YBOR CITY — Just a few things make Tampa truly Tampa. Consider Gasparilla, cigars, Cuban sandwiches.
But not everyone drinks, and not everyone smokes. We all, however, eat, which might make the Cuban more iconic than the rest.
A collection of artists, poets, writers, restaurateurs and business owners think so.
They've launched this month's cultural festival known as the Cuban Sandwich Show, celebrating Tampa's ties to the pressed sandwich dating back to the Cigar City days of Ybor City.
The festival began in the early 1990s in Seminole Heights, but hasn't been held for several years. This year's iteration — the 20th anniversary — is a revival on a citywide scale. Downtown and Ybor businesses serve as the setting for art shows, poetry readings and historical talks organized by the Artists and Writers Group of Tampa, the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College and the Ybor City Development Group.
This year's motto: "All Art, All Tampa, No Mayo."
Most agree that mayonnaise doesn't belong on a traditional Cuban sandwich but that begs the question: What ingredients are non-negotiable and where did the recipe come from?
Perhaps no one has studied Cuban sandwiches more than Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Tampa Library special collections and author of a retrospective of the historic Columbia Restaurant.
Huse said the sandwich originated in Cuba as something called "mixto," which was more or less leftovers tucked in between slices of bread. Cuban immigrants who worked in Tampa cigar factories brought the sandwich here in the 1880s, where it began to evolve. Early versions allowed for turkey and tomatoes, but by World War II those ingredients were marginalized. A Cuban, then, consisted of ham, mojo roast pork, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard pressed between Cuban bread.
What's not up for debate, Huse said, is that Tampa — not New York or Miami — is the sandwich's true American birthplace. Miami didn't exist in the 1880s, and Cubans didn't begin flooding South Florida until the 1960s.
To Tampa artists and authors, the sandwich symbolizes the city's historical ethnic makeup. Cuban immigrants, they say, added the roast pork and flaky bread. Italians mixed in the salami. Germans mustered the mustard. And Jews threw in the pickles. The Florida heat pressed it all together.
Huse calls the analogy a major stretch — though poetic.
But artists definitely say there's more to the Cuban than meat and bread. We talked to a few involved with the Cuban Sandwich Show to get their take on the connection between Tampa's signature sandwich and the city.
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James E. Tokley Sr. still tears up when he goes into La Tropicana Café and orders a Cuban sandwich and an orange soda. For 30 years, Tokley ordered the same combination with his father, who has since passed away.
That's what makes the sandwich special. If you have any history in Tampa, the Cuban sandwich shares space in your memories because it's ubiquitous.
"First of all, it tastes good," Tokley, 63, said. "You don't have to be a Dartmouth scholar to enjoy it. And maybe that's part of the wonder of it. No matter if you perceive yourself as an elitist or you perceive yourself as a blue collar, no matter what social circle you ascribe to, everyone loves a well-made Cuban sandwich. It is symbolic of the democracy and the diversity of our society here in Tampa."
Tokley, who is Tampa's poet laureate, read his piece the Epic of the Sandwiche Cubano last week at the festival. An excerpt:
Thus, we celebrate the birth • Of a sandwich that was sent to earth • By a god who wished for us to smile • And be at peace, a little while …
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Suzanne Williamson is an artist and former editor of ARTnews magazine, the oldest and most widely circulated art magazine in the world. She moved to Tampa about 2008 and saw this year's Cuban Sandwich Show as her opportunity to learn more about the city by visiting Latin coffee shops and delis.
For her project, she tasted the refined ham of the Columbia, smelled pans of roast pork and onions at La Lechonera, and ripped open a to-go Cuban sandwich at King Corona Café before she got home.
Using photos she took of these places — as well as Cuban sandwiches — she pasted images onto burlap coffee bags to create hanging pieces of art.
"I'm combining these images and finding a way to evoke a flavor of Tampa by applying them to something that has a resonance to me," she said.
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David Audet is the CEO of the Artists and Writers Group and a lead organizer of the show. Decades ago, he made a sculpture for the show with a wine rack, Christmas lights, Cuban bread and plastic molars he found in a trash bin behind a defunct Ybor City dentist office. Attached to the molds were the words "Trafficante" and "Nuccio," names well known in Tampa's political and mob circles.
While Audet loves Tampa's renowned sandwich restaurants like La Ideal, he also has a special place in his heart for the tiny gas stations that press Cubans, including one next to a pet store that sold live geese, chickens and guinea pigs to area chefs. There, he saw an entire pig roasting on a spit turned by a bicycle wheel.
"The Cuban Sandwich Show, metaphorically, of course, it's like a soup, a blend of ingredients like a soup, all of the best ingredients of Tampa," he said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]