What does it mean to be middle class in America? Nearly a century ago, in Detroit — which was then the burning core of the country's middle class — the answer might have looked like a hot dog: a Detroit Coney, to be precise.
At its most basic, a Detroit Coney is a kind of chili dog — "a steamed bun, with a natural-casing hot dog, beef and pork," explains Joe Grimm, author of the book Coney Detroit. "And on top of that hot dog — which should be grilled, not boiled, not deep-fried — goes the sauce, the most important part."
All along the streets of Detroit, you see big neon signs advertising Coneys — a word that refers not just to the hot dogs but to the hundreds of eateries that sell them. Eateries like Red Hots Coney Island, which has been serving up Coneys since 1921.
Owner Rich Harlan has been working there for 48 years. He says his great-aunt and -uncle started the restaurant after immigrating to Michigan from Greece. "We are a block away from the first assembly plant that was made by Ford Motor Co.," Harlan says. "That's how they got started."
Indeed, the story of how the Coney became Detroit's signature dish is deeply entwined with the history of the city's auto industry.
In the 1920s and '30s, Detroit teemed with workers drawn there by Henry Ford's promise of a $5-a-day wage. "People came here from around the world to get that money," Grimm says. As a result, "the [city's] occupancy rate went over 100 percent." Housing became so tight that rooms were sometimes rented for eight-hour stints — long enough for one renter to sleep while another occupant was working a shift at the Ford factory, Grimm says.
"They called that hot boxing," Grimm explains, "because the sheets never cooled off. So you had all these men living here, and they didn't have any place to be when they weren't at work. So they went around the city looking for hot lunches, fast lunches. And so we had a lot of lunch-counter-style restaurants."
Coneys blossomed in this atmosphere. As The Salt has reported, among those streaming into Detroit during this era were newly arrived Greek immigrants like Harlan's great-aunt and great-uncle. But before heading to Michigan, they first had to pass through New York's Ellis Island — "not too far from the famed amusements of Coney Island, where Nathan Handwerker was already peddling his famous hot dogs."
These Greek immigrants, Grimm notes, saw the hot dog as an all-American food — one perfectly suited to the demands of bustling Detroit. And hot dogs, he says, were a relatively cheap business to break into, especially for workers with limited English skills.
"So I think they said, 'We're gonna make the hot dogs we saw people eating when we got here, and we're gonna add this sauce to it,' " he says of the Coney's signature chili sauce. "If you go to Greece, you can't find a Coney Island. But you'll find something called a red sauce, and I think this is descended from that Greek red sauce."
Coney fever took off. In the 1920s and '30s, says Harlan, Detroit workers with "20 minutes or so for lunch" would cram into Red Hots and similar Coney shops.
"You could see them swarming here to get two hot dogs," Harlan says. "And they would run to the bar, which was across the street, get a shot and a beer, and then run to the plant and read their paper and eat their two hot dogs. Because they were not to be late or you got fired, back then."
Carol Harlan, Rich's wife and co-owner of Red Hots, says that "back in its heyday, this little Coney was open 24 hours a day — didn't even have a lock on the door."
"When they could hear that whistle blow at the Ford plant," she adds, "they would put two Coneys in a bag and set them on the steam table. And the guys would run in, throw their money in a box — it was all honor system — and just grab the bag of Coneys and run back, because they were not gonna be late for work."
This story is part of The New Middle, a series examining what it means to be middle class in America.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For some people, achieving middle-class status is all about owning a car or moving to the suburbs. Throughout American history, being middle-class has also been closely tied to food. It's the American dream on a bun for our series The New Middle.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think middle class is - you can pay your bills comfortably. You're steady.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean, my sleeves only roll up so far.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, I always see it as someone who actually owns their own home.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah, being able to afford a place to live and pay your bills and enjoy life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I think we will kind of destroy ourselves without that middle class, man.
SHAPIRO: I recently went to Detroit, Mich., which was the burning core of America's middle class nearly a century ago. And all along the streets, you see big, neon signs advertising a symbol of that middle-class legacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOE GRIMM: The Detroit area probably has about five hundred Coney Island restaurants.
SHAPIRO: Detroit Coneys, the food that fueled this city's middle-class boom. Joe Grimm is the author of the book "Coney Detroit."
GRIMM: I figured people in Detroit would like a book about their food.
SHAPIRO: Most basic definition - a Detroit Coney is a kind of a chili dog.
