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Sue Carlton: Sorry Miami, the Cuban sandwich is Tampa's

Published Apr. 18, 2012

So Tampa is poised to lay rightful claim to the Cuban sandwich that's as much a part of this city's heritage as its brick streets. And Miami starts talking smack.

Typical.

Possibly miffed at the Tampa City Council's plan to make the Cuban the official "signature sandwich" Thursday, our sister city to the south is maligning how we've put together our Cubans for oh, a century or so.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado chuckled, according to the Miami Herald, at the salami we layer in with the ham, pork, Swiss, pickle and mustard required to make a proper Cuban.

To us, that salami slice salutes this town's proud Italian roots. But Regalado scoffs that salami "is for pizza."

And, really? You plan to win a food culture war with salami pizza as your standard for what's normal?

Miami is my hometown and Tampa my home. I love both, but they couldn't be more different. When I was growing up down there, the clash of cultures could be fractious, so it was interesting to move to a town with a Latin Quarter long integrated by a blend of Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants.

So take this, Miami: Research indicates Tampa was making what we currently call the Cuban sandwich back in the cigarmaker days — before Miami was even Miami.

Who better to ask about all this than Ybor City's own Jack Espinosa, former standup comic, sheriff's spokesman and author of the memoir Cuban Bread Crumbs? Now 80, Espinosa says when he tried to order a Cuban in Havana in the 1950s, the waiter thought he was kidding. Wasn't any sandwich made by a Cuban a Cuban sandwich? The "mixto," or mixed sandwich that became the Cuban, was a Depression sort of creation, a hearty meal made with what was at hand. Like salami.

And purists, do not be alarmed: Espinosa says when he was a kid and men talking of important matters on a front porch paid him a nickel to run over to Los Helados de Ybor for sustenance, the sandwiches he delivered included, get ready, a slice of turkey. And, you could opt for butter over mustard. Nobody spoke of mayo, and "nobody thought about lettuce and tomato unless you asked for it — when we got richer," he says. Food, like language, evolves.

I can offer this: On Saturdays when my parents worked on our boat docked on the Miami River near the Orange Bowl, I was sent down the street to pick up lunch from one of those spots where Spanish-speaking men lined the counters throwing back supercharged coffee from tiny cups. On the menu: Media noche, ham and mixto sandwiches. Cubans? Nada.

In Miami, I never tasted the kind of bread that makes a true Cuban here, baked at places like La Segunda Central Bakery in long loaves with a palmetto palm frond to split the center. Miami bread was good, just different, like arguing the superiority of gulf beaches versus Atlantic ones.

It is civic pride, then, that makes us fierce about food, declaring that our town alone makes the only real barbecue or chili or cheese steaks. Food threads a city's history. In Tampa, that's the Cuban.

So maybe we can settle this over steaming cups of cafe con leche with our Miami friends. Probably they won't know to dunk their buttered Cuban toast in it like they're supposed to, but we can show them. Tampa's friendly like that.

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