What makes a perfect spiedie? It depends on whom you ask.
The sandwich, pronounced SPEE-dee, consists of cubed meat — commonly chicken or pork, sometimes beef and originally lamb — that is marinated in a salad dressing of sorts (a blend of oil, vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, herbs and spices), grilled and then stuffed inside a long bun. The sandwich is usually free of condiments, though toppings like cheese, mushrooms and fried onions and peppers are not unheard-of.
Most of its fans agree that you must not overcook the meat. Some stress the quality of the meat and a long marinade. But Ray Parkes — one of two dozen cook-off contestants at the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally Expo, held in Binghamton, N.Y., on Sunday — takes an instinctual approach. He buys whatever meat is on sale and soaks it in his homemade marinade (no recipe, just seasoned to taste) for a few hours.
The name is thought to be derived from the Italian spiedini, and the sandwich appeared in these parts around the 1930s. Today you’ll find spiedie meat on top of salads and pizza, and spiedie-flavored potato chips. At the festival, now in its 39th year, contestants flexed their creativity, using marinades variously made with pineapple, mint, pot-roast seasoning or a blend of chile, lime and honey. The last blend came from Andrew Chudacik, a self-described “foodie,” and, at 13, one of the youngest grillers.
It’s a critical time for spiedie culture, which has been dealt some blows in recent years. Binghamton-area restaurants that specialize in them are disappearing. Sharkey’s, an old tavern that served the spiedie as a single straight kebab on a slice of bread, closed in late 2020 after 73 years in business. (That old-school approach let diners hold the bread like a potholder as they pulled the meat off the skewer.)
This year, another spiedie lodestar, Lupo’s S&S Char-Pit, shuttered as the family behind the restaurant decided to concentrate on its considerable wholesale meat and marinade business. (Another Lupo’s Char-Pit in nearby Endwell, N.Y., is still in business, as well as the Spiedie & Rib Pit. Both are run by other branches of the Lupo family. It’s complicated.)
Rob Salamida, a founder of Spiedie Fest along with Paul VanSavage, said the reason the sandwich hasn’t caught on the way other regional foods like the Philly cheesesteak or Buffalo wings have is “very simple”: the labor that goes into cutting the meat.
“No one wants to bite into something that’s fatty or has a tendon in it,” said Mr. Salamida, who was the first to sell bottled spiedie marinades commercially. “You really have to have someone who knows how to cut it.”
Mr. Salamida’s son, Andrew, has tried to broaden the sandwich’s appeal by selling a tofu version, available at the festival.
While most of the contestants at Sunday’s competition came from Broome County, which includes Binghamton, some traveled many miles to compete, including Hollie Malinovsky Isom, a Binghamton native who has made spiedies since she was a teenager. She drives up to the festival every year from the Charlotte, N.C., area.
This year her niece, Abigail Malinovsky, 15, was among her competition. But she also faced Celine Hughes, who has competed almost as long as the event has existed.
Spiedies are judged in four categories: chicken, pork, lamb and nontraditional (which includes beef), with an overall winner receiving a championship-style belt, decorated with a cartoon logo created by Johnny Hart, a local native who drew the syndicated comic strips “B.C.” and “The Wizard of Id.” Mr. Hart, who died in 2007, loved spiedies, said his grandson Mick Mastroianni who attended the festival.
Ms. Isom won top honors last year. This year, Mr. Parkes took home the belt for his lamb spiedies. (Ms. Isom placed third in the pork category, and Ms. Hughes won the nontraditional category.)
Mr. Parkes doesn’t think the spiedie will ever be a national sensation “because it’s so polarizing. People love them or they don’t.”
As to those who don’t like them, he added: “They never had a good one is the problem.”