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In Search of Michigans
In Upstate New York, Hot Dogs Take Another State's Name.
The most geographically-schizophrenic hot dogs in the United States are found in upstate New York near the Canadian border. There, the same sort of frankfurters (topped with meat sauce, mustard and chopped onion) that are sold as Coney Islands in Detroit, and Texas Wieners in New Jersey, are served as “Michigans.” This mash-up of twisted logic makes sense only to people in Clinton County, and primarily in the small city of Plattsburgh (pop. 19,909).
Michigans get a lot of love in Clinton County. And lately, they’ve gotten some official love. This year, July was declared Michigan Month in the area. With that proclamation came a celebration that included a 5K road race and fun run; locally designed T-shirts; and a passport that enthusiasts could get stamped at any restaurant that sells Michigans.
There’s more. Last year, a historical marker was erected declaring Plattsburgh the ancestral home of this culinary oddity. That marker stands in a strip of grass filled with weeds and traffic cones. It is directly opposite Clare and Carl’s Red Hots, the city’s most prominent purveyor of Michigans.
The closest I’ve ever come to a Michigan was eating a hot dog called a Plattsburgh at S & P Lunch, the Manhattan luncheonette formerly known as Eisenberg’s. I reported on that dog in this space last October.
As I ate that delicious dish, the fact that I’d never had a real Michigan nagged at me and I began to make plans. Over the following months, those plans solidified into a Labor-Day-weekend road trip to Clinton County. And that trip we just completed.
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“Working on mysteries without any clues…”
Our first stop had to be Clare and Carl’s. This roadside stand looks like central casting for Hot Dog Joint. It wasn’t the first place to sell Michigans in Plattsburgh, but it is the oldest still doing business. It was named for Clare and Carl Warne and opened in 1942. The menu inside says they sell Michigans, but the old sign outside reads “Texas Red Hots.” (Because nothing is simple in hot dog world.)
I mentioned that Clare & Carl’s wasn’t the first Michigan stand. That honor reportedly goes to the Michigan Hot Dog and Sandwich Shop, opened in 1927 by Eula and Garth C. Otis. The Otises came from Michigan, a place known for a style of hot dog called the Coney Island. So you can see where the dog’s strange name probably came from.
Eula Otis is the figure to keep your eye on here. She had a hand in all of the early Michigan stands. She and Garth sold their business, and the recipe for the prized meat sauce, to their carhop Jack Nitzi Rabin, who reopened the joint as Nitzi’s. Eula later ended up working for Clare & Carl’s, bringing her recipe with her. Old Eula got around. (Nitzi’s eventually became McSweeney’s. More on that later.)
We pulled up to Clare & Carl’s after a five-hour drive from Brooklyn. A smiling young man popped out of the white clapboard shack and waved us into the preferred parking spot. We were surrounded by at least 20 other cars, all either eating Michigans or waiting on them. Apparently, most Plattburghians prefer carhop service. But we wanted to experience the inside of the restaurant, which looked like a large, house-shaped mushroom that had sprung up out of the ground.
We sat down at the U-shaped counter, the only indoor customers. The walls were decorated with old signs advertising defunct brands of soda and Yankees paraphernalia. Flies buzzed about. There were four employees: the kid who guided us in and took our order; another who ran food out to the cars; and two women cooking up dogs. A radio in the kitchen played “Night Moves” by Bob Seger—Mr. Michigan himself.
We ordered two Michigans and an order of fries covered in “Michigan sauce” (as the meat sauce is often called) and cheese. We knew from personal research what to expect: a steamed hot dog (not grilled) on a possibly-steamed bun, covered with a thick, spiced meat sauce, chopped white onion and bright yellow mustard. You could have the dog with or without onions. And you could have the onions on top or “buried”—that is, under the dog and sauce.
Our first Michigan was a good one. The dogs were on the small side, making the sandwich a tidy snack. At first the sauce seemed on the bland side. But it was stealthy and after a couple minutes the heat within began to creep up on you in a pleasant way. And the amount of chopped onions was generous.
One thing seemed amiss. We had read that, traditionally, Michigan frankfurters hailed from one of two meat packers: Tobin’s in Rochester, NY, or Glazier’s in Malone, NY. Tobin’s was out of business. So that left Glazier’s. We asked the carhop kid what kind of dogs they used and he said Kayem’s, a good old brand out of Massachusetts. They no longer used Glazier’s because “they’ve too hard to get.” (Keep this in mind, because the Glazier issue is a critical one.)
Plattsburgh likes to champion Michigans as a Plattsburgh thing. But, just as with the frankfurter’s origins, it’s not that simple. You can find Michigans sold as far south as Ticonderoga, more than an hour’s drive away, and across the Canadian border in Montreal. And my research taught me that Michigan hot dogs were being sold in the 1950s in Elmira—a good distance from Plattsburgh; and in the 1960s in Glen Falls, near Lake George. Someone was selling them as far downstate as White Plains in the 1970s.
The Glen Falls accounts are of interest because of a 1934 report that Eula Otis leased a restaurant in that town. This would have been between the time she sold her Plattsburgh stand to Nitzi and when she returned to Plattsburgh to work for Clare & Carl’s in the 1940s.
I tried to find out more about the mysterious Eula, but couldn’t uncover a thing, not even an obituary or gravesite. I can tell you Eula and Garth split up. Garth remarried and died in Syracuse in 1949. That would explain why the couple sold their business and why Eula, then on her own, would have taken a job with Clare & Carl Warne.
“Sweet summertime, summertime…”
It was ideal hot dog-eating weather in Plattsburgh—blue skies, sunny, with a light breeze. The next stop was McSweeney’s, which used to be Nitzi’s—or so we were told. McSweeney’s had three locations. But the McSweeney’s spot that was once Nitzi’s (and before that, the Otises’) was now permanently closed, supposedly due to a lack of staffing. So we went to another McSweeney’s on Route 9 North. It was the antithesis of Clare & Carl’s, a clean, cookie-cutter family restaurant as opposed to a dilapidated roadhouse. There were more Yankees signs. In fact, there were Yankees signs at most of the hot dog joints. Plattsburgh loves the Yankees.
We went in, sat at the counter and again ordered two Michagans and fries covered with cheese and meat sauce. But our order was smarter this time: we asked for one with onions on top and one “buried,” in order to judge the difference. The server was just as friendly and chipper as the one at Clare & Carl’s. This would become a running theme. Plattsburgh service workers are sunny people.
The story that Eula Otis shared her sauce recipe with Jack Nitzi Rabin tracked. The meat sauce at McSweeney’s was very like that at Clare & Carl’s, only spicier. It had the biggest kick we would encounter. The server said the heat varied from batch to batch, but it was always spicy. We liked the dogs very much.
As to “buried” versus not, we weren’t sure which was better. There were advantages to both styles. Buried kept the chopped onions down, so they didn’t fall off the dog and onto your shirt. But onions on top ensured you got a satisfying onion crunch with each bite.
We asked after the provenance of the dogs. They were McKenzie’s. McKenzie is based in Vermont, but their wieners are made at various plants throughout the United States. No Glaziers yet.
“Workin’ and Practicin’…”
Time limits dictated our Michigan itinerary. Places that sell these dogs have limited hours. Many end their business mid-day and some are closed completely on Sunday and Monday. Most of the people in Plattsburgh, it seems, do not eat Michigans past the hour of 3 p.m. Our next stop was the delightfully named Michagans Plus, a former IHOP which served only breakfast and lunch and closed at 3. We got there at 2:30 and were seated.
Michigans Plus, true to its name, serves many other things besides hot dogs. But we were there for the Michigans. It was a sit-down place with booths and lots of seniors getting their brunch on. We ordered one regular and one “buried” and, for a change, tater tots covered with sauces and cheese (a mistake). Our dogs sailed around the room on a tray and were almost given to an elderly couple, who were quite bewildered by the arrival of five hot dogs to their table, before they reached us.
These were very picturesque Michigans, the prettiest we’d seen. The single straight line of yellow mustard was a nice touch. The meat sauce was less spicy than McSweeney’s and had a vinegar bite to it. Mary Kate called them “Michigans lite.” The franks, we were told, were McKenzie’s. “You can’t buy them in stores,” our waitress told us, seeming to think that was a selling point. The buns were from Freihofer’s, a bakery in Pennsylvania that several Michigan stands use.
