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‘The Cuban Sandwich’ savors the history of a favorite food and its culture

Whose sandwich is more authentic, Tampa’s or Miami’s? The answer isn’t simple.
As the authors of "The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers" explain, the Cuban sandwich served at Tampa's Columbia Restaurant is a work of historical research, culinary art and cultural awareness.
As the authors of "The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers" explain, the Cuban sandwich served at Tampa's Columbia Restaurant is a work of historical research, culinary art and cultural awareness.
Published Oct. 20, 2022

Lucky for me that La Segunda Bakery opened its St. Petersburg location near my house before “The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers” was published. Otherwise, reading the book would have sent me racing across the bay to Tampa, ravenous for the treat that is the book’s subject.

The Cuban sandwich is a historical subject near and dear to my heart, and my taste buds. I was raised in Tampa, and I remember as a little girl standing outside the window of the Silver Ring in Ybor City watching a worker speedily make sandwich after sandwich, piling them higher than my head. In the cafeteria at Robinson High School, they were a staple for feeding hungry teenagers. And in Ybor City’s boho heyday in the 1980s, Cuban sandwiches fueled more late nights into early mornings than I can count.

As a Tampa girl, I’m faithful to the best versions made on my turf: glazed ham, mojo roast pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese and dill pickle slices, slicked with mustard, stacked between that dreamy Cuban bread I’ve found nowhere beyond Tampa Bay, its crisp crust vanishingly thin, its interior cloudlike. Butter the top, press it until the cheese melts and, of course, halve it on the diagonal so the first bite is a perfect point.

Barbara Cruz
Barbara Cruz [ LAURA LYON FOR UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA | University Press of Florida ]

There’s no denying its deliciousness, but there are plenty of questions about whether it is the most authentic or original Cuban sandwich, or even whether there is such a thing. That’s the territory explored in “The Cuban Sandwich” by co-authors Barbara C. Cruz, Andrew T. Huse and Jeff Houck. They bring a range of viewpoints to the project: Cruz is a native of Cuba and a professor of social science education and co-director of the InsideART project at the University of South Florida; Huse is the curator of Florida studies at USF’s libraries and the author of several works on food history; and Houck is the vice president for marketing at the Columbia Restaurant Group and a former food editor and writer for the Tampa Tribune.

Jeff Houck
Jeff Houck [ University Press of Florida ]

Their efforts trace the sandwich’s history not just as a food but as a vital expression of a complex culture, both on the island of Cuba and among the diaspora of its people, especially in Florida.

Like almost everything we eat, the Cuban sandwich has no clear inventor, no ur-recipe. The authors sketch Cuba’s food history long before any trace of the sandwich appeared, a history linked to its centuries as a colony of Spain. In the 19th century, as Cuba struggled to free itself from the empire, its own cocina criolla became a symbol of pride, its ingredients and recipes combining indigenous Taino and African elements with those from Spain.

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Andrew T. Huse
Andrew T. Huse [ Courtesy Andrew T. Huse ]

In the wake of the Spanish-American War in 1898, “Yanquis” flooded the island. Cuba wasn’t made a U.S. territory like other Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines, but the U.S. maintained considerable control over it — and Americans discovered it as a destination for tourists. Balmy weather, beautiful beaches, distinctive architecture and, before long, a nightclub and entertainment culture that promised delights forbidden back on the mainland made it a hot spot. The authors find the first traces of the sandwich in those days, in newspaper articles describing it as a favorite snack during Sunday promenades and late-night meals.

When Cuba’s cigar industry and its workers began to migrate to Florida in the 1880s, first to Key West and then to Ybor City, the tradition of Cuban-style sandwiches came with the Cubans. In Tampa, the Cuban bread, called pan de agua, that’s so identified with the sandwich has been baked by La Segunda in Ybor since 1915, and the sandwich, called a “mixto,” appeared on a menu for the Columbia Restaurant as far back as the 1930s. Basic ingredients recur, especially ham, roast pork, cheese and salami or another dry sausage, but some versions of the sandwich included roast turkey or even beef.

“The Cuban sandwich became Tampa’s culinary brand for the humble and well-heeled alike,” the authors write. In the early 1950s, the Columbia sold 175,000 of them per year; a picnic of Cuban sandwiches was a hallmark of the Gasparilla parade.

So why doesn’t Tampa have clear claim to being the home of the Cuban sandwich in the U.S.? Miami.

Tampa had a thriving, cohesive Cuban community, many of them working class, by the turn of the 20th century; with few exceptions, they migrated to the U.S. voluntarily. The majority of Miami’s Cubans arrived about 50 years later, fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution. Most of them were middle or upper class, and they left their former lives under duress. Culturally, both groups are Cuban, but they differ in important ways, and so do their sandwiches.

In Miami, the Cuban sandwich took on political significance — the original Versailles restaurant, one of its most beloved purveyors, is also a seat of anti-Castro politics. The Miami sandwich also took on or left out ingredients. The biggest flashpoints in discussions about Tampa vs. Miami sandwiches include the absence of salami or pickles and the presence of (shudder) lettuce and tomato, as well as the difference between the breads baked in each city.

In Cuba itself, meanwhile, after decades of food rationing and economic hardship, the Cuban sandwich has become a ghost.

In the U.S., thanks in part to the contention about whose sandwich was best, the Cuban sandwich’s profile rose in the last decade. Jon Favreau’s hit movie “Chef” (2014) is the story of a chef on a quest for the perfect Cuban sandwich. In 2019, the TV series “Cook’s Test Kitchen” set out to develop recipes for constructing the authentic sandwich. After “eighty Cuban loaves, thirty-four pork butts and twenty-four iterations of Cuban sandwiches,” they found the way. Or one way.

“The Cuban Sandwich” intersperses its history with chapters profiling people associated with the sandwich: chefs, restaurateurs, bakers, butchers and more. Early on, there’s a chapter on the Columbia’s impresario, Richard Gonzmart, who undertook extensive research to bring back the Cuban sandwiches he recalled from his youth. Near the end, there are interviews with Daniel Figueredo and Rosa Romero of Miami’s Sangwich de Miami and Andrew Tambuzzo of Tampa’s The Boozy Pig about the intensity of their research and development of their own versions of the Cuban sandwich — based in tradition but, as always, open to innovation.

I’m still a diehard fan of those Cuban sandwiches I ate growing up, but after reading about Tambuzzo’s housemade meats, pickles and even mustard — and his adherence to the true bread from La Segunda — I’m going to have to try the mixto on the menu at Boozy Pig.

Here’s hoping it’s as much of a treat as reading “The Cuban Sandwich.”

The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers

By Andrew T. Huse, Barbara C. Cruz and Jeff Houck

University Press of Florida, 162 pages, $24.95

Times Festival of Reading

Andrew T. Huse, Barbara C. Cruz and Jeff Houck will be featured authors at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 12. They will speak at 9 a.m. in Hough Hall at the Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets $25 general admission, $50 VIP at mytbtickets.com. This event is a fundraiser for the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund. Find author bios and information at tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading.