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A new book explores the Cuban sandwich's history and its evolution in the U.S.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Two Florida cities have fought for years over one sandwich - the Cuban. Miami and Tampa both claim to be its hometown. We spoke with two of the three researchers who tell the story of the sandwich's journey to the U.S. and its evolution. They now have a new book called "The Cuban Sandwich: A History In Layers." The culinary layers can sometimes be disputed. Inside Cuban bread, you can find seasoned pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, a pickle and mustard, and sometimes even salami.

ANDY HUSE: I'm Andy Huse. I'm the curator of Florida studies at the University of South Florida Libraries.

BARBARA CRUZ: And good afternoon. My name is Barbara Cruz, and I'm professor of social science education at the University of South Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRUZ: Ultimately, the Cuban sandwich is an immigrant story. It was born in Cuba from the mixto - literally mixed sandwich - and by way of cigar workers going to Key West, then coming to Ybor City and Tampa. And then, by 1950, Miami becomes the largest city in Florida. And of course, by the end of that decade, the Cuban revolution results in this huge influx of Cuban immigrants coming to Miami. And the sandwich, again, you know, changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRUZ: So all of these different waves add to the sandwich in a different way.

HUSE: Havana, I think, conceived it, it's safe to say, but Tampa really curated it for a long time. They tinkered with the sandwich, but they came upon - I'd say, by the '40s and '50s - a fairly stable creation that often included turkey and almost always included salami. And we looked at sandwiches in Cuba, and in 1950, there was that exact sandwich. So, you know, for people looking back and saying, oh, that's anathema - how could you put salami on a Cuban sandwich? Well, you know, it wasn't - that wasn't invented in Tampa. You know, that variation - it had been around for a long time.

CRUZ: I was born in Cuba, I was raised in Miami, and I've spent the bulk of my adult life in Tampa, so I really and truly have been in all three places. And I can tell you that, for the longest time, I really kind of grew up on a Miami Cuban sandwich. The bread is very different than the bread that is used in Tampa. So it's crispier, and it certainly doesn't have salami in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRUZ: The bread in Tampa - when I got here, I was surprised that it was so much crustier and, when you press it in la plancha - the iron - it comes off different.

HUSE: That flourish - that kind of last thing - so many people think, you know, you cannot have a Cuban sandwich without it being pressed. I'm not necessarily one of them, although I prefer it pressed.

CRUZ: Well, I'm going to take a stand and say that the Cuban sandwich must be pressed, and I'll tell you why - because I think it makes it much less unwieldy, and it's always, always cut on a very sharp diagonal, and so you have almost two triangles. Those two points of the triangle are imperative for dunking in a strong and sweet cafe con leche, and that could only be achieved if it's pressed.

HUSE: And you've got this idea that - to what extent does the Cuban sandwich still belong to Cuba? And to what extent has it become really a totem of exile in Miami and beyond? And so one of the things that - I don't know - is expressed in the book several times is, is when is the sandwich going to go back to Cuba, and when are people going to be able to, you know, afford a simple delicacy like that again?

MCCAMMON: Andy Huse and Barbara Cruz. Their new book is "The Cuban Sandwich." So which is the right Cuban sandwich? They say it's the one that tastes like home to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.