“Felt the lightning, waited on the thunder…”
We had just about given up on finding a Michigan made with a Glazier frankfurter when we strolled into Ronnie’s Michigan Stand, a lonely outpost on a triangle of land in rural West Plattsburgh. There is was on the menu. They had a “Michigan” and a “Glazier Michigan.” The Glaziers were a dollar more, a whopping 4 bucks. Of course, we ordered one of each.
The Glazier was a startling sight. It was fire-engine red, brightening up the look of the sandwich about tenfold. The dogs are a beef/pork mix and have a natural casing. That rosy hue is achieved through artificial coloring. The Glazier website boasts that they have “perfected the red hot dog.”
The Glazier Michigan was a game changer. It was completely unlike the soft-eating dogs that had come before. The frank was tangier and denser and had a real snap to it, owing to the natural casing. It made the sandwich stand up on its feet. Glaziers brought the thunder.
Our server was an apple-cheeked blonde girl who, despite having worked at Ronnie’s for 13 years, looked all of 18. She said Glaziers were indeed harder to secure. But she suspected some stands didn’t use them because they took more time to cook. Behind her, I saw the regular dogs were fetched out of a pot of hot water, while our Glazier was specially steamed on the grill under a metal lid. (I later discovered that Michigans Plus did sell Glaziers. They just weren’t easy to find on the menu.)
We asked the server which she preferred. “Oh, I don’t eat hot dogs,” she said. Thirteen years at Ronnie’s and she hasn’t tasted even one of its hot dogs? “No.” I’ve encountered this sort of thing before at hot dog stands and it always surprises me, though I guess it shouldn’t. After all, I write about cocktails, and I know plenty of bartenders who don’t drink.
Aside from the Glazier, Ronnie’s Michigan stood out in another way. The meat sauce was thick and tomatoey, very different from any we had had previously. The server bragged it was the only Michigan sauce in town that was made with vegetables as well as meat. (The waitress at McSweeney’s boasted the opposite, saying their sauce was all meat and spice, with no vegetables at all.) The recipe came from Ronnie Jette herself, who founded the business in 1959. Jette used to live in a house behind the stand and did all the cooking there. Women loom large in Michigan hot dog history. Between Eula Otis, Clare Warne and Ronnie Jette, they played a huge role in launching the Michigan phenomenon in Plattsburgh.
As we left Ronnie’s, I notice a Glazier sign in the window. It depicted an anthropomorphized hot dog playing hockey. Weird, but apt. This was the north country, after all. Plattsburgh is only a few miles from the Canadian border.
“We were gettin’ our share…”
We headed to Gus’ Red Hots newly energized, having finally experienced the Glazier magic. Once again, we scored. Listed in boldface on the menu was “Glazer Red Skin Hot Dogs.” You could also get a “Gus-Inator,” which was a footlong Glazier.
Gus’ is on an intersection north of downtown Plattsburgh, just down the road from McSweeney’s. It began life as a small stand in the White Castle design mode, expanding over the years. It closed during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, but another family bought the business. They remodeled it as a sprawling family-style diner and reopened it in May 2021. Part of the purchase was the secret recipe for Gus’ Michigans.
Gus’ was my favorite Michigan, hands down. Every element of the dog came together. The sauce was grainy, tangy and drier than the others. There was more chopped onion and more mustard. There was no cloying sweetness to any part of the sandwich. It was a Michigan for adults, as well as the dog that reminded me the most of the Coney Islands I had eaten in Detroit.
By this time, we were committed onions-on-top people. When the onions and mustard were buried, their flavor and textural contributions got lost in the mix.
The waitress was another bright penny in the bottomless Plattsburgh piggy bank of cheerful servers. We asked a few questions about the recipe. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t eat hot dogs.” Huh.
“Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy..”
We had experienced the best. Next came the worst.
Most people don’t think hot dogs are serious culinary business. Anyone can make a decent one, they think. But any food, however simple, can done poorly. Happy Pike Ice Cream & Snack Bar was a fair drive north of Plattsburgh, at the end of a curving road dotted with farmhouses and cornfields. It stood on the shore of Lake Champlain, opposite a marina. Glaziers were not on the menu, but we learned they could be had if you asked for them. We ordered one with the works.
