The Ajiaco, the Cuban Sandwich and other Cuban/Caribbean Foods for Thought, Part 5
There is one essential item in all sandwiches: the bread. From peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Reubens (one of my favorites), they consist of combinations of items layered between slices of bread. It is even possible to have a sandwich -- of sorts -- with nothing but bread. I recall the stories of a wise man from West Virginia who during the Great Depression ate his fair share of air sandwiches. In the case of the Cuban sandwich, the bread must also be Cuban, and the only air in them is inside the holes in the slices of Swiss cheese.
Now, here is where I can get into trouble with some of my Miami compatriots. Nothing new, given that I wrote -- dared to write, said CBS South Florida -- a comprehensive, and may I dare say fair, history of the Cuban Revolution and the diaspora it generated. Cuban bread, most sources point to, and I agree, originated in Ybor City, Florida -- not in Miami, and not in Cuba.
Cuban bread, according to most accounts, was first developed in Ybor City, a town founded in the 1880s by Spanish-born cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez-Ybor. Formally annexed to Tampa in 1887, Ybor City attracted thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy. A large portion of these immigrants came to work as cigar manufacturers. The city also attracted German workers, many if not most of whom were Jewish.
According to various sources, Cuban bread was first baked in 1896 at La Joven Francesca bakery, an establishment owned by a Sicilian named Francisco Ferlita. His elongated loafs of bread resembled Italian bread but had thin, hard crusts and soft centers. Cuban bread was distributed before dawn the way milk used to be. Because they were delivered without paper bags, single loaves were impaled -- Wikipedia's word, not mine -- into a long iron nail sticking out of the door of worker's homes. A couple of those old cigar-worker homes, prefabricated Sears models purchased in installments, are still standing in Ybor City, door nail and all.
Like the Cuban ajiaco we tasted in previous sections of this column, the Cuban sandwich developed gradually with different groups of newcomers adding their own ingredients. Its origins are in Cuba, where "mixtos" (mixed sandwiches) included ham, cheese and various other ingredients. But the evidence points to the mixto's maturation into what we call a Cuban sandwich in Ybor City/Tampa sometime around the start of the 20th century.
In preparation for this story, I spoke with Andrea Gonzmart, fifth-generation owner and operator of the Columbia Restaurant chain, whose flagship restaurant is in Ybor City. She concurs with the Tampa origins theory.
This is Columbia Restaurant's recipe for a Cuban sandwich. It begins with a 9-inch piece of Cuban bread (Ybor City's contribution). Three types of meat are layered inside: 4 ounces of thinly sliced smoked ham (the Iberian contribution), 1 1/2 ounces of roasted pork loin (the Cuban contribution), and a thin slice of Genoa salami (the Italian ingredient). Note that salami slices are only used in the Tampa/Ybor City version of the Cuban sandwich and are considered culinary heresy in Miami. Then come the German and Jewish contributions: yellow mustard and pickles.
That is just the assembly phase. A true Cuban sandwich must be served hot, like a panini but without the grooves. To add flavor and crispiness, the crust is slightly buttered before pressing the sandwich in a sandwich grill. And there is one more item. Remember the "bananafication" discussion in part 3 of this column? It is customary to serve Cuban sandwiches with a side of mariquitas, thin, fried slices of green plantains.
From its localized origins in the multicultural working-class neighborhood of Ybor City, the Cuban sandwich has gained popularity around the world. Its globalization is a metaphor for the Cuban diaspora of over 2 million Cubans living abroad. Cuban restaurants and cafeterias in virtually any city around the world offer variations of the Cuban sandwich. Since 2012, Tampa has held an annual International Cuban Sandwich Festival with a contest for the best Cuban sandwich in the world. Aug. 23 has been designated National Cuban Sandwich Day. In Havana or any other Cuban city, however, one would be hard-pressed -- pun intended -- to find anything resembling a Cuban sandwich.
No Cuban meal is complete without something sweet. I suggest one of my favorite desserts: guava paste with fresh white cheese.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.
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