Bay Of Pigs: Cuba and America’s history may be a bit complex, but their finest collaboration – the Cuban sandwich – is proof tha
Perhaps the Tainos, some of the earliest inhabitants to Cuba, were the ones who thought to roast the pork. Maybe the Spanish conquistadors added the pickles in the 1500s, and later, the cheese. No one truly knows when the Cuban sandwich was first conceived in Cuba, but we do know when it left.
It left, literally, in the late 1800s alongside disgruntled Cuban cigar manufacturers hoping to avoid Spanish rule. As they migrated to Ybor City in Tampa’s Latin Quarter, the sandwich eventually spread with the immigrant population to New York and the rest of the country.
It left, figuratively, on New Year’s Day in 1959 when Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew the Cuban government and sent President Fulgencio Batista fleeing Cuba in a tuxedo. The revolution and consequent embargo profoundly changed Cuban food. Without products coming in from the U.S., the Cuban government implemented a food distribution system in 1962 that rationed out basics such as bread, rice and eggs. To this day, the ration card includes only scarce amounts of meat.
It left, crushingly, in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the support of the Soviets and the $4 to $5 billion in aid Cuba had received each year in the form of a guaranteed export, Cuba’s economy fell into absolute crisis. For the next five years, the government survived, but the people suffered. They ate no meat or milk and lived on rice and beans. Cuba refers to this time as the “Special Period,” special serving as a euphemism for starving.
During a month I spent in Cuba several years ago, I gorged myself on the world’s best mangoes, learned subtle differences between household recipes for moros y cristianos (black beans and rice), and ate dozens of greasy, doughy peso pizzas that had been cooked and sold on the street. But I never saw a single Cuban sandwich. Sandwiches are still eaten in Cuba, of course, but they’re unrecognizable from what we know them to be here in The States. If there is pork, there won’t also be ham, for two meats together would be far too decadent. The cheese and bread are government-issued, pickles are impossible to find, and the mustard is the consistency of the stuff that oozes out when you forget to shake the bottle.
But according to Luis Trabanco, owner of La Tropicana Market here in St. Louis, the Cuban sandwich we know today is actually more authentic than we think. While older Cubans, like Trabanco’s parents, still remember Cuban cooking pre-Fidel – when things like bread and dairy were copious and meat wasn’t rationed out family by family – younger Cubans have lived under Fidel’s rule and strict culinary restrictions their entire lives. Thus, the first time they taste the cheese-and-meat-laden fare of their ancestors is when they leave their native country for the U.S. and drop by places like La Tropicana, still the only Cuban-run restaurant in St. Louis.
But what an authentic Cuban sandwich is supposed to taste like depends on whom you ask. The earliest Cuban immigrants in Ybor City lived adjacent to Italian immigrants, so Tampa natives will claim salami has as much of a place between the slices as the ham, pickles, pork, mustard and cheese. Trabanco, whose family fled to Miami before settling in St. Louis, swears by the Miami version, which only has room for the standards: no salami, no tomatoes, no mayo and certainly no lettuce. It’s this minimalist take that most often appears on menus today.
Compared to other U.S. cities, St. Louis’ Cuban population is very small. But thankfully, the country’s prized culinary contribution – the Cuban sandwich – is popping up all over town. From sandwiches that tip their hats to the classic combo with artisanal touches to those that turn tradition on its head by taking a few culinary liberties, here is very tasty proof that, at least in St. Louis, the Cuban sandwich is alive and well.
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