GRIMM: It's just a Coney dog. A Coney dog is a steamed bun with a natural-casing hotdog, beef and pork. On top of that hot dog - which should be grilled, not boiled, not deep-fried - goes the sauce, the most important part.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: Joe took me to meet one of the keepers of that sauce.
RICH HARLAN: My name's Rich Harlan from Red Hots Coney Island.
SHAPIRO: And this place has been making Detroit Coneys since 1921?
R. HARLAN: That's correct.
SHAPIRO: How have you been making Detroit Coneys here?
R. HARLAN: Forty-eight years.
SHAPIRO: So you, like, grew up eating these, I would imagine.
R. HARLAN: I've got a picture on the wall with a mop in my hand when I first started, and I've got a picture of myself not with a mop. I'm the head mopper now.
R. HARLAN: My great-aunt and uncle came from Greece, and they started the Coney Island here. And we're a block away from the first assembly plant, which was made by Ford Motor Company. That's how they got started.
SHAPIRO: Paint a scene of what this place would've looked like in the first decade of its existence, in the 1920s or '30s.
R. HARLAN: Thousands and thousands of people. It was amazing. Nobody lollygagged back then. You got 20 minutes or so for lunch. You could see them swarming here to get two hot dogs. And they would run to the bar, which is across the street, get a shot and a beer and then run back to the plant and read their paper and eat their two hot dogs because they were not to be late or you got fired back then.
CAROL HARLAN: Back in its heyday, this little Coney was open 24 hours a day, didn't even have a lock on the door.
SHAPIRO: That's Carol Harlan, Rich's wife and co-owner of Red Hots.
C. HARLAN: When they could hear that whistle blow at the Ford plant, they would put two Coneys in a bag and set them on the steam table. And the guys would run in, throw their money in a box - it was all honor system - and just grab the bag of Coneys and run back because they were not going to be late for work.
SHAPIRO: Would people to eat two Coneys a day five days a week?
R. HARLAN: Oh yeah. It was fast, it was easy and it was good.
SHAPIRO: They're good for you.
C. HARLAN: There you go.
R. HARLAN: Absolutely. Them guys lived to be hundreds of years old.
(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: I asked Joe Grimm, so how did a Coney go from being the lunch of choice for the autoworkers to the food that defines Detroit?
GRIMM: In the '20s, as Richard describes, this place was going crazy. When the $5-a-day was announced by Henry Ford, the people who were signing up for those jobs were signing up at this plant a block away from here.
SHAPIRO: That saying - Henry Ford agreed to pay his workers $5 a day.
GRIMM: Made headlines around the world, it was such a big wage. People came here from around the world to get that money. The occupancy rate went over 100 percent. You might show up at a place to rent a room and they would say, well, we don't have any openings - except we do have an opening in this room during the midnight shift because that guy's working now. So you could rent a room for just one shift.
SHAPIRO: So people would rent rooms for an eight-hour sleeping period and then the room would go to someone else.
GRIMM: Right. They called that hotboxing because the sheets never cooled off. So you had all these men living here. They didn't have a place to be when they weren't at work. So they were around the city, they were looking for hot lunches, fast lunches. And so we had about a lunch-counter-style restaurants.
SHAPIRO: Explain the connection to Coney Island, N.Y. Why - you know, Detroit is so far from New York.
GRIMM: Our guess is the Greeks came here, saw what Americans were eating and said, I've got to hire myself because I can't get a job. You know, I'm speaking Greek. I have a name people either want to shorten or mispronounce. I'm going to have to go in business for myself. So I think they said, we're going to make the hotdogs we saw people eating when we got here and we're going to add this sauce to them. If you go to Greece, you can't find a Coney Island. But you'll find something called a red sauce. And I think this sauce is descended from that Greek red sauce.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: Well, think we've got to try them, right? I mean...
R. HARLAN: ...Absolutely.
SHAPIRO: What's the lingo?
R. HARLAN: Two one one. You'd want two with everything on one plate. That's two on one.
SHAPIRO: The language of the Detroit Coney.
R. HARLAN: Sit down. You're going to have best dog you've ever had.
SHAPIRO: Can't wait. All right, first bite. Oh yeah, it's the best Coney I've ever eaten.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
R. HARLAN: Beautiful.
SHAPIRO: A bite of the middle class in Detroit, Mich. Every week between now that the election, we'll be exploring The New Middle. And we want to know what being in the middle class means to you. Send us a tweet with the hashtag #TheNewMiddle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.