After a while, it arrived sans onions and mustard. We pointed out its nakedness and the waitress swept it away. It returned with onions. We had to apply the mustard ourselves. The dog was lukewarm, the bun was basic and stale. And I’m pretty sure the “award-winning” meat sauce was just chili. The whole affair was so sad I’m not even including a picture of the dog here.
“Started humming a song from 1962…”
Campus Corner wasn’t really on our Michigan list, or anybody’s Michigan list for that matter. It is just an appealing old diner with an M-shaped counter and a great old neon sign. We had to eat breakfast somewhere, so why not there? But this diner had some tricks up its sleeve, including perhaps the best overall diner food I’ve ever eaten and one of the top Michigans in town.
We took two stools at the far end of the crowded “M.” The strains of “Night Moves” drifted in from the kitchen. It was the second time we’d heard the tune in 24 hours. I wondered if Bob Seger, in all his many years of touring, had ever eaten a Michigan. He must have. And I bet he had some questions about the name.
Campus Corner was founded in 1950 and, by the looks of the Sunday morning crowd, it is a favorite with both locals and SUNY Plattsburgh students. Owner Sue Upton, a woman in her sixties, was a few feet away working the grill and chatting with regulars. Glaziers were a menu option, but here they were simply called “redskins.”
The roll was warm, the dog hot and juicy; there was a lot of meat sauce, which had both spice and a bit of tomato. It was the freshest-tasting Michigan we had enjoyed and taught us that “hot off the grill” went a long way in terms of Michigans. We had seen the dog go from Upton’s stove to a plate to us in a matter of seconds.
The Michigan at Campus Corner was Mary Kate’s favorite. I complimented the waitress on the Michigan. I didn’t ask if she ate hot dogs.
“With autumn closin’ in…”
So, conclusions. Michigans can be good and Michigans can be bad; and every Michigan is a little different from the others. But are Michigans different from other, similar hot dogs, like the Coney Islands of Detroit and the Texas Wieners of New Jersey?
Frankly, no. Yes, the dogs are steamed, not grilled; and, ideally, the buns should be steamed, too. But, in terms of overall taste, it is a distinction without a difference. I noticed nothing particularly unusual about the meat sauce. It had some of the warming spices of Cincinnati chili and it was lighter in character than some of the dark meat sauces of Jersey. But it was meat sauce. The main argument I would make for the Michigan standing out from the hot dog crowd would be if it is made with that bright-red, snappy Glazier. But, today, you can’t count on a Michigan being made with a Glazier.
Our Plattsburgh-area Michigan hunting was over. But we hadn’t had our last Michigan. We had heard tell of a drive-in called Gene’s in Port Henry, which was a half hour south of Plattsburgh. Gene’s was hard won. It was Labor Day and we spent 45 minutes stopped in Labor Day Parade traffic before we could reach the little stand.
We were about Michganed out by then. The Gene’s dog was fine. It was on the small side and overflowing with meat sauce and mustard. They didn’t have Glaziers and didn’t know what brand of hot dog they did use. After the delights of Gus’ and Campus Corner, we weren’t too impressed, though the stand itself did have an old-school charm.
Next year Plattsburg is planning a Michigan Fest. If they bring back the Michigan passport, we may return. According to the rules, the first 25 passport holders to complete and return their passport to Town Hall receive a free Michigan t-shirt.
I pretty sure that Mary Kate and I would have won a T-shirt! Given the ground we covered in two days, I think we would have been the first claimants.
Odds and Ends….
Food and Wine magazine named The Encyclopedia of Cocktails one of the 24 best food and drink books of fall 2023… Anton’s, the restaurant in the West Village of NYC, has a pretty sweet lunch special going on right now. Buy one Martini at full price and receive a 25-cent Muffuletta sandwich. This deal is available on weekdays from noon to 3 p.m…. Dusty Booze, the upcoming book by Aaron Goldfarb on the world of vintage spirits, recently revealed its cover. The volume will be released on March 5. It is available for pre-order… Pierre Ferrand has come out with a new curacao distilled not from oranges but yuzu, the citrus fruit of Asian origin.