Copyright © 1999 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved

Hot Pressed Cuban, Hold the Dinosaur


      It was one of the strangest experiences of my strange life, mingling with a bunch of teachers and their families. Nothing too odd about that, since Iíve been hanging out with teachers all my life, but we were near Plant City, Florida, in March, the weekend after the Strawberry Festival, so of course, there were strawberries, mountains of the distinctive "Sweet Charley" berries, as sweet as they are photogenic. And there were dinosaurs, over a hundred of them, towering above us, but that is another story, another article.

      Nobody was talking about strawberries or dinosaurs. Instead, all eyes, mouths, and words were focussed on what, to a gourmet used to the fine dining of Worth County, seemed like rather boring ham sandwiches. One aficionado even claimed to be able to tell from which sandwich shop they had come.

      Welcome to the Tampa Bay area. Itís a loosely-knit area of several counties, sprawling fields, congested suburbs around cities that almost arenít there. Itís a hodgepodge of ethnicities, manatees, religious visions and sports franchises, not to mention dinosaurs, the largest collection of Salvador Daliís art in the world or the largest gathering of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world. And the inevitable Cuban sandwich, probably the one icon that holds this crazy quilt of people and places together.

      In and around Tampa, the standard line is that the Cuban sandwich isnít Cuban any more than the popular Spanish bean soup (a hearty stew of garbanzo beans, meats, and seasonings) is Spanish. Both, it is claimed, were products of cooks in Tampaís own Ybor City, the old Spanish-Cuban-Italian neighborhood which now sees its heritage buried under an onslaught of underage drinkers, overdrinking conventioneers, and Goths, teenaged rebels whose true rebellion in the heart of the Sunshine State is to affect a degree of paleness not seen since Elizabeth I. If there were ever an example of what not to do to a grand old urban neighborhood.Ö

      Back to the sandwiches, however. The Cuban sandwich is made on Cuban bread, which is baked in long loaves, somewhat like French bread, wrapped in palmetto leaves for baking. An appropriate length (about 8-10 inches) of bread is cut off the loaf, and it is then sliced through the middle, dividing top and bottom. Then, it is piled with sliced baked ham, a special kind of spicy roast pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, and dill pickle, graced with mustard, perhaps mayo... and then pressed. A sandwich press is like a large waffle iron, but with flat plates. The sandwich is brushed with melted butter on the outsides, then put into the press. A weight is applied, and the sandwich heats and flattens for a few minutes, melting the cheese.

      It is a pretty simple affair, but squabbles erupt over adding lettuce and tomato (a "cracker" Cuban) or serving it not pressed. Bacon? Donít think about it. The mere mention of mayonnaise has been met with loud cries of "Heresy!" It is certainly the ingredient of choice to omit when taking Cubans all over the country (to avoid food poisoning), as folks in the Tampa Bay area do. I heard one woman say that her son in Seattle would not agree to meet her at the airport if she didnít have a bag of Cubans for him.

      A man once told me that when he first moved to the Tampa Bay area, his church was selling Cuban sandwiches as a fund-raiser. He bought some; when he got home, he took one look at them, and went flying back to the church to complain that apparently someone had run over his sandwiches with a truck. He said someone stated more than asked, "Youíre not from around here, are you?" If you find a bit of palmetto leaf in the crusty bread, just imagine that it is an omen of good luck.

      If the Tampa Bay area were ever to secede, it would probably put a picture of a Cuban sandwich on its flagóonce it was decided whether to have it pressed or not. There is even an occasional art show named for the Cuban sandwich, and the Cuban sandwich isnít just for Tampa anymore. A recent search of the world wide web turned up over four hundred references, even from such an exotic locale as Atlanta. Two surprises were that the sandwich is said to be truly a product of Cuba and that none of the recipes call for salami. (Gee, youíre not from around here, are you?)

      I never feel quite as out of place as I do when I am around a bunch of Tampa Bay natives eating Cuban sandwiches. For the life of me, itís just a ham sandwich, but for these folks, it is just a ham sandwich the way my motherís split pea soup, which she always had waiting for me when I came home from college, was just a bowl of peas. The quickest way to a manís heart, or a womanís, is indeed through the stomach. Itís just what goes through the stomach to the heart that is the surprise. Food does more than just nourish the body. It reminds us who we are, even who we are not. As this country grows more and more homogenous, with the same television, stores, and restaurants in every town, my friends from the Tampa Bay area are fortunate to have a distinctive cuisine to remind them when they are home.

      When you read the title, you may have thought that hot pressed Cuban referred to some ingenious CIA plot against Fidel. But, armed with your new knowledge about Cuban sandwiches, as you rove and rave along, no matter what it is that keeps you goingósplit pea soup, Cuban sandwiches, or boiled Worth County peanutsókeep your feet dry, your heart full of noble thoughts, and your expectations high for the guest columnist who will be raving here next time.

Rovin' Through U.S. History 

Rovin' & Ravin' with Mike



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