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This spring, Tampa, Fla., bested Miami when it was voted the true home of the Cuban sandwich by readers of NPR’s food blog “The Salt.” The debate continues, however, over the sandwich’s exact origins, and the proper mix of ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese and mustard served on Cuban breads. We explore Tampa’s culinary gifts, including — and beyond — the Cuban sandwich.
- Andrew Huse assistant librarian and instructor, University of South Florida; author, "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine"
Video: Tampa Proclaims The Cuban Sandwich “The Signature Sandwich of Tampa”
Tampa, Fla., proclaimed the Cuban sandwich the “Official Sandwich Of Tampa.” Go behind the scenes at The Columbia, Florida’s oldest restaurant located in historic Ybor City to learn how to make the perfect Cuban Sandwich.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn many culturous towns and even neighborhoods you'll find different takes on the sandwich. The often humble occasion of the over-the-top lunchtime staple is easy to put your own stamp on and Tampa has done just that with the Cuban sandwich. Though other cities may claim to be the original home of this mix of ham, Genoa salami, mojo-marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard served on Cuban bread after being pressed on the grill, this city was crowned the winner of the Cuban sandwich wars waged on the NPR blog The Salt against Miami which, in our book, makes Tampa the champ.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to tell us about the history of the Cuban sandwich and other Cuban cuisine is Andrew Huse. Andy Huse is a librarian at the University of South Florida and an instructor in its Honors College. He's also the author of "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine." Andy Huse, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ANDREW HUSEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIThough others have tried to lay claim as its birthplace, I've heard it said that the Cuban sandwich is Tampa's culinary gift to the world. When and where was the sandwich first made?
HUSEWell, origins are murky. Like most culinary creations -- we still don't know exactly where the hamburger came from, but the best we can tell is it came from Cuba where there would be a mixed sandwich. And it wasn't really set ingredients. It was whatever you kinda had around. And here in Tampa, it eventually kind of coalesced into something stable. I'd say right around the time of World War II is when the mixto became the Cuban sandwich. 'Cause before that it was always a mix or Cuban mix.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Are you a fan of the Cuban sandwich? Call us and tell us where you've had the best one. You can also email us at email@example.com. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org to tell us your Cuban sandwich experience. It is my understanding, Andy, that Miami tries to lay claim to the sandwich as well. Any credit to the Miami claim?
HUSEWell, the Miami -- they kind of resurrected Tampa's version in Miami. And they don't use the salami for whatever reason, so it's a slightly different recipe. The other big difference is the bread itself. The bread here in Tampa, there're some bakeries that still make it the old school way.
NNAMDIWhat is special about that bread?
HUSEWell, it's -- when it's cooked while it's proofing it's set out on large trays in front of the ovens. And then they have these fans blow all the hot air over it. So the loaves -- before they even start cooking the exterior gets dried out while the interior stays nice and moist. So when you put that into an oven you get this great thin crust on the outside so it's crusty, but at the same time it's kind of -- you know, it's till fluffy and light in the middle. La Segundo Bakery is probably the best example of Cuban bread here in Tampa. And a lot of places in Miami actually order their bread from La Segundo so...
NNAMDIIn Tampa, for those of us who come from elsewhere we call it a Cuban sandwich -- here in Tampa, it's just known as a Cuban. And it's my understanding that for a while you couldn't find a good Cuban in Tampa, but they're reemerging. Why
HUSEI think a lot of people are going back to basics. You know, a lot of people are going back to curing their own bacon, simple things. And I think this is perfect in keeping with that. I think with just a little bit of effort you can have something that is okay at $5 out of a gas station, to have something that is really amazing for maybe a little more money. And one of my favorite things to do is actually just make them at home and get a great ham and glaze it myself and do the pork, you know, sometimes in the smoker and things like that. And I find that's the best sandwich you can get in Tampa when you make it yourself.
NNAMDILet me get a pen here. What's your address? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you've traveled to Tampa or elsewhere in Florida what was your most memorable meal? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Though the name highlights the city's Cuban population, I've heard it said that the sandwich itself highlights Tampa's diverse early population. Any truth in that lore?
