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Coney Island Diner in Mans­field, Ohio. | Wiki­media Commons.

Most people know Jackson, Michigan (if they know it at all) as the birth­place of the Repub­lican Party. But equally important — and trag­i­cally over­looked outside of local lore — is the town’s culinary claim to fame: home of the original coney dog.

Okay, yes, yes, you know all about coneys. About the famous rivalry between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. About the Food Network spe­cials. About how last summer, that stunt writer Charlie LeDuff cleaned the greasers and played The Last Good Man of Detroit in the pages of The Weekly Standard. But Detroit coneys are for tourists.

The Jackson coney is a dif­ferent — alto­gether more subtle — tube of meat sloshed in sauce. First con­ceived by the Mace­donian immi­grant George Todoroff in 1914, the coney was intended to be a snack for pas­sengers and workers hanging out at the Jackson railway station. Todoroff named his cre­ation after similar-looking hotdogs he had seen while passing through Coney Island in New York, except these new treats also included a now-famous com­bi­nation ground beef sauce, diced onions, and a strip of mustard — all served on a steamed bun. Todoroff kept his stand open 24 hours a day, and coneys soon became popular throughout the local area.

Mean­while, the lamps were going out all over Europe — forcing many Greek and Mace­do­nians to flee the Balkan Wars out to the Midwest. Many of these immi­grants passed through Coney Island and inde­pen­dently con­ceived the idea for the coney dog in places as dis­parate as Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Duluth, Min­nesota, where they serve coneys con queso (classic).

The industry chugged along swim­mingly until World War II-era rations imposed beef shortages on the home front. The shortages caused many coney stands to cut back on ground beef sauce servings. In Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, some stands turned to serving fried frog legs. But in Jackson, Todoroff inno­vated, switching to ground beef heart in his sauce instead of the typical ground meat, now reserved for those in the armed forces.

And it was here, through the aus­terity of World War II, that the Jackson coney — as it exists today — was born. No other city in Michigan (or any other place where people eat coneys) serves the snack with a beef heart sauce. In fact, the anomaly may make Jackson the top con­sumer of beef heart con­sumed per capita in the nation — with more than 2,000 pounds sold in coney stands every week, according to a 2014 MLive story on the phe­nomenon.

So why isn’t the Jackson coney more well known?

Probably because Todoroff retired in 1945. After 31 years of business and more than 17 million coneys sold, the inventor of a Michigan emblem passed the family business on to his sons, who, although restau­ra­teurs them­selves, did not pre­serve the original stand outside the train station.

The Todoroff family does, however, still sell its special “Jackson-style” coney sauce in local grocery stores — much in the same way Grotto Pizza sells its tomato sauce in Delaware super­markets or how Steak n’ Shake leaves its special sea­soning out for a savvy cus­tomer to slip into his blazer pocket in South Bend, Indiana.

And of course, the other coney stands in Jackson carry on the storied legacy. There are two still located near the train station, Vir­ginia Coney Island and Jackson Coney Island, both of which serve coneys with a recipe similar to the one Todoroff used. They’re quiet places — good first dates — often bypassed by trav­ellers on I-94.

And even though the men’s restroom in Vir­ginia Coney does not lock, and the faucet water sprays all over your pants — that’s just the way it should be: The Jackson coney is all heart.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    does the col­legian look at any metrics for these par­ticular story arcs? This one sounds like a good idea, but is pretty tired. I can’t imagine these stories of fast food places in michigan are getting many reads?