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History of Tampa food debated, celebrated

YBOR CITY — When it comes to the Cuban sandwich, everyone seems to have an opinion.

Salami or no salami? Three pickles or four?

The debate has been known to cause a stir.

On Saturday, a panel of historians and food aficionados gathered in Ybor City to discuss the history of food in Tampa. The contentious sandwich topped their list.

"Would our great-grandparents even recognize our Cuban sandwich today?" asked Gary Mormino, a recently retired history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "I'm not sure."

The ingredient that bothers him most: Genoa salami.

In April, the city of Tampa passed a resolution naming the "Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich" as the city's signature sandwich. The resolution detailed the ingredients necessary, including Genoa salami.

"You've got to keep politics out of the Cuban sandwich," he said. "The idea of Genoa salami is crazy."

It's more likely, he said, that the sandwich has changed throughout the years. Specifying Genoa salami is vague: It's as generic as pepperoni, he said.

On a sandwich of such importance, even the type of pickles is open for debate.

The city's resolution calls for three dill pickles.

But dill pickles weren't around before the 1950s, said Joe Diaz, who's family owns Olympia Bakery and has been in the bread-making business since 1910. Diaz was in the crowd of about 40 people Saturday attending the discussion presented by the Artists and Writers Group Inc. at Hillsborough Community College.

"We used sour pickles," he said during a question period at the end of the discussion. "Two pieces, cut lengthwise."

And how did the Cuban sandwich get its start? There's disagreement about that, too.

Mormino believes it began as salty cold cuts served alongside Cuban bread to drinkers in taverns. Andrew Huse, an author of a book on the history of the Columbia Restaurant, argues it was a form of fast food for factory workers at lunch.

One thing that the panelists do agree on? The Cuban sandwich began in Ybor City.

"Miami conceded that we definitely had it first," said Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who also served on the panel.

Despite all the attention it gets, the Cuban sandwich is not the only food unique to Tampa.

There's also crab enchilado — blue crab cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and served over pasta.

E.J. Salcines, a retired judge of the 2nd District Court of Appeal and local historian, remembers crab enchilado as a poor man's dish.

"You'd go to the bay for the crab, then stop by a pasta factory," he said.

To Huse, it serves as a reflection of Tampa's diverse population.

"It's got the Sicilian influence from the macaroni and pasta factories, a Latin aspect in the spice," he said. And anyone could make it or eat it.

"All the way into Gibsonton, people were eating this stuff."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

.Fast facts

To learn more

For more information on a monthlong series of cultural events about Tampa, presented by the Artists and Writers Group Inc., go to cubansandwichshow.com.

History of Tampa food debated, celebrated 08/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 12, 2012 12:05am]
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