HUSEIt's -- I think it's lore, yeah. I mean, it's more poetic than anything. I mean, you can certainly make a case that, you know, the Italians had something to do with the salami but, you know, I found an early version of the sandwich somebody writing about it in the 1930s and they used Salchichon, which is a different kind of cured salami. It's a Spanish version. It's a little different. So, you know, I think originally it was kind of whatever was at hand. And, you know, at some point salami got easier to get a hold of than Salchichon and it became kind of the standard.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Andrew Huse. He is a librarian at the University of South Florida and instructor in the Honors College. He's also the author of "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine." If you'd like to join this Food Wednesday conversation, is there a dish unique to your hometown that you can find -- that you cannot find done right anyplace else? Call us, 800-433-8850 and tell us about it. You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIThe Cuban isn't the only food people think of when Tampa comes to mind. It's a city that was known for, of all things, soup for a long time. Please explain.
HUSEThat's right. It is a kind of unlikely hero. Garbanzo Bean soup or Spanish bean soup as it's known, it's originally served in a big stew in Spain with cabbage and all kinds of meats and it's served in multiple courses. You'll have the broth and you'll have the meat and the vegetables and the beans and such. This was kind of a shorthand version of that dish. So you've got your beans, potatoes and then you've got chorizo and usually ham. And it's another one of these kind of unsung dishes, very, very simple.
HUSEIt comes from the north of Spain. Well, actually it comes from Madrid but so many of the immigrants that came here from Spain came from the north of Spain so they're really into bean soups. Caldo Gallego is another version with turnip greens, white beans and ham. So these bean soups became really, really popular whereas we hadn't really heard of gazpacho until much, much later, probably '60s or '70s by the time people were actually serving that here.
NNAMDIWe got somebody who wrote on Facebook, "There are folks in the media here in Tampa that would love some options to the food offered inside the convention but the time going back and forth -- the time spent going back and forth through security makes it impossible." I guess those people are having their mouths watering even as we speak about Cuban sandwiches.
NNAMDIAnd we got an email from the owner of A' Lo Cubano food truck which operates in the Washington metropolitan area. Here's their claim. He says, "We have the ultimate Cuban sandwich. The secret is in the bread. It must be crisp and hard on the outside and soft in the middle." How authentic is he?
HUSEHe sounds like he's right on the money.
NNAMDIHe knows what he's talking about.
HUSEYeah, I would try that sandwich.
NNAMDIIt's all the secret in the bread. You too can call us or you can join us of course on Facebook or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. We're talking food in Tampa. We're near the bay here in Tampa. What seafood dishes are popular in the area?
HUSEWell, a very popular dish with something called crab enchilado. It's sort of a take on shrimp enchilada which is pretty common around Latin America. It's sort of a shrimp Creole type of dish. It has a little spice, a tomato base, whereas here we use the blue crabs, whole blue crabs. And often people would make it right on the beach or in their backyard. They'd have a pot boiling with pasta, they've have another one with all the crabs and the tomato sauce in it. And so this is one where I can definitely see an Italian influence because really early on the Italians opened up macaroni and spaghetti factories here.
HUSESo you have a lot of people -- you know, the crabs are free, the pasta's cheap. It's a great family meal. Something to share, you know, for festivities and such so a lot of families did this on Sundays. They'd go out crabbing and such and it was a really festive dish, very, very messy. Every time you'd open up one -- you know, crack those crabs open that sauce goes flying. So people would always serve it outdoors. It was, you know, very much one where you kind of, you know, take away any fussiness or dignity. You just dig in, you know.
NNAMDIDigging in is what we like to do frankly on this show. Here is Lynn in Claremont, Md. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNHi. I was just listening to the show and I grew up in Miami and I was thinking back to when I was about ten years old and the first Cubans came to Miami. And on eighth street, which is now Calle Ocho, one of the first things that happened -- I guess this is early fusion cooking, the Chinese restaurants teamed up with the Cubans and we had Chinese Cuban restaurants.
NNAMDIAny of those similar blends here at all?
HUSEOh, yes, certainly. I mean, we had, you know, a Chinese population here early on because a lot Chinese would -- they'd take the railroad across the country because they'd be going to Cuba to work. So Cuban Chinese really comes from the Chinese actually coming to Cuba. I mean, it's really hard to imagine Cuban cuisine without rice.
