Hot or Mild Chili Powder for Flint Coney Sauce?

Commercial spices from GFS used for making Flint Coney sauce.

One of the questions to be answered when making the sauce for Flint Coneys is whether to use hot or mild chili powder in the spice blend. When a chili powder container’s label only says “chili powder”, you can assume it’s mild. Only the hot chili powders are labeled as such.

More commonly-available spices, with mild chili powder.

But which is historically accurate? One clue we have is the published recipe for the sauce at Gillie’s Coney Island in Mt. Morris, Michigan. In 1991 Dave Gillie included a variation of his sauce recipe in “A Taste of Michigan“, published by the Michigan Restaurant Asssociation, which I discuss in “Recipe for ‘Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs’, a Flint Style Coney Sauce.”

Dave Gillie’s published variation on his Flint Coney sauce. In indicating “(preferably hot)” for the chili powder, Gillie gives an indication of knowing that particular chili powder isn’t always available.

Chili powder is an American invention. According to “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” by Gustavo Arellano, Willie Gebhardt had been born in Germany and had immigrated to Texas. In wanting to use chili peppers year-round, he acquired what were likely ancho chili peppers, roasted and ground them, and began offering his chili powder commercially in 1894.

Advertisements for Gebhardt’s chili powder as they appeared in the North Carolina Christian Advocate on September 8, October 20, and November 10, 1910, respectively. The periodical regularly ran variations of ads for Eagle Brand products.

Gebhardt’s chili powder would have been quite hot, not mild as many are today. Later commercial variations such as Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand version would have been what Simion Brayan probably used in his first Flint Coney shop in 1925. Gebhardt’s company changed hands many times over the decades and a current version of his chili powder is still available today.

Gillie’s Coney Island Now an Employee-Owned Business

Two coneys I enjoyed at Gillie’s in Mt. Morris on July 26, 2021. This image is also part of the book’s approved cover art.

During my visit to Gillie’s Coney Island on July 26, 2021, Dave Gillie let me know that he was intending on selling the restaurant to his employees on September 1st. The information wasn’t public knowledge at the time, but he knew I’d want to include it in the book. The transfer occured on October 20th, as reported by mLive in the article “Retiring Gillie’s Coney Island owner passes business on to 17 employees” by Winter Keefer.

Recipe for ‘Gillie’s Coney Island Chili Dogs’, a Flint Style Coney Sauce” is one of the recipes available on this site, and will also be included in the book.

Hofmann’s Snappy Grillers and the Flint Coney

A package of Hofmann’s Snappy Grillers, made in Syracuse, New York. I purchased this package at Wegman’s in Liverpool.

Before Simion Brayan developed the Flint Coney prior to 1925, he had a hot dog in upstate New York with a sauce that he felt he could improve on. This is according to “Two To Go” published by the Genesee County Historical Society. Those authors reported that he ordered what was called a “coney island”, then quoted Brayan as saying it was “practically tasteless … unfit for a young man whose palate was accustomed to the hardy cuisine of southeast Europe … They used ground beef, a little chili powder, a little paprika, but it had no taste.” Thinking back to the Macedonian goulash he’d eaten back in Boufi, which contained beef heart and occasionally beef kidney, all in a beef suet base, he determined he could make a better coney sauce based on the heartiness of that Macedonian dish.

The Snappy Grillers as served at Heid’s of Liverpool in New York, with their own spicy mustard, and onions.

The hot dog enjoyed most there in the Rochester region is known as the White Hot. One of its current iterations is the Hofmann Snappy Griller, which is a pork and veal frankfurter in a natural casing.

As my wife is a travel nurse, we’re regular bouncing back and forth in various iterations from Wyoming to Maine. As our home is in Michigan, the drive to Maine, with breaks, can be done in one day, taking about 15 hours. We’ve now done this drive at least a dozen times.

The first time we did that drive in April of 2018, I was well aware of the story of Simion Brayan in that area. I had also located Heid’s of Liverpool as a possible location where he may have eaten that “coney.” So it came as a welcome surprise that I started seeing signs for Liverpool on the New York Thruway, especially since we were hungry. That was the first of many stops at Heid’s over these few years. Heid’s is almost exactly halfway through the trip, and we’ve only missed eating there twice, because of the pandemic. We always enjoy a couple Snappy Grillers there.

Snappy Grillers served with Flint Coney sauce, which I made on Nov. 15, 2021.

During one trip in early August of 2021, I made a side trip to the nearby Wegman’s and found the package of Snappy Grillers in the top image. After their being in the freezer for a few months, and in the cooler, they made it hard-frozen across the country. One night in November, we had them in Grand Forks, North Dakota, topped with real Flint Coney sauce This sauce was made from Abbott’s beef heart base spiced with Marty Embry’s Flint Coney spice. (No onions because of a sensitivity in the house.) They turned out to be rather exceptional, and are something we would certainly enjoy again.

“The Flint Coney: A Savory History”

The approved cover for my upcoming book.

On October 5, 2021, my upcoming book “The Flint Coney: A Savory History” was handed off to Production at The History Press. I’ve been working on this project in various renditions for eight years now, and it’s rather strange to be told “No, you can’t make any changes now until copy editing begins, which will likely be in early 2022.” I’ve started this blog as a place to list some of the current happenings in my continued research … Nothing major, merely a number of additions that have already begun to stack up.

In the meantime, Welcome!