November 30, 2018

I am a Cuban Sandwich

By Richard DiPietra

Ybor City seemed like a completely different place when I was growing up.  It was such a small town, everybody knew everybody – or else they were related to them somehow.  We would catch bass at the pond in Robles Park, built our own rafts out of bamboo and floated down the Hillsboro River just like Tom and Huck.  You could pick the fruit right off the trees. Oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, mangoes, guavas, Japanese plums, and people didn’t seem to mind… as long as you didn’t touch the avocados. They were serious about that…it was a kind of a Garden of Eden thing .
I grew up in this idyllic little neighborhood where the houses were well taken care of. Most everybody had a nice yard, green lawns of St. Augustine. Most of my aunts and uncles and cousins as well as, my grandparents from both sides of the family all lived within a few blocks.
You could walk anywhere, day or night. Kids played outside until long after the street lights came on. It was pretty much a porch society then with no AC. Tell your mother, I said hello, women would say, as I passed. Men sitting back in a porch chair with a big tobacco called out simply, DiPietra!
So many of the people shared similar backgrounds, especially the Latinos. The Cubans and Sicilians…were all from the same few towns. And those from different backgrounds were still from the same working class, hanging on like hell to the status quo with dreams of a better life for their sons and daughters.
Christenings, children’s birthdays, holiday celebrations, weddings and funerals all faithfully attended. Everyone glad to show their love and support.
It was a wonderful time, between wars with chances for all to work or study and plan their future… blissfully unaware of what exactly that future would bring.
Man, you wouldn’t believe how incredibly rich that neighborhood was, walking the brick streets of Ybor was a treat for the eyes and ears, sure but the fragrance of people preparing their favorite food or drink was almost overpowering.
Early every day, the smell of coffee roasting would drift across Ybor city from the south, then olive oil warming up in a pan for huevos fritos. Fried eggs-done till the edges are crisp and brown served over rice, or with Cuban toast. Or could be platanos going in the pan…platanos go with everything-ripe and sweet or a little green and salty.  And who could forget the pungent aroma of garlic softening in olive oil wafting out a window as you walked past, soon to be joined by onions or peppers or both to make a sofrito-the very heart of Latin cooking and the foundation for most of the Latin signature dishes, like yellow rice, black beans, picadillo, ropa vieja…old clothes never tasted so good! As well as, the sugo, the red sauce for pasta. Talk about soul food.
But I gotta tell you, folks; if you don’t already that, bar none the most appetizing of all these fantastic cooking smells of Ybor was this. (Holds up a loaf of Cuban bread) Most everyone loves the smell of fresh bread baking, imagine going into a bakery anytime and being greeted by that wonderful aroma. And you could get a loaf 3 feet long for what a couple of bucks! Best money you could ever spend. That pale crispy crust with soft white dough inside and graced with the signature palm frond. Nothing else like it in the whole world.
And, of course the most popular use of the bread is for making Cuban sandwiches. You can find Cuban sandwiches anywhere now; I see signs for them all over. Every little gas station, convenience or grocery store. Gourmet shops, bars, bakeries. I’ve even had one in Dublin.
 But did you know that the sandwich that you get here is unlike all the others. You see, if you ask someone from Miami or even Cuba, how to make a Cuban sandwich, they have a whole different method than we do here in Tampa; the difference is subtle but distinctive. 
First, you gonna need Cuban bread.  Or else…well… you get it. 
Slice yourself off a piece that fits your individual needs slit it evenly down the middle.  Traditionally, the ingredients are layered in a specific order.  First the ham, marinated and roasted with a lot of cumin for a happy life, glazed with caramelized sugar and then sliced thin, the thinner the better, I like it so thin you can almost see though it, Look at that!   Then pieces of tender juicy Cuban pork, bathed in mojo for days, a pungent marinade of bitter oranges from Sevilla. Next, the cheese, Swiss, always Swiss. Imported. From the Alps! A few well-placed dill pickles….not too thick, not too thin.  On the top slice, lovingly spread yellow mustard.  Marry the two sides and you’re done.  As always a marriage of condiments and cultures, the Spanish ham, the Cuban pork.
This mix for a sandwich goes back to Cuba over 100 years ago and was continued here by Cubans interested in preserving their heritage or just to show us what’s good.
The difference being that here in Ybor, Sicilians made their presence and preferences known. So…. a few slices of Genoa salami…with black peppercorns, were added to make a Cuban sandwich you will find only in Tampa Bay.
I like to think of it as crafted with harmony in mind and in an effort to make everyone happy.
My parents were both born here in the states; my grandparents came over yearning to breathe free, my mom’s from Spain and Cuba and my dad’s from Sicily. Whenever someone asks me my nationality, I always  get a kick out of telling them, “I am a Cuban Sanwich!” 



Recent posts