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

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, kidney, 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, sometime in the 1980s (data seems to support 1987), the Michigan Restaurant Association did, in fact, publish a spiral-bound cookbook titled “A Taste of Michigan“. The timeframe for this book would support Rogers’ claim that the recipe is printed there. Until we receive a copy of the book we’ll refrain from further conjecture on our part …

It must be noted that Gillie’s Coney Island is currently showing an image of an Abbott’s Meat truck on their web site that indicates that’s where their sauce is coming from. Which sauce they’re actually serving at the moment remains to be seen.

There are a couple things uniquely interesting about the particular recipe Rogers posted on her site that illustrate a high level of authenticity. First of all, there’s the 10 lb of ground beef. This might seem extreme to a home cook. But anyone who walks into a GFS Marketplace store in Michigan, Ohio, or elswhere along the GFS “trail” to Florida, will find that’s the minimum amount of ground beef they can purchase there. This is because that’s the volume most restaurants base their GFS truck purchases on. Gillie’s would certainly specify this same amount.

More interesting, however, is the process for this recipe, 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 … that has all the seasonings – cumin, chili powder, onions and the rest of the spices … 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)

What this means is that someone at Gillie’s either read that same article/interview, or they used to work for Abbott’s or one of Abbott’s direct competitors. They then used the information from Abbott’s to create the recipe that was subsequently published in “A Taste of Michigan” and reposted by Monica Kass Rogers.

We’ll re-post it again here with Ms. Rogers’ kind permission, also assuming this is how it was published within the now out-of-print “A Taste of Michigan”. Once we find a copy of that book, we’ll ensure what’s listed here is updated to match those pages. And we’d like to thank Monica Kass Rogers 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 to be honest, 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, i.e. soy flour, in the circa 1907 original 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 soy flour is inexpensive, while cacker meal would also work.
  3. What this obviously does for this is to set up the direction for developing a recipe for recreating what’s in the circa 1907 original Abbott’s Flint coney sauce package at home in smaller batches.

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