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A chili dog is a hot dog topped with spicy sauce and possibly cole slaw or cheese.
It’s hard enough to pinpoint the origin of the hot dog. Who first put a sausage in a long bun so it could be eaten without utensils?
And who had the bright idea to top that dog with chili? Some say it goes back to Detroit, 1917, and the first “Coney Island” hot dog stand. At the time, people thought of hot dogs as a Coney Island dish. About the same time, hot dog vendors from Coney Island emigrated to Rhode Island, where they created the “New York System” hot dog, topped with finely ground beef sauce. They also went to Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. There, “Texas hot weiner” (yes, e-i, not i-e) became the name for bunned franks under a blanket of spicy, beanless chili.
Historical confusion mounts when considering the “Michigan.” They serve this chili-topped hot dog only in and around Plattsburgh, New York and up in Quebec (but not in Michigan). The Coney Island of Detroit may or may not have inspired it.
Hot dog cooks originally from Greece settled in Cincinnati where they introduced the idea of shredded cheese atop a chili dog that served as a companion for their famous five-way chili.
Cooks start with a hot dog that has been boiled, steamed, or grilled. Or, in Connecticut, they sometimes boil it in oil. Almost always, the hot dog stays whole. But around Port Chester, New York, dog men bisect it horizontally. This way, it becomes a wider bed that will hold more chili.
Chili varies dramatically from region to region, even city to city. Beef sauce without beans crowns the classic Coney. But in Fall River, Massachusetts, you will find bean dogs. A bean dog comes topped with meatless chili. Many Connecticut chili dogs omit both beef and beans. In these cases, onion-pepper relish gives the hot dog a spicy glow. At the extreme end of the chili dog spectrum you will find the Sonoran hot dog of Tucson, Arizona. For this, a bacon-wrapped, all-beef frank comes smothered with pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, grilled or raw onions, a line of yellow mustard, a green ribbon of hot jalapeno sauce, and an artistic squiggle of mayonnaise.
Georgia boasts the oddest variation: a scrambled dog. Cooks at Dinglewood Pharmacy fill a rectangular dish with a chopped-up hot dog, meat-and-bean chili, pickles, onions, and oyster crackers. No bun at all!
The Dixie dog, first configured in Huntington, West Virginia, in the 1930s, adds cole slaw atop the chili. Dixie dogs vary in character. In much of the Deep South, the slaw is a light, sweet, salad-like frill. In El Reno, Oklahoma, it’s a cool stew of sweet, mustard-tweaked chopped cabbage.