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Voices Spring-Summer 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “Michigan: No Longer Just a State” by Lynn Case Ekfelt here.
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Volume 32
Spring-Summer
2006
Voices

Michiagan: No Longer Just a State by Lynn Case Ekfelt

Foodways As we pulled to a stop in Clare and Carl’s parking lot, a pleasant young man hustled out the door and asked if he could take our order. He wasn’t wearing roller skates, but everything else about the diner was straight out of American Graffiti. The threatening skies made the idea of eating from a tray attached to our car window rather unappealing, so we thanked him and headed inside past a row of picnic tables, another dining option at this historic hot dog stand. We’d actually eaten lunch already at Clare and Carl’s Other Place, where the tables were full, and where—in defiance of the blandishments of an extensive sandwich menu—most of the clientele were tucking into Michigans, or Texas Red Hots, as they are also called. We wanted to talk to Terry Spiegel, present owner of both branches of Clare and Carl’s, to get the full story on Plattsburgh’s most famous food. Terry was busy at the original stand, stirring sauce, steaming buns, and cooking hot dogs, so we came right over after paying our bill at the Other Place.

Although there are several origin stories about the Michigan, it’s pretty definite that a Mrs. Otis, who came to Plattsburgh from Michigan, had the idea first. Gordie Little of the Press-Republican did extensive research on these hot dogs and found an ad in the May 27, 1927, edition of the Plattsburgh Daily Republican, inviting readers to the “opening of the Michigan Hot-Dog Stand located between the two dance halls on Lake Shore Road—Management of Otis and Quigley.” Terry filled me in on the Clare and Carl connection. They were Plattsburgh natives, who had been selling kraut dogs in Westchester County, then moved back home in June of 1942 and set up a stand on the farm owned by his parents. They met Mrs. Otis, who introduced them to the Michigan. Clare thought these dogs would be more popular in the North Country than kraut dogs, so she came up with her own version of the sauce. The stand has been open continuously and in family hands ever since.

Terry explained that fifteen or twenty years ago there were just four Michigan stands in the city—Clare and Carl’s, Nitzi’s, Ronnie’s, and Gus’s—but now they’ve spread everywhere around the northeastern part of the North Country. I can vouch for that. A little fifties-style diner two hours away in Potsdam not only sells Michigans, but also offers a bowl of Michigan—the meat sauce without the hot dog and bun.

So what exactly is this Michigan? It starts with a hot dog. Clare and Carl’s and McSweeney’s both use Tobin’s First Prize, but other cooks swear by Glazier’s from Potsdam. Then there’s the secret sauce, and I do mean secret. Michigan makers reply with a sneer and a scornful laugh if you have the temerity to request a recipe. We ate in two restaurants for comparison and found the sauces very different: one bland, the other deliciously spicy. Who knows what other variations we might have found, had we larger stomachs! Most people request onions on their Michigan, but some like them sprinkled on top, while others order “a Michigan—buried,” meaning one with the onions buried in the bun under the sauce. We ordered our first one that way, thinking we were very clever to have figured out that we were less likely to lose our onions that way. Ha! We had not yet read the dreadful warning on McSweeney’s menu: “Onions buried may cause sauce to fall off hot dog due to bun crisis of 2002.”


Michigan

1 pound ground round or chuck
1 8-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup water
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
Garlic salt to taste
1 pound hot dogs (Glazier’s are a local favorite)
New England–style hot dog buns, with the slit in the top
Mustard
Chopped onions

Brown the ground beef, and drain off the fat. The resulting pieces of meat must be crumbled very fine. Add the tomato paste and water, mixing them into the meat. Add the mustard; combine the other spices, and blend them in thoroughly. Steam or grill the hot dogs. Steam the bun. Place the hot dog in the bun and cover it with mustard and a generous helping of sauce. The onions can be buried under the sauce or sprinkled on top.



That statement forced us to consider the final element in the Michigan: the bun. Originally Michigans were served on steamed rolls from the local bakery, Bouyea-Fassett. These rolls were longer and heavier than the hot dog rolls sold today. You could buy them uncut, age them a day to keep them from falling apart in the steamer, then slash them open on the top and proceed with building your Michigan. In 2002, however, Bouyea- Fassett was bought out, and the new company, ignoring the desperate pleas of Plattsburghers, discontinued the buns. Now stand owners must make do with much shorter and shallower New England–style rolls from other companies—sadly more prone to overflow when filled with dog, sauce, and buried onions. The buns are steamed not only to warm them, we learned, but also to make it easier to stuff all those essentials into them.

I never did get to the bottom of the Michigan versus Texas Red Hot question. I guess it doesn’t really matter, though. Anyone from Plattsburgh or thereabouts knows that a rose by any other name smells just as sweetly of onions.



 






Lynn Case Ekfelt is retired from her position as a special collections librarian and university archivist at St. Lawrence University. She is the author of Good Food Served Right: Traditional Recipes and Food Customs from New York’s North Country (Canton, New York: Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 2000), available on-line from our New York Traditions gallery store.


Michigan makers reply with a sneer and a scornful laugh if you have the temerity to request a recipe.





This column appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Spring-Summer 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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