Whenever I ask my dad about his hometown of Binghamton, a small city of about 45,000 in upstate New York, he mostly talks about spiedies. Spiedies, he explains, are the single greatest culinary delicacy known to man. They’re only found in Binghamton, and locals are fiercely proud of them. Ask anyone from Binghamton to tell you about their town, he says, and spiedies will be the first thing they mention. Folks pledge their loyalty to certain spiedie restaurants, and for decades, home cooks who make them have been debating whose marinade is Binghamton’s finest.
The fact that everyone in Binghamton is so obsessed with them has always baffled me. A spiedie is just a sandwich, and a very ordinary sounding one at that: marinated lamb, chicken, or pork on a skewer, cooked on a grill, served on an Italian roll.
I’ve always been curious about how a dish so simple could be so great, but I’ve never had a chance to try one. I grew up in Atlanta, 900 miles away from Binghamton, and my grandparents left the city long before I was born. I’ve spent years searching for an excuse to go, partly to get a better sense of my dad’s childhood, and partly to put his improbable claims about the god-tier quality of the spiedie to the test.
Last October, I found my opportunity. As it turns out, Binghamton has an entire three-day festival dedicated to this sandwich, known as the Spiedie Fest & Balloon Rally. There would be concerts (including, notably, a Barenaked Ladies show) and celebrity meet-and-greets with actresses best known for starring in Disney Channel originals. For reasons that were unclear to me, a bunch of dudes would fly around in hot air balloons. But the real draw for me was the cooking contest, in which amateur chefs would face off grill-to-grill to see who truly makes the best spiedie in town. If there was ever a time to see if this sandwich was really as good as my dad made it sound, I figured Spiedie Fest was it. So it was that in early October, I found myself hurtling north on Interstate 80, bound at long last for Binghamton, home of the spiedie.
I arrived at Otsiningo Park, where Spiedie Fest is held each year, at around 5 p.m. on a Friday. Dave Pessagno—a born-and-raised Binghamtonian in his 60s with a thick Southern Tier accent, who runs Spiedie Fest—had volunteered to be my fixer for the weekend. He zoomed up to me in a golf cart and invited me to hop in. The first thing he told me was that back in high school, he used to get hammered at my dad’s house when my grandparents were out of town. “Friday nights after the games, we would all go to the Schwartz’s,” he said. “The parties were legendary.”
Pessagno drove me around the festival grounds and gave me the lay of the land. It was a pretty standard setup: carnival games and rides, food trucks selling corndogs and funnel cakes, vendors hawking various bric-a-brac, and a mid-sized stage. I had expected to see spiedies everywhere I looked, but there were only two tents selling them: Salamida’s and Lupo’s.
I had Dave drop me off by the former, where a 20-foot-tall inflatable bottle of spiedie marinade marked the entrance. Once I’d gotten through a long, snaking line, Marybeth Salamida took my order. Rob Salamida, her husband, cooked behind the grill. Andrew Salamida, their son, ran my lamb spiedie out to me. The sandwich was just as my dad described: marinated meat on a roll, nothing more. I took a bite.
The hunks of lamb, dusted lightly with oregano and thyme, were as juicy as a filet mignon. They had been soaked for 24 hours in the Salamidas’ marinade, which seemed to consist of lemon, garlic, pepper, and a blend of other unnamed spices. There’s no way for me to find out exactly what they were: Those who make spiedies keep their recipes a closely guarded secret. Andrew told me even he doesn’t know what’s in his father’s marinade. Whatever it was, it was delicious. I devoured my spiedie in 45 seconds.
There is something almost transcendent about a spiedie. It’s the kind of bite of food that makes you close your eyes and sigh.
I walked away feeling giddy, even kind of high, and beelined to Lupo’s for spiedie number two. It was about 7 p.m., and they were dangerously close to selling out.
“You guys are just gonna make it,” Sam Lupo, Jr., who runs the business with his brother, Steve, told those of us in line. Sam’s son, Eliott, cooked furiously at a large, smoking grill.
This time I went for chicken. As I bit into it, I recorded a voice memo of my reaction, which, as I listen to it now, sounds like a tape you’d play in court to have someone declared criminally insane.
The chicken isn’t just moist. It’s as if it bursts with juice when you take a bite, like the chicken equivalent of a Fruit Gusher. The roll is soft and warm and just slightly soggy inside. There is no taste of chicken; the only taste is the marinade, which is vinegary, peppery, slightly lemony.
If you tell people about a spiedie, they’ll laugh at you. “It’s meat on a stick, on bread.” But they don’t understand—and you can’t understand, until you eat one—that there is something almost transcendent about a spiedie. It’s the kind of bite of food that makes you close your eyes and sigh. It is complete. It is whole. And it is perfect.
