Giving new meaning to the term “pork barrel politics,” the Tampa City Council threw down the gauntlet with a resolution declaring the Cuban sandwich its signature sandwich. Miami fired back indignantly, insisting that its version is the authentic one.
In an NPR survey, Tampa won handily as the Cuban’s first city, with 57% of the vote compared to 43% for Miami. The hostilities will continue May 26, with a “smack down” between the two cities at a Tampa festival.
Tampa claims that the Cuban sandwich can be traced back to cigar workers in its Ybor City neighborhood at the end of the last century. Familiar with their homeland’s “mixto,” a sandwich of mixed cured meats, they used meats available where they lived. These included marinated roasted pork, ham and a few slices of Genoa salami or mortadella–the last of these contributed by Italian workers (mostly Sicilian) who also worked in the factories.
Somewhere along the way, Swiss cheese got into the picture. Traditionally, the long loaves contain lard and a fresh palmetto leaf creates the signature split down the middle. The Tampa resolution originally laid out some other rules–exactly three pickle slices, for instance–but retreat became necessary because of enforcement issues.
As far as I can tell, Miami’s claim is based on its status–pretty much undeniable–as the center of contemporary Cuban-American culture. I gather that their bread is different, and the idea of putting Genoa on a Cuban makes them crazy.
To see what the excitement was about, I headed for La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. Other customers were ordering the Turkey Cuban (I’m guessing the Miami folks would also consider that an abomination) but I went for a straight-ahead Cuban. My sandwich maker showed me the three-foot loaf before stripping off the palmetto leaf and whacking off my portion.
I chose to have my Cuban pressed and was pleased that the lettuce and tomato were added after the pressing. That lettuce, tomato and the mayo, too, are interlopers apparently not present in the original sandwich. I don’t find that surprising because of the American tendency to embellish ethnic specialties.
For instance, the muffaletta took its lead from Sicilian bread and olive salad, but the pile-up of deli meats and cheese is pure New Orleans. And a typical panino in Italy, the kind you order at a bar, is a simpler affair than our so-called Italian deli sandwich. If it’s prosciutto and cheese, that’s what you get–no lettuce, no tomato, not even the vinaigrette we’re accustomed to here.
Back to the cubano. I enjoyed the sandwich but, honestly? Not a life-changing experience. If memory serves, the Cuban sandwiches I’ve had at no-name places in New York City were better. I know someone’s going to tell me about a better Cuban in Tampa (and maybe a field trip to Miami is in order), but for now my favorite regional sandwich continues to be the grouper sandwich.
You can find grouper sandwiches anywhere along Florida’s Gulf Coast, which means endless arguments over whose is the best. BellaBrava in St. Petersburg makes a mean grouper sandwich, but my favorite place to go is Hurricane, on St. Pete Beach, where I order my grouper grilled with Cajun seasoning. It comes with a beach view that makes every bite taste better.