David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Look at this:
It’s a Detroit-style pizza, a much-beloved specialty, which as Kriston Capps discussed here, is a square Sicilian-style pie traditionally baked on an auto-parts tray. (Here’s an exhaustive explainer on how to make your own.)
However, in this case the crust is topped by the components of another, completely unrelated Detroit-area specialty, the “Coney”—a hot dog with chili, chopped onion, and mustard.
Most people would agree that this is disgusting. It sort of makes sense—Coney sauce isn’t chili, after all, at least not in the Texas sense; it’s a fine-grained Mediterranean-spiced ground-beef slurry not entirely unlike an Italian ragu, served in diners and atop hot dogs in many Midwest burgs. In its related guise as Cincinnati chili, the same basic substance is served on spaghetti.
So it’s not a great conceptual leap to use this as pizza sauce. But then you get these cut-up hot dog slices and raw onions and the squirts of yellow mustard, and, well, c’mon. Just stop.
They’re serving this at Comerica Park in Detroit this summer, as part of the Major League Baseball’s ongoing metamorphosis from sports league into a purveyor of regional-atrocity stunt foods. Eating and drinking at the ballpark may be one America’s quintessential urban pleasures, but in the modern era it has also become an excuse to shock visitors with wiggy misinterpretations of the host city’s local delicacies. (See also: The crab-and-macaroni-and-cheese-topped hot dogs of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Cleveland’s stoner-hallucination Froot-Loop-topped dogs.
No lifestyle-pages Opening Day preview package is complete without a rundown of these delights. Harmless fun for the locals; you can go to a D-back game, pay $25 for a lethal bacon-and-cheese-filled jalapeño corndog, and resolve never to do it again. But for those who trek to Cleveland or Kansas City in the hopes of getting a taste of that city’s soul, there’s something pernicious about the phenomenon of running multiple unrelated hometown dishes through the regional delicacy generator and eating the resulting mess. A Detroit Coney Pizza demeans both Coney and pizza—and does no favors for the eater, either.
I should mention that several colleagues disagree on this point, as this intra-office Slack conversation proves.
(Note that CityLab staffer Jessica Hester, who has Detroit-area roots, also claims to want to eat this.)
Such shenanigans are not limited to ballparks, and they are not new. Since the 1980s, roughly around the time of the Great Cajun Blackening, the nation’s theme restaurants and fast-casual outlets have made an art out of taking regional dishes, turning them into Buffalo Chicken Caesar Salads, and stuffing them into burritos. A Coney pizza is far from the worst offender in the genre. Look at Cincinnati’s Pi Pizzeria, which serves a chili-sauce-topped deep-dish that works in a third unrelated regional foodstuff—goetta, a scrapple-like loaf of organ meats and oatmeal that normal people eat for breakfast.
This isn’t a food-grump’s plea for “authenticity,” a word rendered meaningless by the American melting pot’s ceaseless churn. Culinary snobbery is tiresome, whether pedants are arguing about the correct bouillabaisse or proper St. Louis toasted ravioli. But great regional foods are a finite resource, and they should be handled with respect. Like so many elements of American life worth talking about, most of them were born of immigrants—the early 20th-century Macedonians who gave us Coneys were refugees from the Balkan wars—determined to re-interpret the cuisines of their homelands to appeal to their new neighbors. These were dishes of poverty and desperation and enthusiasm. Buffalo wings became a thing not only because they are amazing, but because wings used to cost nine cents a pound. They deserve to be consumed as with at least some awareness of their inventors’ original intentions.
Instead, like exhausted rock stars, we’re mindlessly remixing our greatest hits, in ever-more-unappealing combinations. It’s no accident that the main players in the stunt-food canon began life as the immigrant fare of industrial cities. Having extracted so many other things of value from the Rust Belt, from jobs to residents, the rest of the nation is now ruthlessly exploiting its last great resource—its world-class trove of deep-friend and delicious bar foods. Someday, for this and many other reasons, our children will curse our names.