If you care about such things — if to you Cuban bread is not just what's holding together the meat, pickle and Swiss but a tradition in itself — the story in the newspaper a while back might have made you wistful. At least until you heard the rest.
It was about the bread at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City, one of those disappearing neighborhood places you step into like time travel.
Inside is the warm smell of bread baking, the rows of sugared pastries glistening behind glass, the saucy piped-in Latin music. Neighbors, working stiffs and downtown muckety-mucks go elbow to elbow at the counter, reaching for steaming cups of cafe con leche. Menu items are tantalizingly exotic if you are unfamiliar: devil crabs, chorizo rolls, empanadas, flan. And Cuban bread.
If it's handed across the counter to you at 10 a.m., it probably departed the oven at 8, pressed hot for sandwiches, purchased by the loaf or served warm wrapped in paper over at the Columbia Restaurant. As has been a centurylong tradition, it is baked with a long fresh strip of palmetto leaf down the middle to split each loaf. The outside is crisp and lightly brown, the inside pillowy white. If bread can be a poem, it's this.
At 34, Copeland More is the fourth generation and the newest blood of La Segunda, and he wasn't even supposed to be here. His father steered him away from the hard work of the family business, and he was in real estate when his father's cousin and partner decided to retire. When More got in six years ago, the business didn't even take credit cards or have a website.
As the Times noted in 2011, the bakery decided to automate some of the process of making its long loaves.
"We knew if there was even a slight difference in flavor, we were not going to be behind it," More said. There was.
Turns out a machine cannot have the sharp eye of a master baker, or the sense that if the weather is humid, the dough tends to run, and when it's cold, loaves are slow to grow. "It took away a lot of the human element as far as decisionmaking," More said, and the eye of the baker trumped. I like this story.
This year marks a century since Juan More, born in Spain, brought his Cuban bread recipe to Tampa and started a bakery. Recently, the state issued a proclamation for La Segunda, a place where people have worked for decades and where kids whose birthday parties always included their cold pizza bread called scacciata now buy it for their grandkids. For La Segunda, this is to be a year of celebration and change, but also not.
More is an interesting combination of tradition (if he had his way, they would serve only bags of plantain chips to go with the sandwiches) and progress (he's working on the front of the house, adding salads and such). They're talking about, eventually, another La Segunda in a busier part of Ybor City where tourists wander, partiers party and residents reside nearby. The neighborhood bakery will stay, he says.
It is a trick, not getting stuck in the past and also not obliterating the best of history in the name of progress. Places like La Segunda are on the edge of a city that is on the edge of something big — a major redevelopment of south downtown, the possibility of mass transit, a city's official transformation from punch line to player.
Places at the heart of Tampa Bay like this bakery should be a part of that, not the endless Chili's and Chipoltles you can find littering the landscape anywhere in America. Imagine someone from out of town biting into fresh Cuban bread, dropping crumbs as happens if the bread is the best kind, and finding it amazing. Then you get to tell how they bake it with that long palmetto leaf and why, a story Tampa's own.