HUSEBut supposedly the Chinese brought the rice and showed them how to cultivate it. So it's really a good reminder that so many things that we think of as being timeless are really rather recent. So, I mean, rice in Cuba, you could probably trace that back 100, 150 years. Not that long, but, you know, you consider it's so hard to imagine it without. Then what was the dish that she had mentioned?
NNAMDILynn, what the dish that you mentioned?
LYNNI didn't mention any particular dish, I just thought -- well, as I thinking about this, that this was early fusion, you know, fusion...
LYNNAnd it was just that as I said, it was 1960, I was not quite 10 years old, and it was a whole new thing when we went to our local Chinese restaurant, and it was Chinese Cuban.
HUSEYou can still go places around here. There's a place called China Latina, there's a place called Arco-Iris, and they still have whole different kinds of fried rice, usually with ham and Cuban pork and things like that. And then even salteado which is part of the, you know, all the, you know, most Cubans are familiar with some sort of salteado which is stir-fry, it's a sauté, and that's what it means. It means like a sizzle or a sauté. So that's where you get the salteado from. It was a Chinese influence.
NNAMDILynn thank you very much for your call. We went to Cuba back a few years ago, and we actually went to Chinese restaurants in Cuba. It was fascinating. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing our conversation with Andy Huse about Tampa's culinary gift to the world, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If you have called already, stay on the line. We'll get to your call. How do you choose where to eat at when you're traveling? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing Tampa's culinary landscape with Andrew Huse. He's the librarian at the University of South Florida and an instructor in the Honors College. He's also the author of "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine." We patronized the Columbia Restaurant on Sunday afternoon while we were here. It is amazing, especially how they retain its historic character and its size. It's huge.
HUSEIt is huge, yeah.
NNAMDIHow many people can it serve at one time? I think it's over a thousand.
HUSEYeah. I think it's 1,200.
NNAMDITwelve hundred. I don't think we have anything that size.
HUSEAnd there are days where they fill it, every single seat.
NNAMDIGood grief. Let's go back to the telephones. Here is Pat in Washington D.C. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATGood afternoon. Thank you for the topic. Love talking about Cuban sandwiches. I spent two or three years in Tampa, and I found myself searching for the best Cuban everywhere I could go from gas stations as your guest mentioned earlier to fine restaurants, and I just miss it dearly. I'm now a vegetarian, and looking for a vegetarian or a vegan option to make a Cuban, and I'm wondering if your guest has any suggestions.
NNAMDIWell, you know what I always tell people is that when you're on holiday, you take a holiday from your diet. So if you go on holiday, you can have a real Cuban sandwich, but here's Andy.
HUSEMan, that's tough. That is really tough. I mean, I've always said that the sandwich is basically an experience built around fat, and that's why the pressing is so important. You know, you render some of the fat out, so without fat, I'm not sure what to do.
PATI guess I'm not going to be eating a Cuban any time soon then. That's a shame.
HUSEWell, you know, get some good bread and butter it up and, you know, that to me is a delicacy in and of itself, so...
NNAMDIYeah. I guess you -- you take it from there Pat. Thank you very much for your call. We move onto Dennis in Woodbridge, Va. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNISHi, Kojo. Frequent listener, first time caller.
DENNISI'm a native of Tampa, and I was just telling the person that screened my call that I don't even eat pork now. It's just a health decision I made later on in life. I don't even eat pork now, but when I come home to Tampa, I forget about all that. I forget about all that...
NNAMDITake a holiday -- take a holiday from your diet. Is that what you do Dennis?
NNAMDIYou take a holiday from your diet when you come home?
DENNISYes. I take a holiday from my diet just for those Cubans, I tell you. And you find them at some of the most off-the-wall places. Places you wouldn't even think -- like last time -- we just came back. My wife is from Virginia, and she just get it. She don't understand. She said it's just a hoagie, it's just a sub, you can go to Subway and get the same thing. This is totally not true, Kojo, totally not true.
DENNISActually, there's a little place on Kennedy Boulevard that my sister just took me too on my recent trip there called the Floridian, and they have some of the best Cubans I've ever tasted in my life.
NNAMDIWhen you said you can go to Subway and get it, Andy fainted. I just revived him.
