’t open Angelo’s on Davison Rd until 1949. He was actually a rather late adopter.

      Were you aware Angelo’s was sold in the past couple months? The new owners closed it for a bit and did a serious deep-cleaning, and hope to return it to its former glory. You definitely need to get there.

      Dave

      • Tim says:

        Unfortunately, having just been through there, the [original Angelo’s: ed.] location on Davison Road has closed permanently. The place had gotten very rundown over the years and the last time I ate there a couple of years ago it was absolutely terrible. The sauce no longer tasted like it used to so it seemed like the changed the recipe or started using cheaper ingredients.

        The closest thing I have had to what Angelo’s used to be is the coney I got at, of all places Halo Burger.

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