I have always experienced a wistfulness while kicking down the gravel roads of my family’s past. My parents moved our family from Michigan to California for my mom's career just after my first birthday. Every summer thereafter, we staged a pilgrimage to our former state. My brother and I caught lightning bugs, slept in humid houses, stayed up late with our band of cousins and ate the foods of our parents’ childhoods. After years of cheesy casseroles, bubbly red bottles of Fanta, and innumerable ice cream cones, the Midwestern food I looked forward to most was the Coney Dog. Besides being messy, salty, and sometimes cheesy, in my limited world, Coneys were only found in Michigan.
Original Coney Island hot dogs are covered in a meat-based sauce reminiscent of chili without beans, striped with mustard, and topped with raw onions. I am not a purist, so I add cheese and omit the offensive onions. There is an original Coney counter in downtown Detroit called Lafayette. Lined with mint green tiles and signed, faded pictures of Red Wings hockey players from past decades, Lafayette is the real deal. Watch dozens of dogs being grilled in the front window of the narrow shop and grab a seat (if you're lucky) and wait for your number to be called. As a teenager during one visit, my great-uncle took a group of us at midnight and started a tradition we strive to recreate years after his passing. My love for Coneys isn't just about a saucy dog, it's wrapped up in my nostalgia for my alternate summer life on the opposite coast.
This year, my nieces made their inaugural visit to Michigan to meet all of the relatives and it happened to fall on my birthday, so I flew in to surprise them. There had to be only one request for my celebratory lunch: Coney Dogs and a Boston Cooler. Since we couldn't get all the way downtown to go to Lafayette, we stayed local and popped into Leo's instead.
Mom and I ordered our Coneys and explained to the girls what they were and why they were special to Michigan, the humid state where they were currently experiencing their first bout of jet-lag. When my Boston Cooler arrived, a mound of vanilla ice cream floating in pop bubbles tickled my nose. Unlike a root beer float, this one is made with popular, extra-fizzy, Michigan-made Vernor’s ginger ale. They took turns spooning ice cream out of my glass as official tasters and I promised they could do the same when the food arrived. As they each took a bite of our family's sacred menu item, I secretly loved watching them wipe Coney sauce from their mouths with huge grins.
Passing down my love of Coneys was unintentional, but full of hot dogs and overdue hugs, I was proud to introduce my brother’s children to the messy-yet-tasty nostalgia we grew up craving.