There is a unique food creation that exists along the western shore of Lake Champlain. It’s called a michigan, or michigan hot dog. That’s right a small “m”; unlike the state. It consists of a steamed hot dog, on a steamed roll, with a tomato based meat sauce. Often it is sprinkled with finely diced fresh onion and a ribbon of mustard is added. Whether the onions and mustard are “buried” under the sauce or the dog, or whether they are even added at all, is a matter of personal preference.They are best eaten at the place of purchase. If purchased “to go” and transported in a vehicle, they should come with a warning label. “Transport only with windows wide open”; otherwise your vehicle will definitely have a distinct aroma for at least a week!
There is much speculation about where the name michigan originated. Some claim the distinctive sauce was actually first created in the state of Michigan. One legend claims that a gentleman visited New York and fell in love with the Coney Island hot dogs; a natural case beef hot dog, topped with a bean-less chili sauce. He returned to his home state of Michigan and devised his own sauce to accompany his hot dog. From there the legend claims that he relocated to the North Country where it became a popular treat. No one really knows for sure. I laugh as I recall overhearing a visitor enjoying this delicacy outside one of our many roadside michigan stands. “What do they call these again? Minnesotas?” she asked.
Extending Summer with Flavor
To think of michigans is to think of the summer season within the Lake Champlain Region. In fact the opening of the drive-in/take out michigan stands are a sure sign of spring. It used to be that they were only available during the summer, unless you made your own at home. Today we are fortunate that some deli’s and quick-stop shops continue to offer them through the off season. Boyea’s Grocery and Deli, at the juncture of Witherbee and Plank Roads in Moriah, offers a super special every Monday; michigans for 99 cents each! It may not be quite the same as consuming one while basking in the hot summer sun, but at least your taste buds may be transported to summer mode when you stop for a lunch after shoveling the drive.
Though each establishment’s sauce may be fundamentally similar, they all have slight variations. True connoisseurs of michigans often boast that they can identify which stand it came from merely by taste or even appearance. These connoisseurs will also tell you that a true michigan has certain requirements. It is comprised of a steamed, not boiled or grilled, all beef frankfurter. The steamed frank is placed in a steamed top-loaded bun. (Often these are called New England Style hot dog rolls. They rest flat on the bottom; unlike the side-opening, elongated, hamburger style rolls). The mustard used must be a true yellow mustard and the onion garnish, if used at all, must be fresh white onions, finely diced; no piece larger than a pencil eraser.
When it comes to the sauce, even the connoisseurs differ in opinion, but all will agree the sauce is definitely not a chili sauce, nor are large chunks of ground beef permitted. They all agree that the sauce should be just the right consistency. It should cling to the dog, not slide off into the bun (or run onto your fingers and down your chin; as I have known to happen).
For me, the ideal michigan sauce is slightly sweet, somewhat tangy with a bit of an acidic bite. I do prefer mine “with”, that’s the local ordering term meaning with onions, and I also like mustard added; directly on the roll, under the dog please.
The Famous Gene's
Most will agree food preference is often linked to what one “grew up with”. Having lived in the Lake Champlain Region most of my life, I immediately think of Gene’s Hot Dog Stand on the Main Street of Port Henry whenever I think “ michigan”. I can recall standing in line at Gene’s for what seemed like hours waiting to place an order. Often his large parking lot would be overflowing with autos. Gene Williams began operating this stand in the late 1940’s and the place is considered “famous”, at least by local standards. For many, the mention of “Gene’s” is synonymous with the word “michigan”. Overlooking the lake and the Lake Champlain Bridge, the yellow roadside stand still operates today; usually late April through mid-October, though under new ownership. Rumor has it that the current owner did purchase the original recipe along with the business, guaranteeing success.
My favorite sauce though has to be the one my mother made; again, “what one grows up with”. Hers was distinctive, not exactly like Gene’s nor anyone else’s really, but her sauce was extremely popular among friends and family members. Do an online search for a michigan hot dog sauce recipe and you will come up with dozens of variations, though I’ve never seen one quite like Mom’s. I do know many recipes found will say; “ready in 30 minutes”; that was not the case for my mother’s. No one was allowed to touch it for at least 2 days. “The flavors have to meld”, she would insist. Preparations for family picnics had to start early. She often would prepare giant batches. It freezes very well.
I will share her recipe with you. Keep in mind my mother did a great deal of cooking by taste-testing along the way. Often measurements were not precise or had little personal notes attached like “reduce amount for Joe”. You may need to adjust to suit your own taste preferences. Here is a smaller batch recipe; but enough for a dozen dogs at least.
1 tblsp butter
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 cup catsup
1 can tomato sauce (8 0z)
1 tblsp apple cider vinegar
2 tblsp dark brown sugar
2 tblsp lemon juice
1 tblsp yellow mustard
1 tblsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup very finely grated and/or ground cabbage
Saute onion and beef in saucepan (separating beef into almost a granular consistency with wooden spoon) until beef is thoroughly browned and onion soft and translucent. Add remaining ingredients and simmer on low, stirring frequently until somewhat reduced. Cabbage should be thoroughly cooked, soft and tender. (Over an hour at least). Add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for 48 hours; “for flavors to meld” of course. Serve over steamed hot dogs on steamed rolls. Top with a stripe of yellow mustard and finely diced white onion, if desired.
I’ve never seen another recipe that included the cabbage. It does add a great bonus flavor to the sauce, not found elsewhere. However, I can’t help but wonder. Was it added as a flavor enhancement or a mother’s way of getting more “greens” into her flock.
Experience it yourself
Don't just take our word for it, come see for yourself. The Lake Champlain region, also known as the Adirondack Coast, has a variety of Inns, B&Bs, cabins and motels along with great places to eat and things to do. So check us out and start planning an ADK getaway today.