Lupo’s and Salamida’s had obliterated my skepticism. I was suddenly convinced that the spiedie was the greatest sandwich on Earth. And I became obsessed with finding out what kind of culinary genius had gifted it to this world.
Both Lupo and Salamida are integral to the history of the spiedie. But the saga begins with another family: the Iacovellis, who immigrated to Binghamton from Abruzzo, Italy, in the early 20th century.
In the 1930s, two Iacovelli brothers, Camillo and Augustino, opened a restaurant called the Park View on the north side of Endicott, an Italian enclave just outside of Binghamton. It was there that the spiedie was born, according to Paul Van Savage, a local food historian. Augustino coated cubes of lamb (then a cheap and widely available meat) in a dry rub, skewered them, and roasted them over a bed of coals. As they cooked, he basted them in what he called “zuzu,” made from red wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, mint, and an undisclosed blend of Italian herbs and spices. When the meat was done, he served the skewer with a slice of Italian bread. He called the dish a “spiedi,” short for the Italian spiedini, which translates to “skewers.”
Augustino’s spiedis quickly grew popular among Italian families in Endicott, who started making them at home and tweaking the recipe to their liking. Enterprising young men set up grills outside of neighborhood bars and sold spiedis to hungry patrons as they stumbled outside. They became a fixture on every Endicott restaurant menu and at every backyard cookout. Over the next few decades, they made their way outside of the neighborhood and cropped up throughout the bordering towns of Binghamton and Johnson City, which, together with Endicott, make up the “Triple Cities.”
In 1975, a young Rob Salamida became the first person to put spiedie marinade in a bottle. He batched it on the pool table in his parents’ basement, and ordered a few hundred bottles labeled “Salamida’s State Fair Spiedi Sauce.” When they arrived, he discovered that the printer had accidentally placed an “E” on the end of the word “spiedi.”
Salamida’s sauce took off. He never bothered to fix the spelling on the label, and for whatever reason, everyone in Binghamton just went with it: From then on, the town’s signature dish was known not as a “spiedi,” but a “spiedie.”
In the early 1980s, the evolution of the spiedie took a pivotal turn. For 50 years, it had only ever been made with lamb. But when Sam Lupo, Sr.—who had been selling spiedies for decades at his restaurants and Endicott meat market, Lupo’s—developed a heart condition, suddenly, lamb was off limits. His son, Sam Lupo, Jr., cooked his dad a chicken spiedie, figuring it might be a healthier option. He was surprised to find that chicken spiedies were just as good as the original, maybe even better, and he decided to sell them at his family’s businesses. “We begged people to try it, and they had no interest,” Lupo, Jr., said. “The first year was a total flop. The next summer, we tried it again, and it took off.” With that simple change from chewier, tougher lamb to chicken, spiedies exploded in popularity. They went from an Italian-American specialty to a Triple Cities mainstay among residents of every stripe.
The advent of the chicken spiedie only intensified the debate over who made the best marinade in Binghamton. Salamida and Van Savage, the food historian, decided it was high time to settle it. In 1983, the two old friends organized a spiedie cook-off at Otsiningo Park, inviting everyone who talked a big game about their spiedie to put it up for judgment. Sixty-five people signed up to compete. Salamida and Van Savage took out an ad in the Binghamton Sun-Bulletin, figuring a few dozen spectators might come watch the showdown.
“11,000 people showed up,” Van Savage said. “I remember looking around and saying, ‘Holy shit. Where did all these people come from?’ Rob was cooking spiedies and selling them, and I was running the contest by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. We lined up all these judges—way too many. They had this convoluted score sheet that I came up with, which had categories to write numbers on. Then we needed a damn computer, which didn’t exist. A couple of volunteers were sitting at a picnic table with a handwritten spreadsheet where they tabulated the scores, and it took way too long. It was a mess.”
Spiedie Fest expanded on its offerings over the years, adding concerts, carnival rides, and more to the lineup. (Hot air balloons entered the equation in year three, when Salamida’s distant cousin, Roy Rogers, asked if he and his buddies could pilot their gasbags at the cook-off.) By the 1990s, it was drawing roughly 100,000 attendees annually.
Once Spiedie Fest’s organizers started booking big-name bands, concerts became the event’s biggest draw. With each passing year, Van Savage told me, folks seemed to care less and less about the cook-off. By the 2000s, just 20 to 30 local cooks were throwing their hats into the ring. This past October, only four participated.
