When I was around 12 or so — it’s hard to remember exactly when, but it would have been at some point in the late ’70s — my dad got my brother and I in the car and took us on a nearly three-hour drive to get a hot dog.
Ah, what nostalgia can do for you. My dad, on that day, was having a craving for a Michigan hot dog. Not just any Michigan dog, mind you, but one at the place he downed more than a few as a kid growing up around Plattsburgh, N.Y. The place was called Clare and Carl’s, and a quick search online indicates the place is still alive — at least it was four years ago. Granted, we could have easily gone to the local A&W and gotten a tasty hot dog without embarking on an increasingly mouth-watering excursion, but sometimes I guess you’ve just got to have a small taste of home.
As a kid, I remember being thrilled to go to Nathan’s on Coney Island and have a Coney dog there — except it wasn’t called a Coney, it was a Michigan. Nathan’s remains a sort-of Hot Dog Stand Hall of Fame member, as it is home to a world-famous hot dog eating contest every Fourth of July. But, I also wondered, was there some equally renowned place in Michigan where I could eat this kind of a hot dog? If these hot dogs were awesome on Coney Island, certainly Michigans had to be great in … Detroit? Kalamazoo? And was there any real difference between Michigans and Coneys, anyway?
It turns out there’s a reason why I had a Michigan on Coney Island. According to the “Michigan hot dog” entry on Wikipedia, “the original Michigan sauce was created by Mr. George Todoroff in Jackson, Mich. The sauce was originally created to be used as Chili sauce on Coney Island hot dogs. In 1914, Mr. Todoroff founded the Jackson Coney Island restaurant and created his Coney Island Chili Sauce recipe.” Later, the entry notes that ‘“Michigan hot dogs’ are never referred to by that name in Michigan itself, nor anywhere else in the Midwest,” and that, similarly, the ‘“Coney Dog’ is not called as such on Coney Island, or anywhere else in New York State; it’s called either a ‘Michigan’ or a ‘Red Hot.”’
I’m not sure when the last time my dad went back to Clare and Carl’s; I know I’ve never made a return trip. But I do know I occasionally think about food from my youth, though I can’t exactly get in my car and drive more than 1,400 miles to satisfy a sudden craving. One of my favorites — the aforementioned hometown A&W — is long, long gone. Another, however, is very much alive, and that’s Compton’s, a greasy spoon diner that has somehow managed to stay vibrant amidst dozens of upscale restaurants and shops in downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Compton’s at once notable for its incredibly efficient service — you seemingly blink a couple of times after you place your order and the food’s in front of you — and its home-cooked tastiness. Growing up, we got breakfast at Compton’s once in a while, and not only was the food well worth the trip, but so was the people-watching along Broadway as we ate, if we were lucky to get the big front window that overlooked the busy sidewalk. Compton’s also took on a new role of sorts upon returning home after college; after every payday I went there and got a sizeable steak sandwich for just $4.
Another place I’m nostalgic for that I’ll never experience again is the Horn & Hardart automat in New York City. Probably without surprise, I don’t have any recollection whatsoever of the food. There was, though, a special uniqueness, a one-of-kind ambience.
From Wikipedia: “These cafeterias featured prepared foods behind small glass windows and coin-operated slots, beginning with buns, beans, fish cakes and coffee. Eventually, they served lunch and dinner entrees, such as beef stew and Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.”
A meal behind a small glass door? What could be cooler to a kid than that? I went a couple of times, but alas — the last one closed in 1991, right around the time I moved to the Big Apple to live and work.
Eventually, I settled for a French toast-kielbasa-juice-coffee breakfast I went on to enjoy nearly every Sunday for a year at Leshko’s, a Ukranian diner on the corner of East Sixth Street and Avenue A, a block from where I had my first-ever solo apartment. I’d sit for long stretches staring at the Sunday Times while also making occasional eyes at a certain waitress (no conversation, just innocent leering). A little more than a year later, the chicken stir fry dinner at Erie, Pa.’s Plymouth restaurant brought me inexpensive (and good) comfort food during a very difficult transitional time.
Perhaps I’ll someday return to those and other far-away restaurants I maintain memories of. Or, perhaps, I’ll find a way to get to Clare and Carl’s, as I’ve read that the area around Plattsburgh is particularly known for its Michigan hot dogs.
Or, I could go to the Sioux Falls Sonic — as we did for the first time this past Saturday. I didn’t notice they had Michigans until after I was halfway into my burger, sadly enough, but they’ve got ’em — and they also bring the food to the driver’s side window of your car just like the old A&W of my childhood.
Ah, there’s another blog in there somewhere, if my stomach can stand it.