A Coney Island of the Belly

Lafayette Coney Island, Detroit
Coney Island hot dogs with trimmings from Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit. Photo by Beau R from Yelp. Used by permission.

A Coney Island of the Belly
By John Unger Zussman

June 1968. We emerge boisterous from the prom, the night still balmy. Six of us pile into my GTO and speed toward downtown Detroit to Lafayette Coney Island. Brightly lit, open till three, the Lafayette serves unkosher hot dogs on a Wonder Bread bun, slathered in mustard, smothered in thin chili, topped with a pile of raw onions, greasy fries on the side. Heaven. These Coney dogs have little to do with Coney Island, New York, but they are a Detroit institution and we grew up with them. We cram sweaty into a booth, raising scarcely an eyebrow in rented tuxedos and spaghetti-strap gowns. The Lafayette has seen it all. No need for menus: One Up Without for me, foregoing the onions, hoping for later; One Chili Only for you. We are young, fearless, on the town.

By the eighties, Coney Islands have gone upscale, dotting the wealthy Detroit suburbs like rhinestones among sapphires. We live in California now, married all these years, but we make a point when visiting to go for Coneys. Though our tastes run now to crusted salmon and risotto, and the fries go straight to our waists, the Coneys always taste like 1968, and youth, and prom night, and eager kisses in the back seat.

October 2001. In town for my sister’s funeral, we make our customary pilgrimage, but the Coneys seem flat and empty, the flavors crass, the mustard cheap, the chili a health hazard. I can’t believe we’re still eating this crap. We’ve turned a corner, crested a hill. Next stop, geezerhood. We’ve lost sight of 1968, buried in the dark recesses of our memories and taste buds. We look ahead to senility and the early-bird special at Bouchon.

Copyright © 2010 by John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.

Why “America the Beautiful” Should Be Our National Anthem
By John Unger Zussman

No, it’s not because the “Star-Spangled Banner” (let’s call it SSB) is unsingable. The notes span about an octave and a half, which is within most people’s range. (The issue is that different people’s ranges don’t necessarily overlap.) But I digress.

6 thoughts on “A Coney Island of the Belly

  1. Brings back many many fond memories of many a stoned night somehow ending up at the Lafayette and loving every minute of it….


  2. Oh no! I thought, reading the final paragraph. And then I thought, yep, I know what he means. I’ve had the same experience — not with hot dogs (I’m vegetarian now) but with certain sweets. Reese’s peanut butter cups are not available in Australia, and after I first moved there, I’d always buy them when I got back to the States. You know what? They’re kind of icky.


  3. how old do we have to be before we like that ‘crap’ again, giving neither a damn nor a care? are you sure there’s not another paragraph to this little vignette, still to come?


  4. Jennifer, you pose a good question, and of course I don’t know for sure. If it were only a matter of eating better and losing our tolerance for crappy food, I’d say you might be right; it might be reversible. But it’s also about other kinds of loss — losing loved ones, losing our youth — and there I fear there is no going back.

    Thanks to all of you for reading and for your comments.



  5. That was great – thanks – there are many emotional nuances to food – and the hotdog for a red-blooded american boy (hmm, that’s interesting, weenies are patriotic) – well, what can i say? I still like my dogs – my wife as a southerner says any without chili are grotesque.


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