When I was a kid we had a backyard picnic every Memorial Day weekend. These were family events with relatives from across town and across the state arriving with appetites and money in their pockets to spend in the hometown stores. Because, as we all know, once you leave a place you can never find the things you like.
My mom and I would work for days in advance shopping and preparing food. My dad, the master of the charcoal, would pile up the briquettes early in the morning so the fire would be perfect by noon. When the time came we would feast on hot dogs, hamburgers, kielbasa and piles of sides and desserts. We would eat and talk, tell stories and laugh.
Despite the overload of good food, there was one thing that Dad did not grill. My older siblings and cousins would go out at night to have spiedies and a beer. I remember the first time I was old enough to go out for spiedies. My brother fudged this right-of-passage by taking me out with his girlfriend just for spiedies and bringing me home early. Later, they went back for the beer.
If you are not from the Southern Tier of New York, you don’t know from spiedies. It’s not your fault. Let me educate you. At the heart, they are short skewers of meat, usually lamb, marinated in an oil, vinegar, wine and herb marinade. You might get everyone to agree to that basic formula. But there are as many spiedie recipes as cooks. I’ve seen lemon juice substituted for vinegar. The wine varies from 2 tablespoons to 3 cups, or omitted altogether. No one agrees on the herbs. Garlic, oregano, salt & pepper, parsley. Oregano, garlic, pepper, thyme, parsley and/or mint. Substitute rosemary instead of thyme. Then there are the secret ingredients. Family secrets passed down like jewels from generations to… You can laugh all you want. We’re passionate about our spiedies.
The arguments start with the herbs and spices. They continue to the acidic source: lemon juice, red wine vinegar or regular vinegar. Meat is a small disagreement. We all use what we like. Lamb is the traditional meat, but beef and chicken, and recently, pork are acceptable lower cost alternatives. (In fact a good chicken spiedie recipe is another entirely different discussion.) From there the argument swings to the marinating time: 12 hours (amateurs!), 24 hours, a week. I’m in the 24 plus hour camp. The flavor needs to penetrate and the acid needs to tenderize. If the marinade is right, there is no need to add meat tenderizer to the formula. If your recipe calls for tenderizer, you don’t have a good one. I hate to be the one to break the news, especially if your grandmother gave it to you. (How was the rest of her cooking?)
My brother swears by Salamida State Fair Spiedie Sauce. Before Internet shopping, relatives that still lived in New York State would mail him bottles of the elixir. I’m more of a DIY cook. Although, pursuing the perfect marinade is a journey into Alchemy. We seek to turn ordinary ingredients into liquid gold. Bottling spiedie sauce turns liquid gold into actual gold. Genius! Wish I’d thought of it.
Pancho’s Pit was our favorite hangout to get the little skewers. Don’t let anyone put them on a bun or a roll or call them a hero or a sub. They were served with a slice of Italian bread. You put the bread on your hand, slapped the skewer onto it, wrapped your bread covered fist around it and pulled the wooden skewer out with one smooth motion. But Pancho’s Pit has passed into history. I introduced my husband to spiedies at Pancho’s. He isn’t a native. They’re not in his blood. He pronounced them “good” –but I could see he didn’t get it.
That leaves the other spiedie joint: Sharkey’s Tavern. I can’t find a website, but here is Michael Stern’s review. (Let me mention Lupo’s, down in Endicott. Good or so I’ve heard. Some spiedie lore claims they were invented there. That, too, is another story.) Sharkey’s is the reason for this post. I never went to Sharkey’s. By the time I was old enough to go out with friends, my Dad warned me to stay out of “those dive bars on Clinton Street.” Sharkey’s was banned, by association, although it was around the corner on Glendale Ave. Sorry Sharkey’s. Jane and Michael Stern, authors of “Roadfood Sandwiches“, have a recipe they claim approximates Sharkey’s marinade. I’m trying their recipe this weekend. They have an unexpected addition to the list, allspice. That’s a new one. Since I read that last week, my taste buds have been mulling it over…and salivating.