In The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers, three devoted fans—Andrew T. Huse, Bárbara C. Cruz, and Jeff Houck—sort through improbable vintage recipes, sift gossip from Florida old-timers, and wade into the fearsome Tampa vs. Miami sandwich debate (is adding salami necessary or heresy?) to reveal the social history behind how this delicacy became a lunch-counter staple in the US and beyond.

We asked Andrew T. Huse, Bárbara C. Cruz, and Jeff Houck some questions about their new book, which we’re sharing below.

When did you know that you wanted to write this book? What led you to start researching the Cuban sandwich?

Huse: While I was taking a deep dive in Florida’s history and food for previous projects, the Cuban sandwich fascinated me. My previous writing on the sandwich prompted journalists and food writers to contact me as an expert. After more than ten years of this, I decided an inquiry was in order and began research to see what was out there. I hoped there would be enough good historic material for a book, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

Cruz: When Andy, my colleague at USF, contacted me about a possible collaboration, I reflected on the many times I have had the sandwich (I was born in Cuba, raised in Miami, and have lived most of my adult life in Tampa). It was a subject I was deeply passionate about and was eager to dive into the research.

Houck: It was a great honor to be asked by Andy to contribute profiles in the book of current practitioners of the sandwich, everyone from chefs to butchers to multi-generational restaurateurs. There was so much color and so many warm details surrounding the sandwich that it made it extremely rewarding to write.

What do you hope readers will enjoy most about your book?

Huse: That feeling of discovering something new about a familiar subject. The mixto of history, blended with glimpses of the present. And hopefully coming away with a deeper appreciation for the sandwich and those who create them with love.

Cruz: An appreciation of our country’s immigrant past, the contributions global cultures bring to our nation, and the continuing impact these cultures have on the fabric of our society.

Houck: I hope it makes people realize that this inanimate object has a real and deep human history behind it. (And that all food does, really.) The way people take their foodways into their hearts and weave them into their lives is always a compelling story.

What is the first memory you have of trying a Cuban sandwich?

Cruz: My first memory was at a ventanita in Little Havana. These “little windows” were walk-ups where orders would be placed for mostly hand-held foods such as sandwiches, croquetas, pastries, and strong and sweet Cuban café. I accompanied my father who went to purchase a colada (a large cup of Cuban coffee that is meant to be shared with tiny paper cups provided). The sandwich didn’t disappoint—crispy on the outside, flavors fused among the layers, warm and filling.

Houck: Even though I grew up 30 miles away from Tampa in St. Petersburg, there was almost no evidence of Cuban sandwiches or food in that town. It wasn’t until I moved to South Florida (West Palm Beach) in the early 1990s that I started eating the sandwich at Havana Restaurant on Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. After eating a Palomilla Steak (my gateway food item), I became more curious about Cuban food. That led me to the sandwich, which led to a decades-long love affair with all of its variations.

What was the best part about completing this book as a team?

Huse: I enjoyed watching us all bring our own strengths to the project, but from a distance. We began writing in March 2020.

Cruz: Each of us brings our unique life experiences and individual scholarly strengths to the process. My respect for my coauthors has only deepened with time. And it doesn’t hurt that they both have a tremendously sharp sense of humor.

Houck: Andy, Barb, and I each brought something unique to the project that complimented each contribution. Andy’s tremendous research, aided by Bárbara, provided a strong tree trunk with deep roots for us to attach the branches and leaves of the story. We could have written another two or three books worth of stories, there were so many variations.

Is there one story or bakery included in the book that stood out to you? Why?  

Houck: They’re all so unique in their own way. It would be like trying to pick which layer of the Cuban sandwich you enjoy most. Focus on any one ingredient out and it’s a vastly different sandwich—and story!

What kind of future work do you hope your book inspires?

Huse: I hope it inspires a new effort to gather information in Cuba itself, and I’d love to be a part of it.

Cruz: As a teacher and educator with an interest in multicultural and global studies, I’d love to see how we can pursue the idea of cultural foodways in the teaching of K-12 social studies.

Houck: I hope the book inspires others to explore the hidden stories behind beloved foods. I don’t know another non-alcoholic food item other than Cuban Sandwiches that has as much history, passion, geography, politics, flavor, and personal warmth attached to it. You’d have to go all the way to beer/whiskey/alcohol to find something comparable. The Cuban sandwich, though, is accessible to all.

What impact has food had on your life and who you are today?

Huse: My interests in cooking, history, and writing have all informed one another.

Cruz: 100% agree with Andy!

Houck: My great-grandfather was a butcher and restaurateur. I grew up behind the family’s bar and restaurant. I worked as a bus boy and bar-back. I became a food writer to tell stories about how people live their lives through food. Now I help tell a fifth-generation restaurant family’s story. I cannot remember when food wasn’t an important part of my life. 

What are you working on next?

Cruz: As a social studies educator, I would like to explore how food and foodways can be used to teach young people about history, culture, geography, economics, politics—all of these social sciences can be examined through the lens of the Cuban sandwich.

Houck: I’m working on a project about convenience stores. 

For more information about The Cuban Sandwich, click here.

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