A taste of Florida History
Contrary to its name, the modern ‘Cuban sandwich’, often called ‘a cuban’, ‘cubano’, or ‘mixto’, is not actually from Cuba, at least not completely. Instead, it has roots in South Florida (though indeed created by Cubans). There is controversy in whether the sandwich was first made in Tampa or Miami, however; one fact remains undisputed- this is a sandwich born out of immigration. The sandwich, typically made from ham, pork, cheese, mustard, sometimes salami, and always Cuban bread, has an engaging history.
History of the Cuban: Tobacco & Immigration
To begin, while the modern ‘cubano’ is the product of Cuban immigrant workers in Florida, the first traces of the sandwich are believed to have been started by the Taino people in Cuba. They used casabe bread, made from yucca, and then stuffed it with fish to create the dish. After Spanish colonization on the island, meats such as pork and ham transformed the sandwich from mainly pescatarian into a carnivore’s dream.
Later, in the mid 1800’s, the Cuban tobacco industry dominated Florida. First beginning in Key West, the Cuban cigar business quickly took hold in north Tampa and thousands relocated to Ybor City. This historic community, founded by cigar manufacturer Vicente Lartinez-Ybor, was defined by Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants. The influx of immigrants working mostly in cigar factories, needed a quick, affordable lunch- and thus the cubano was born. Food historian, Loy Glenn Westfall, states that the sandwich was “born in Cuba and educated in Florida.”
So, the Cubans brought their bread and then it was meshed with Italian and Spanish ingredients as well, namely roasted pork, ham, and salami. In Cuba, this was just a sandwich, but in order to differentiate its new ingredients and history, it became the titular ‘Cuban’. The first recorded mention of the sandwich was in newspapers in Ybor city and is now named as one of Tampa’s most famous ‘signature foods’. However, while the cubano we know today was popularized in Florida, it is important to remember that Cuban history deeply influenced it.
So what’s in it? Tampa Versus Miami
There’s more dispute, what goes in a Cuban sandwich? The answer depends on who you ask and where they’re from. First, the unquestioned ingredients: Cuban bread, a type of yeasty, crunchy long bread that forms the base of the sandwich. Then, it is always emulsified by some kind of fat, mostly lard, and then topped with mustard (possibly brought by the Germans). After, it is built with roast pork, usually marinated in ‘mojo’, a blend of garlic, onion, vinegar, oregano, cumin, and salt. The cheese must be Swiss and pickles are placed delicately, not to overpower the flavors. If you’re in Tampa, there is also salami, usually from Genoa and the added ham is sweet and cured. If you’re outside of Florida, tomatoes, lettuce, and mayonnaise might also be added – but in Tampa this is strictly forbidden. The defining feature of the sandwich is the bread, when hot pressed by a plancha, it creates a soft, sweet, and crunchy texture that perfectly complements its fillings.
The significant difference between the Tampa Cuban and the Miami Cuban is the addition of salami. As a result of Italian immigration in Ybor City, Genoa salami became a popular topping. But regardless of what exactly goes inside the sandwich, it remains extremely popular and iconic across Florida, thanks to a rich history of immigration. To this day, most restaurants and bars in either Tampa or Miami will feature the shining ‘Cubano’ on their menus. Which one is better depends on personal tastes, but do yourself a favor and head to Florida to try both versions!
Cuban Sandwich: The Complete History and Guide [WWW Document], 2017. El Meson De Pepe. URL https://www.elmesondepepe.com/ultimate-cuban-sandwich/ (accessed 5.17.22).
How the Cuban Became History’s Most Contentious Sandwich [WWW Document], 2016 . Thrillist. URL https://www.thrillist.com/eat/miami/history-of-the-cuban-sandwich (accessed 5.17.22).
The Real History of the Cuban Sandwich [WWW Document], 2018 . Sarasota Magazine. URL https://www.sarasotamagazine.com/eat-and-drink/2018/10/the-true-history-of-the-cuban-sandwich (accessed 5.17.22)
Written by Sabrina Mikes
Sabrina is currently a graduate student and researcher at the University of Luxembourg. She has a bachelors degree in Sociology from New College of Florida and is completing a study visit at the European Parliament. She now lives in France where she enjoys hiking, writing, and eating baguettes.