“The Spiedie Fest is now an institution,” Van Savage said. “But the spiedie contest has become a stepchild of the whole event.”
Part of the reason may be that, these days, most folks don’t make their own spiedie marinade. Spiedies have gone the way of so many other niche, regional foods in America: Where once you had no choice but to labor over them in the kitchen, it’s now easier, and often cheaper, to buy them at the store. After Salamida stuck his marinade in a bottle, Lupo followed suit. So did Wegmans, a regional grocery chain.
“Some people will only use the Salamida’s, and some people will only use the Lupo’s,” Van Savage said. “But the choice of bottled sauce has replaced the family recipe.”
Though it’s a dying art, there are still a handful of folks keeping the home-cooked spiedie alive. Notable among them is 60-year-old Ray Parkes, a soft-spoken, genial man. He’s the undisputed king of the Spiedie Fest cook-off. Over the past two decades, he’s taken home more than 30 first-place plaques from the competition.
When this year’s cook-off got underway, the other three contestants eyed him warily. The contest’s organizer gave everyone the go-ahead to fire up their grills, and the cooks scrambled into action. But Parkes barely moved. He lit his coals, casually fanning them with a piece of cardboard, and looked around, smiling softly. In a Tupperware container by his grill, hunks of lamb floated in a thick, purplish marinade. When I asked Parkes about his recipe, he told me he didn’t have one. “I just add in ingredients until it tastes good,” he said.
The cube of lamb he gave me stopped me in my tracks. It was, bar none, the best bite of food I have ever had.
Most folks marinate their spiedies for at least a day, sometimes up to three. Parkes limits that to eight hours. On the day of the competition, he woke up at 3 a.m. and eyed out a mixture of oil, vinegar, garlic, shallots, parsley, oregano, and basil, along with a handful of other spices he wouldn’t reveal. After soaking cubed lamb in the marinade for three hours at room temperature, he refrigerated it and “gave it a shake every once in awhile.” About an hour before the contest kicked off, Parkes tossed it in his car and drove to Spiedie Fest. “It’s not like it’s rocket science,” he said. “It’s just a marinade.”
Soon after the cook-off began, the air was rich with the aroma of roasting spiedie meat. The contest’s judges walked stone-faced from grill to grill like a couple of Southern Tier Paul Hollywoods. They sampled each entry in deliberate bites, whispering conspiratorially and jotting notes on their score sheets. I followed them and tried each spiedie, saving Parkes’ for last.
The cube of lamb he gave me stopped me in my tracks. For a moment, everything went silent. All of my faculties were absorbed in the act of tasting this one perfect morsel: juicy, tender, piquant. It was, bar none, the best bite of food I have ever had.
For the umpteenth time, the judges crowned Parkes’ spiedie “Best Overall,” along with “Best Lamb”—though that second one wasn’t really a competition. Unlike in years past, Parkes was the only one to serve lamb, the meat of choice for spiedie purists.
It was a fine, unseasonably warm Sunday in October, but only a handful of people had shown up to watch the cook-off, and most of them seemed to be related to the competitors. There were thousands of people at the festival that day—driving bumper cars, buying tchotchkes, standing in line to meet a 23-year-old actress named Peyton List. It made me a little sad to think that most of them didn’t even seem aware the cook-off was happening.
I wondered about the spiedie’s future: what would happen once Parkes stopped coming to the cook-off, and whether anyone might step up to replace him. I wondered if spiedies, once so celebrated by Binghamtonians, were a vestige of another era, fated to be forgotten once Sam Lupo, Jr. and Rob Salamida retired. I wondered if one day, I might come back to Binghamton looking for a spiedie, only to find that it doesn’t exist anymore.
Then I remembered watching Andrew, Rob Salamida’s son, dutifully running spiedies from a hot grill to thousands of hungry customers all weekend long. I remembered Eliott Lupo sweating through his shirt while he cooked pounds upon pounds of lamb in his father’s tent. Recently, Eliott’s dad finally let him in on the family recipe. In a few weeks, his wife would give birth to a baby boy. Eliott told me he couldn’t help but wonder whether his son might take over the family business someday.
I walked off the festival grounds a ways, sat on a rock, and smoked a cigarette. It was almost time to go home. I stared at the pavement, vacillating between hope and despondency. A golf cart pulled up next to me and stopped. It was Dave Pessagno, Spiedie Fest’s organizer.
“Just like your dad,” he said. “Long hair, smoking a butt, off in the corner—just like your dad.” He laughed, shook his head, and drove away, leaving me alone on the outskirts of Otsiningo Park, watching everyone break down their tents and pack it in until next year.
Drew Schwartz is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.