Father’s Day is coming, so I’m in mind of one of my father’s favorite foods: spiedies.
Spiedies are like kabobs, though that comparison sometimes irks residents in their native habitat — Binghamton and environs, in New York state’s Southern Tier.
My father landed there after the rest of us, including the dog, moved back to New York City en masse after my parents separated in 1981.
Cubes of boneless meat are marinated in an oil and acid mixture that’s loaded up with Italian spices, sometimes mint, then skewered and cooked over a charcoal fire. Purists serve them with or in Italian bread, often using it to cradle and unthread a full skewer in an unbroken row, creating a long sandwich.
I asked Marie McKenna, co-owner of Binghamton’s Lost Dog Café, a popular downtown restaurant, why spiedies are so popular. “They’re delicious and easy,” she said. “Perfect for a summer picnic.”
Like many locals, she has her own recipe. “A paste of fresh mint, lemon, fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, that’s it,” she rattled off. “With chicken.”
Although their origin is disputed, they’re thought to have roots in the Italian immigrant community, with the name spiedie, pronounced SPEE-dee, said to come from the Italian word for spit, spiedo.
Lamb was the original spiedie meat, but now chicken breast and pork loin or pork tenderloin are much more popular, though you’ll see beef and game meats, too. Portobello mushrooms, tempeh and tofu also show up in recipes nowadays.
Spiedies are usually marinated for days, or even a week, so they’re tender, moist and full of flavor.
I got to know spiedies very, very well in 2006, when I was spending weeks at a time in Binghamton after my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and refused to move to California. My son, husband, and even my mother, who should be nominated for some kind of humanitarian award, spent time there on a scheduled rotation, and all three developed a significant liking for this regional specialty.
We ate spiedies of every make and type. We had Buffalo spiedies, with bleu cheese and vinegary hot sauce, chicken Caesar spiedies, spiedie salads and spiedie wraps. Every dive in and around the Triple Cities of Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City had them, and we saw marinated, cubed spiedie meat at Wegman’s .
There’s even an annual Spiedie Fest & Balloon Rally — as in hot air balloons — that draws over 100,000 people, according to the Web site, and includes a spiedie cook-off, concerts, what have you. It’s a big deal. My son and I were in town during the 2006 festival, and I said to him, “We’re not going to that spiedie and balloon thing.”
We did go. My father, a one-man Chamber of Commerce for the City of Binghamton, glared at us, saying, “It’s what this town is about.” He added, “How could anyone not go?”
While there are a few far-flung places hawking spiedies, they’re a local phenomenon. Expats can take advantage of mail-order spiedie sauce offered by Lupo’s and Salamida, but it’s no big deal to make a decent marinade yourself.
I suggest giving them a try this summer, even if you don’t use charcoal. A gas grill or grill pan work fine.
For lamb spiedies, which are wonderful because there’s lots of mint, use boneless leg meat. I like for lamb, but call in advance to make sure they have it. A whole pork loin from Costco is great when you’re cooking for a group and need to keep costs down. For boneless, skinless chicken breast, go for organic, or at least natural, so you have nice, firm chunks on your skewers. Berkeley Bowl is a good choice here, and Costco is carrying more organic chicken these days. Also check .