If you’re an incoming student, you’ve no doubt done your homework on your new home at Binghamton University. But one thing you my have skipped is your homework on the city of Binghamton itself, and its prized local dish: the spiedie. So influential is this sandwich that an annual festival soon emerged around the heated contest for best spiedie, and this festival would come to be known as the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally.
Over the years, Binghamton, like much of upstate New York, has waxed and waned. But as the University grew, the city grew with it. And in all the economic ups and downs, the residents of the Southern Tier held on to one thing nearest and dearest to their hearts: the spiedie. A local sandwich stuffed with marinated cubes of a selection of meats, the spiedie (pronounced speed-ee) holds an important place in Southern Tier culture.
According to event coordinator Dave Pessagno, the festival started when local families began arguing over who had the best spiedie recipe. One of the parties involved was a man named Ron Rogers, a hot air balloon pilot who attended balloon rallies all over the country. When Rogers returned from one of these rallies, he contacted a friend at Catholic Charities, and they collectively decided that a festival would be a great way to earn money for charities and bolster community pride.
The first Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally was held in 1985, and featured four hot air balloons, a local band, a spiedie contest and a small kids play area. Around 2,000 people attended the contest, and it was deemed a local success. In subsequent years, the festival only grew bigger and bigger, and more pilots started coming to fly their balloons, finding the Southern Tier one of the most scenic areas to fly throughout the United States. Pessagno even went to Albuquerque, N.M. to attend the world’s largest balloon rally and brought back fresh new ideas on how to improve the festival. The results were drastic. The music and entertainment venues began growing from local to regional to national lineups, now spanning three days of music. Attendance grew from the original 2,000 to today’s numbers of over 100,000 attendants. The economic impact it has on the local population of 6 million people is significant, and the festival is made possible by the volunteer efforts of 500 local citizens and many local businesses.
This year’s Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally will feature musical performances by Foghat, perhaps known best for their classic rock hit, “Slow Ride,” as well as Kristian Bush of Sugarland, and the balloons will be launched every day at 6:30 a.m. A sand volleyball competition, a 5k race, an antique car show and even a fireworks display will also be held at Spiedie Fest 2014. The event will span for three days, from August 1 to 3.
“Having been a part of this great community even for 30 years, we are very fortunate to host one of the top hot air balloon rallies in the country,” Pessano said.
Spiedie Fest is an important time for the Southern Tier, as the community has been coming together every year for the first weekend in August to raise money for local charities. In addition to the 1.4 million dollars raised, many of the 100,000 attendants get the opportunity to enjoy their first spiedie, just a taste of the culture that can be found in the Southern Tier.
Binghamton is more than just President Harvey Stenger and his Roadmap, the “premier public ivy” label, or the best “bang-for-your-buck” education. Sure, there’s the bearcat – which, by the way, is not an underwhelming mythological creature thought up by the University’s marketing team, but is actually a real live viverrine mammal that makes its home in Southeast Asia. But there’s a whole other Binghamton out there: the community. Beneath these clouds is a city rich in history and culture, and it only takes a ten-minute bus ride to get there and experience it.