Looking for a new recipe for a tailgate or fall party? Need to feed a lot of people at a Super Bowl gathering? Want a recipe that most people will never have heard of before and will have them clamoring for more?
You need to make Michigan Red Hots!
Michigans have something for everyone. Well, except vegetarians. And the gluten intolerant. And dieters. Almost everyone.
They have a history, dating back to the 1920s.
They are the subject of long-standing debates and rifts among family members.
They are homey and regional yet are on the verge of being discovered. You can be on the leading edge of the Michigan revolution.
Make these now and you’ll be able to say, “I was Michigan before Michigan was cool!”
Okay, okay—so what is a Michigan? It’s a hot dog in a bun with meat sauce on top.
Don’t you think that sounds special? Well, it is.
Michigan Red Hots have been a favorite in the North Country of upstate New York almost 90 years. This area is the northeast corner of New York State, closer to Montreal, Quebec, and Burlington, Vermont, than New York City.
It’s not quite the same as a chili dog or a Coney or a Texas Red Hot.
In this part of the world, people have been going to roadside stands since the 1920s, looking for Michigans.
No one really knows where the recipe came from or why the delicacy is called a Michigan. There are many tales about Coney Island hot dogs meeting sauce made by a woman from Nashville. The Nashville woman married someone from Detroit and then they moved to Plattsburgh, New York, and starting selling the hot dogs and called them Michigans.
I say, who cares? It’s not important where the name came from. What’s important is trying Michigans at as many stands and diners as possible, to find the uber-Michigan.
Everyone, everyone, has an opinion about the best Michigan. Once there was a stand called Nitzi’s that was definitely in the running but Nitzi retired and sold the business but, the lore says, he didn’t pass his sauce recipe along to the new owners.
Is Nitzi’s sauce lost? Or is it being used at another small shop? Was it best?
Many will say Clare and Carl’s is best. You could buy them here, as long as the building continues to stand! Others swear by Gus’s Red Hot’s as the quintessential Michigan. McSweeney’s is a relative newcomer, Ronnie’s has been around forever but is very different than all the others, and so on, and so on.
The differences among these are subtle but don’t try telling that to the fans of any of them. Husbands and wives can’t agree. Parents and children are split. Compromises abound—“I’ll go to Clare and Carl’s today but next time we go to Gus’s!
The keys for a Michigan seem to be:
- A thick meat sauce, slightly hot with spices, spiced with cumin and almost grainy in consistency
- A steamed hot dog, often a bright red hot dog made with a natural casing
- A big, sturdy, top-cut bun
- Rough-chopped raw onion, either on top or “buried” under the sauce
- A line of yellow mustard
If you order a Michigan in a restaurant and want to sound like a local, you say “Two Michigans with” if you want onions. My husband says, “Two Michigans with, buried” and I say, “One Michigan, without.” They are usually served with French fries and coleslaw, which is all really nice but the focus here is on the Michigan.
In the last couple of years, the secret has started to get out. Serious Eats made the Michigan one of their hot dogs of the week a couple of years ago and the reviewer said, “New York state’s Michigan “Red Hots” are one of the most fascinating hot dog varieties that I’ve come across so far.”
Rachael Ray did what I consider to be an evil thing—presented a recipe for basic Michigan sauce but then felt the need to add macaroni and cheese to it and put the whole con-glop-eration on top of a hot dog. The woman has no sense of a) tradition or b) moderation!
If you can’t make it to upstate New York but yearn for this special treat, the recipe that follows is one I’ve had for about 30 years. It is purported to be Clare and Carl’s recipe but tastes, to me, more like the Michigans from Gus’s. Whatever. This recipe makes a sauce that is very close to the typical Michigan you’d get at most places in the North Country.
1 29-ounce can of tomato sauce
2 pounds hamburger
3-6 tsp. chili powder (I use 4 ½)
2 tsp. dried onion*
2 tsp. garlic powder*
3-4 Tablespoons Tabasco sauce (I use 3 Tbls. and use Frank’s Hot Sauce because I lived in Buffalo a long time and Frank’s is the primary ingredient in Buffalo wing sauce!)
2 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. cumin
Mix all ingredients together, except meat.
Add meat raw and cook while stirring occasionally with a fork. The fork is important to get the consistency right! Michigan sauce doesn’t have chunks!
Simmer 2-3 hours. You can do this all in a slow cooker but, if you leave the top on, the sauce will be very soupy. You want the sauce to be pretty thick when it’s done.
The recipe makes quite a lot of sauce. I freeze some of it in ice cube trays and, when the cubes are frozen, I pop them out and put them in the freezer in a freezer bag. Then, when I want a Michigan, I just grab two cubes and put them in the microwave for a little while!
If you’re not a fan of hot dogs, you can put Michigan sauce on a hamburger roll, for a Sloppy Joe kind of sandwich; up here that’s called a sauce burger!
* You can get fancy and use real onion and garlic—maybe it’ll taste good but it won’t be a Michigan any more!