May 1, 2023

BERNSTEIN | The Great Regional Delicacies of Upstate New York

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Minimalism, maximalism, perfectionism — what power can an idea, or a concept, hold over a piece of artwork? I’d like to draw a geographical triangle to represent these concepts, or schools of thought: from the Southern Tier in Binghamton, to the top of the Finger Lakes in Rochester, connected by a corner in the jewel of Western New York, Buffalo.

Minimalism. The Spiedies Sub, originating in Binghamton, is simple. Marinated chicken on a perfectly toasted fresh Italian roll. But it’s the “best sandwich you’ve never heard of,” according to Bon Appétit, and according to those who grew up on it.

Maximalism. The Garbage Plate: the pride of Rochester, so much so that it’s got a baseball team named after it. Take everything you get at a July 4th lakeside barbecue — burgers, hot dogs, home fries, macaroni salad, baked beans and a healthy helping of ketchup and mustard — throw it all together and top it with onions.

Perfectionism. Buffalo Wings. The crisp and crunch. The dominant heat and tender meat. Each wing must be carefully crafted in a laboratory of cuisine — the spice, flavor and texture are all calculated decisions. Buffalo Wings are certainly the most widespread of Upstate foods, but they never forget where they come from.

Upstate New York is known for its beauty. I contend that the most prized spectacles are not the deep rushing gorges or the long and slender lakes; its greatest cultural successes are not the poets nor its history (although I acknowledge the natural wonders and historical significance of the region). But rather, these regional delicacies stand on a podium before the land that we as Cornellians call home. They are perhaps the finest pieces of art Upstate has to offer.

I’d be remiss to not mention the countless other delicacies that Upstate New York produces. Maybe the most notable I’ve left off of my Big Three is Chicken Riggies, the Utica based pasta dish. There’s also Thousand Island Dressing from the Thousand Islands region, Beef on Weck from Buffalo or the inaptly named Michigan Hot Dogs, which originated near Plattsburgh.

But the Spiedies Sub, The Garbage Plate and Buffalo Wings are of particular interest, I believe. For one reason, in addition to being incredibly popular at home, they are relevant to Cornell: Binghamton is especially close to Ithaca, Cornell has a sizable student population from Rochester and Buffalo Wings are massively popular wherever you go. For another, I think each food represents important qualities of what makes Upstate so great.

“[The Spiedes Sub] has perfection in its simplicity,” says Quintin Pezzino ‘24, a native of Greene, New York, a suburb of Binghamton. When I first heard of the sandwich, I didn’t believe it. It’s basically chicken, marinated in Italian dressing, on a roll — that’s it. “Real quality spiedies stand alone on the sandwich,” Pezzino told me. “If you top the sub with condiments, you’re just wrong.”

I thought it was crazy — but that’s the beauty of this sandwich. It’s not overly complex. There are no fancy toppings or sauces: it’s simple, affordable and delicious. It does its job and it does its job right. “It’s the best kept secret of New York’s Southern Tier,” Pezzino said. “I’ll defend the Spiedie to my dying breath.”

The Garbage Plate, meanwhile, reaches its conclusion in an entirely different fashion. A hodgepodge pot-pourri mishmash collection of flavors, fixings and feelings, if the Spiedie is simple, the Garbage Plate is all over the place. But it’s bigger than its 2000+ calories and the bliss of drunk food. “It represents our camaraderie, our hard working spirit, the friendships, the late nights, our comfort and pride,” says Jack Callard ‘22, originally from Fairport, New York — just 15 minutes from Nick Tahou Hots, where the Garbage Plate was founded.

“It represents so much more to Rochester than just the glistening pile of toppings,” Callard said. “It’s our home.” 

I think the reason behind the adoration of the Garbage Plate is that it symbolizes a sense of cohesion for Rochester: You can throw everything and everyone in that city together, and regardless of how it looks to an outsider, they come out as one. Strong, solidified, together. The Garbage Plate is beautiful because regardless of how messy it seems, it’s united.

Lastly, Buffalo Wings. What makes wings so interesting as a regional delicacy is that, by now, they aren’t particularly regional. Much like the Philly Cheesesteak, if not more so, Buffalo Wings have a far reaching diaspora, perhaps aided by football fans and fast-casual dining.

Nevertheless, there’s still an iconic reference to home. When you go to Buffalo, the city won’t let you forget that the wings are theirs. “They’re special at home because they’re just so good,” said Nate Lamm ‘22, a Buffalo native. “When I’m back in town I make it a point to get some, because very few places outside of Western New York can do them justice.”

Lamm mentioned a “really deep local talent pool” as part of what makes the wings in Buffalo so great. You’ve got Anchor Bar and Duff’s, two restaurants who both claim to be inventor of the Buffalo Wing. Additionally, Bar-Bill and Wingnutz have some of the best wings in town.

Still, great wings are found all over. While other delicacies like Spiedies and Garbage Plates remain relatively local, Buffalo Wings demonstrates the gastronomic influence and potential of Upstate New York.

For now, we as Cornellians are lucky to have all these foods nearby. They are beautifully crafted and delicious works of art, designed purposefully to be appreciated.

Daniel Bernstein (he/him) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs alternate Thursdays this semester.