HUSEI'm here. I'm awake. I'm here.
NNAMDIHe's awake again, Dennis. Thank you very much for your call. There's another crab dish that we may not see on many menus in town, but that we'd likely find cooking in a home or backyard on any given Sunday. What is crab enchilado, Andy?
HUSEThat's the one I mentioned with the pasta.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. The one that you do with your hands, and you lose your dignity.
HUSEYeah. Yeah. Yes, exactly. You know, eat it over newspapers and such, but it is one of those dishes that, you know, it got popularized in Ybor City, but then everybody was eating it. The crackers here, African-Americans, you know, people inland, you know, who didn't even live close to Tampa often would pick up on this dish because it was just to delicious.
NNAMDIOn now to Michael in Washington DC. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHello, Kojo. I'm also a first-time caller, and I was calling to say I grew up in Tampa for my first 18 years, and, you know, Cuban families are just part of life there, and one of the great things, and it's almost a shame I've never been able to find a good Cuban outside of Tampa. Everyone always wants to tinker with it and change things, but for my sake, it's quintessential, and unlike your last caller, I'm blessed with a wife who does fully appreciate the magnificence of the Cuban sandwich even though she's from Pittsburgh and for her and for my kids it's really the only, you know, way you've really been to Tampa is when you've had a Cuban. And I'd put (unintelligible) as the best four dollars you'll ever spend in your life on their Cubans.
HUSEYeah, they're popular.
NNAMDIYeah. So it would appear. And you're lucky to have a wife who appreciates this much as you do, Michael. When did you introduce her to them?
MICHAELProbably very early on. We've been married for almost 20 years now, and probably the very first time we went down we were ever married to Tampa, I can't imagine having been in the city and not eating at least a Cuban a day. So it probably goes all the way back to then, to when we were dating.
HUSESo she passed the sandwich test?
NNAMDIYeah. Otherwise this marriage may not have made it at all. Michael, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. We're discussing Tampa's culinary landscape with Andrew Huse. He is the librarian at the University of South Florida and an instructor in the Honors College. He's also the author of "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine." What got you interested to the point of writing about The Columbia?
HUSEWell, I always knew I wanted to write history, but then, you know, it took some searching around, and I realized that really Tampa's food, you know, history and everything have been really just not explored at all. You know, the cigar workers, there's been a lot of angst built about them, et cetera, but really, and, you know, and even about organized crime, you know, in Tampa. So I think this is one thing that really -- it kind of bit me early one, and really been running with it ever since, and, you know, it's just one of those untilled gardens, I guess, you know.
HUSEAnd if you're a historian or you're a writer, you want to do something that hasn't really been done before, so for me that was -- I found it when I found the food scene here and was -- actually I was in graduate school at the time, and was -- wrote a big paper about it and got a lot of support from some of my professors there, and, you know, but it was too fun for grad school, so I had to wait until I graduated.
NNAMDITo actually get it published?
HUSEYeah. Well, no. To come back to it and to really write a book, you know. And what I was doing when I was approached by the Gonzmart family of The Columbia Restaurant was actually writing a book about the history of Tampa as told through its food. So I got invited to a lunch where they were kind of planning their own centennial history, and realized that I'd already put a lot of the pieces together and understood the importance of The Columbia and the family to Tampa's culinary history. So the rest is history.
NNAMDIAnd frankly the employees there, including the waitress who waited on us, seemed to understand that history themselves.
HUSEOh, yeah. I think nobody could really work there without an appreciation for that, and, you know, they have every two years, I believe they have a Hall of Fame type of thing. It's a big dinner where all of their longtime employees are invited and, you know, I've been able to attend a couple of those, and it's really special. It's really amazing to see, you know, somebody get an award for working there for 25 years, thing like that, which is not uncommon there. But it is uncommon in the restaurant industry at large really.
NNAMDIIt's a career when you work at The Columbia. That's what it is. It seems to be. Here is Mike in Alexandria, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHello, Kojo. Great to talk to you. I was just down there last week. I split my time between the DC area and down in Clearwater, and I got out of town before the convention, which I thought was a wise move. I've got to say that I think The Columbia is great, the Cuban sandwiches are great, but maybe your guest can also talk for just a minute about Tarpon Springs. It's about 45 minutes away from where you're sitting now. It is a Greek community with fabulous food, a fabulous history, and is still the home of a classic Florida roadside attraction called Spongeorama. It is worth the visit if you've got a half a day or a day before you leave town. I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIThank you very much for telling us about that. We'll try to check out Spongeorama. Care to add anything to that, Andy Huse?
