Actually, the Cuban sandwich was not ‘invented’ in Tampa, says historian

USF librarian Andy Huse is working on a book about the history of the Cuban sandwich.
A Cuban sandwich photographed on the banks of the Hillsborough River at the University of Tampa.
A Cuban sandwich photographed on the banks of the Hillsborough River at the University of Tampa. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 22, 2021|Updated Oct. 26, 2021

For a while, historian Andy Huse was the go-to guy for reporters looking for a quote about Tampa’s Cuban sandwiches. He fielded calls from The Wall Street Journal, Saveur and others.

The resulting articles often repeated a tale you’ve likely heard, that the Cuban sandwich sprang forth from Tampa’s Ybor City before the turn of the 20th century. That it was popularized as a cheap, portable snack for immigrant laborers.

“Unlike cigars,” Huse wrote himself in a 2006 issue of Cigar City Magazine, “one could argue that the so-called Cuban sandwich is more Tampa than Havana.”

That made his statement on a recent episode of the food podcast Gravy a bit surprising.

“Tampa,” Huse said, “didn’t invent the sandwich.”

Wait, did the cigar-rolling ghosts of Ybor just spit their café con leche all over Seventh Avenue?

Before any prideful Tampa residents get too upset, Huse isn’t saying Tampa wasn’t a factor in the Cuban sandwich’s evolution. And he isn’t saying the sandwich is not a big part of Tampa history. And he’s definitely not saying Tampa isn’t a great place to eat them.

Andy Huse
Andy Huse [ Courtesy of Andy Huse ]

But Huse, the author of several Tampa history books and a special collections librarian at the University of South Florida — and an avowed devotee of Tampa-style Cuban sandwiches — has long felt that rigorous research into the Cuban sandwich was lacking.

He has spent the past couple of years working to change that. The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers, which Huse co-authored with USF professor Bárbara Cruz, who was born in Cuba, and former Tampa Tribune food writer Jeff Houck, will be published by University Press of Florida next year.

Everyone will tell you a different story, “with passionate certainty, about what their grandfather said,” Huse told the Tampa Bay Times. “But I decided that if we’re going back before anyone’s living memory, that I’m not trusting anything but what the written sources say.”

Huse tracked down documentary evidence, mostly in the form of old newspapers and menus. The book cites close to 500 such sources, including many from Cuba.

Based on all that, Huse does not buy the old story that the Cuban sandwich came together on U.S. soil.

“We might upset some people,” he said.

The research, he said, shows that Cubans were really into sandwiches going back to at least the 1870s. One of the earliest references to Cuban sandwiches Huse found was published in 1898, and describes sandwiches in Cuba.

The earliest written description of the recognizable layering of today’s Cuban sandwich is from 1900, Huse said, but it comes from a major U.S. city outside of Florida that until now has been completely left out of the story. He declined to get more specific until the book is released.

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Another discovery that goes against accepted Cuban sandwich knowledge: They were originally a luxury item.

“Sandwiches were the favorite of the rich in Havana,” Huse said. “You take carriage rides and stuff and flaunt your little sandwiches everywhere.”

Huse showed off a 1919 advertisement telling affluent Tampa residents with automobiles that the sandwich made a great accessory for their evening drive. By the end of World War II, however, Cuban sandwiches were using cheaper ingredients and were available in every dime store in Tampa.

Related: Read an excerpt from Andy Huse's 'From Saloons to Steak Houses: A History of Tampa’

There was a human element to these sandwiches, mostly lost today, in the lonchero, a counter man whose knife skills and meat selections were vital back before there were electric deli slicers or even sliced bread.

There was no strict recipe. Huse showed ads for classic Cuban sandwiches in Tampa and Havana that included turkey or chicken. (For those of you that get worked up over the Miami-Tampa, salami-or-no-salami debate, please take a breath.)

Huse also does not believe the tidy story that Ybor City’s particular combination of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, Jewish and German immigrants directly led to the particular combination of roast pork, sweet ham, salami, pickles and mustard.

“This idea that in 1910, 1920, these different groups are all really chummy, and they’re like, throwing ingredients onto each other’s sandwiches, no, I don’t think so,” Huse said. Strictly in terms of early ingredients, “The Spanish had nothing to do with the Cuban sandwich, except for the cultural influence they exerted on Cuba, and the Italians had no role to play in this.”

Rather than create fusion, Huse said, immigrants at the time were likely to have recreated foods from home as exactly as possible, bolstering the argument of the Cuban sandwich as Cuban.

Huse believes the ingredients really got pared down to the austere sandwich we know today during the later wave of Cuban immigration, especially into Miami, in the 1950s and ’60s, when keeping the price low to serve refugees became crucial.

While Huse’s documentary research creates the spine of the book, passed-down stories of local communities’ sandwich traditions augment those facts with first-person stories.

Huse’s co-authors interviewed people in Tampa and Miami, he said, so that the book can also “profile people who we thought exemplified the sandwich in some way.”