I grew up eating grinders at delis around my hometown of Milford, Conn., an hour northeast of New York City. That red wine vinegar-soaked sub sandwich spiced with Italian seasoning; stuffed with salami, ham, and pepperoni; and topped with shredded lettuce, black olives, and provolone cheese was pure comfort. The bread was slightly crusty — crunching and cracking as you’d bite down. The starchy innards were comprised of a magical combination of yeast, flour, and water giving the bread a dense fluffiness strong enough to hold the vinegar-bathed meat trifecta and its accoutrements in place without disintegrating.
The sandwich may be named something different (sub, hoagie, grinder) throughout the tri-states of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut but the flavors and the community of various cultures, creeds, and socio-economics served at delis across the Northeast occurs daily. Delis are our meat-and-threes — located in a family-owned gas station or a crumbling building on the corner of Main and whatever-street — the last remaining evidence of a golden yesteryear with the majestic town green in the foreground.
The day I ate my first Ticonderoga Club spiedie, I found myself back at Park Lane Deli on Broad, sipping birch beer and crushing an Italian combo.
While a grinder is not a spiedie, Ticonderoga partner and chef David Bies’s vinegary marinade with the hints of oregano and mint and the crust and crumb of that sesame seed roll rendered a powerful food memory from my childhood.
I’d find I wasn’t alone.
"The entire time I’ve known Regan, we’ve eaten spiedies"
The story behind Ticonderoga’s solo lunch act began 15 years ago with Regan Smith introducing spiedies to her friend, coworker, and future T-Club partner, Greg Best.
"The entire time I’ve known Regan, we’ve eaten spiedies," Best recalls. "She’s always talked about growing up in Binghamton and eating this sandwich. I grew up just down state and had only heard about them or eaten them at state fairs. Every time we’d visit Regan’s family and friends, we’d eat spiedies. It’s now become our default comfort food in Atlanta when we gather with friends."
Spiedies played an integral role in the regular meetings the five partners held as they fleshed out the restaurant’s concept and their first big decision: what to serve for lunch, knowing this meal would be the first taste guests would experience before the restaurant was fully operational. They debated everything from fish to barbecue to burgers, until one night, gathered around the table dining on their brain food, spiedies, Smith proposed a radical idea.
"Regan said, ‘What about the spiedie, guys?’" Best says. "We were all like, ‘Oh shit, really?’ It was right there in front of us the entire time. I think it took Regan saying it for us to feel comfortable with the decision."
The no-frills sandwich known as the spiedie (SPEE-dee) is local to the Binghamton area. It’s comprised of cubed meat such as chicken, venison, or lamb marinated on skewers with a mix of Italian spices like oregano, garlic, basil, and mint and served on a sub roll. It’s not fancy or dressed with lettuce. There are no condiments save the spiedie sauces, whose ingredients many times are a closely guarded secret. There are annual festivals dedicated to the sandwich and wars waged between shops. The spiedie is both beloved and big business along a 50-mile stretch of I-81 from Binghamton north to Homer.
Bies was now tasked with recreating a revered, hyper-regional sandwich to appeal to a city full of transplants from all over the country; including a large community of northeastern expats.
"I didn’t have the time to travel to Binghamton and eat at these spiedie joints Regan talked about," Bies recalls of his research. "My points of reference were Regan, Greg, and the internet. I did some digging and soon realized none of these shops were making spiedies with fresh herbs. That’s where I began."
After trying to replicate the flavors of various store-bought marinades, Bies concluded the onion and garlic powders and flakes of dried basil and oregano typically found in the sauces lacked the punch he was after for the Club’s spiedie. He turned to Binghamton’s home cooks, whose marinades were either oil and vinegar- or mayonnaise and vinegar-based with fresh rather than dried herbs and dusty powders.
Bies developed a mayo-based marinade incorporating red wine vinegar, citrus, fresh garlic, black pepper, and a variety of hand-chopped herbs such as basil, parsley, mint, and oregano. When he felt he had the right proportions, he let Smith try it out.
"I gave Regan a taste of my last batch and she was like, ‘Holy shit!’" Bies says. "I knew I had it. It was important to have her approval. The spiedie means the most to Regan."
"David’s master stroke was using chicken thighs and mimicking the flavors in the traditional spiedie marinade with fresh herbs, vinegar, and acid"
"David’s master stroke was using chicken thighs and mimicking the flavors in the traditional spiedie marinade with fresh herbs, vinegar, and acid," Best explains. "The chicken thighs, which turn white after 48 hours in the marinade, retain the flavors without drying out. He created a sensory experience for those of us who grew up in the Northeast with the spices and the red wine vinegar found so often in the sandwiches of the region."
While Bies perfected the marinade, Best had been working with long-time friend and fellow Krog Street Market business owner Todd Ginsberg on developing the spiedie’s sesame seed roll with TGM Bread.
"I came to Todd with the spiedie roll because I knew they could execute the type of crumb and crust I wanted," Best says. "TGM completely nailed it. It captures everything about that New England, Italian-style bread — light crust, sesame seeds, slightly dense."
The spiedie made its debut at Ticonderoga Club on October 22, 2015. Ticonderoga Club immediately struck a chord with Atlantans like myself who didn’t know we missed the flavors of home until we’d eaten that spiedie.
Scott Mayer, Infinium Spirits director of brand advocacy and education, grew up east of Binghamton in Newburgh and says there’s more to food memories than an overactive imagination: "Food can render significant emotional responses in people. Taste and aroma have such a strong connection to memory. There’s a real physical reaction in your brain when you smell or taste something. It may be like 30 percent on your taste buds, but the rest is aromatic. Both senses need to work together, or your experiences with food and drink become one dimensional."
For Mayer, the spiedie triggered memories of summers with his dad in New York. The comforting familiarity of the blend of Italian spices, vinegar and the bread conjured an unexpected emotional response he doesn’t take lightly.
He spent the first 10 years of his life growing up in Newburgh before moving to Georgia with his mother. But, summers were always spent back in New York with his dad. The spiedie was their connecting point — an edible ice-breaker between awkward moments of silence the two so often had to overcome after long separations. These moments in time would become Mayer’s most cherished memories of his father who has since passed away.
"It may seem trite that a sandwich could conjure such memories, but it did, and I’m grateful"
"When I took my first bite of Ticonderoga’s spiedie, that bread … wow!" Mayer says. "I was transported back to the deli and eating spiedies with my dad. To have such a strong reaction was powerful. It may seem trite that a sandwich could conjure such memories, but it did, and I’m grateful."
The spiedie is an entirely different flavor format than most of the other famed sandwiches found in Atlanta’s lunchtime vernacular. It’s what helped distinguish it immediately with not only Northeastern expats, but also their Southern brethren.
Badger style, a spiedie variation named for Smith, who Bies says can be both adorable and terrifying at the same time, gained its own loyal following, especially among T-Club’s Southern guests who enjoyed the spice of the Cobb dressing, crunch from the chips, and heat from the hot sauce.
Kristen Cincotta and her husband Mike moved to Atlanta 14 years ago from Homer, just north of Binghamton, so she could attend grad school at Emory. Both grew up eating spiedies at fairs, local shops, and in their own homes. When they heard Ticonderoga was going to recreate their childhood sandwich, the Cincottas, who frequently had marinade shipped to them by Mike’s parents, were hopeful it would hold up to their exacting standards.
"I was super excited someone was making spiedies because I could eat them every day of the week," Kristen Cincotta says. "They just taste like summer to me. I also thought it was kind of funny everyone in Atlanta was going nuts over discovering this ‘new’ sandwich we had been eating and making at home for years."
Despite using shredded lettuce (sacrilege among spiedie devotees), the flavors and bread used in the Club’s version transported Kristen back to Homer.
Best’s favorite guests were the Binghamton transplants who would come in with a healthy amount of skepticism.
"The hardcore spiedie-eaters would tell us, ‘That’s not a spiedie. It has lettuce!’"
"The hardcore spiedie-eaters would tell us, ‘That’s not a spiedie. It has lettuce!’" he says. "I’d ask them to try ours. If they hated it, I’d pay for it. This isn’t the spiedie people grew up with. We knew that. Yet they’d come back and say, ‘This is the best spiedie I’ve ever had’ or ‘You’re still doing it wrong, but that’s a damn delicious sandwich!’"
Despite its popularity and capturing a little piece of home for Northeasterners, the spiedie’s permanency on the menu became impossible to sustain. After looking at the numbers, the sandwich Smith, Best, and Bies had championed was 86’d.
"That was a hard day," Best says. "The spiedie had a cult following. For some guests, it was keeping them tethered to their roots. But with limited storage space, we simply couldn’t keep that much marinating meat and shredded lettuce in the two reach-in coolers and do a proper dinner service and the spiedie justice."
While the spiedie may be gone for now, its resurrection is in the works. The partners want patrons to know their cries for its return have been heard.
Ticonderoga Club reimagined more than Binghamton’s prized sandwich. Tucked away in a back corner of Krog Street Market in Atlanta, Ga., the five partners unwittingly conceived a microcosm of a tri-state deli — a window into our past lives, thrown open by the spiedie with that first bite last October.
• All Ticonderoga Club Coverage [EATL]