HUSEWell, I remember I was speaking over there a couple years ago, and it was like, oh, I've got to go all the way to Tarpon Springs, but I figured I'd have a nice Greek lunch, and it was so good, I was like, why don't I come here more often. So when you get a lot of Greek restaurants in a very small space, what you get is competition, and that's where all the best food seats come out of. You know, you get a hundred places in New Orleans serving Creole food, and some of them are going to be darn good. So the same goes for Tarpon Springs, you know.
HUSEAnd, you know, I know some Greeks, you know, and they'll be like, oh, it's the same menu everywhere or whatever, but, you know, for us, you know, for people who aren't initiated fully into that culture, those restaurants are pretty special. So there's a lot of choices.
NNAMDIWe'll try to get over there. Here is Carmen in Glen Burnie, Md. Carmen, your turn.
CARMENHi, Kojo. You know, first-time caller, long-time listener.
CARMENI -- you're welcome. I'm a native Tampanian. I miss home just -- oh my God, it brought tears to my eyes just hearing, you know, about The Columbia, and about all the, you know, all the culinary history. It's so home for me. My comment basically is, you know, love, love the Cuban sandwiches, but there are also many other Cuban sandwiches, you know, like the medianoche, which is absolutely delicious, and also like (unintelligible) and, you know, if your guest could talk a little bit about those, you know. There are other alternatives to a Cuban sandwich that are also delicious.
HUSEYeah. The Cuban bread is, you know, can -- really is great for any kind of sandwich. Picadillo is another really good one that's sort of a Cuban sloppy joe. Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef, so there's, you know, all kinds of choices. I mean, I really like breakfast Cubans too, myself, which is just a Cuban but with some eggs added. So there's -- yeah. There's a lot of great, great sandwiches. I mean, what's the other one -- Palamilla, you know. It's a steak pounded thin, just delicious. So yeah. You really can't go wrong with any of those options.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move onto Robert in Washington D.C. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTGood afternoon, Kojo. Long-time listener, first...
ROBERTGood afternoon, Andy. I'd like...
ROBERT….to say first that my daughter and son-in-law are both Bulls. They both graduated from USF.
ROBERTAnd they live in Tampa, and every time my wife and I go down, if we're down there for five days, on average we gain about ten pounds apiece, just catching up. It's -- no day would be complete without some type of Cuban cuisine. West Tampa -- as a matter of fact, I was wearing my West Tampa Sandwich Shop t-shirt yesterday, and the other place that we hit is the Havana Cafe over on Dale Mabry and Kennedy. And I've been to The Columbia in St. Augustine as well as the one in Tampa, and I love Cuban cuisine. And it is my plan when I retire in six years that that's where we're going and we'll be gaining a whole bunch of weight.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call. There's a fish dish that we didn't mention that may not be as popular as the things we've been discussing, but smoked mullet. What is it like?
HUSEYeah. It's not a Cuban dish, it's really more of a -- kind of a Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Coast dish, really popular with -- really just kind of poor, rural folks. And, you know, mullet are very, very plentiful, always have been, easy to catch with a net. So basically it's a smoked fish, but it's a very fishy fish, so it really...
NNAMDIYou'll just have to come down here and taste it yourself.
HUSEIt's essential to have to smoked.
NNAMDIJust about out of time. Andy Huse is a librarian at the University of South Florida and an instructor at its Honors College. He's also the author of "The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine. Andy Huse, thank you so much for joining us.
HUSEIt's my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou can see images of the food we're eating in Tampa and much, much more at our website, kojoshow.org/conventions and by following us on Facebook as well as on Instagram and Twitter where you'll find us @kojoshow. You can also follow the nefarious adventures of flat Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi" show is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineers in Washington are Timmy Olmstead and Jonathan Charry. Our engineers at WMNF in Tampa are (unintelligible) with help from Jake Tremper (sp?) . Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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