Spanish immigrant to Cuba, Vicente Martinez Ybor built a small cigar business in Havana in 1856. During one of the Cuban Wars of Independence against Spain, Ybor was found to be supporting the Cuban rebels and fled to Key West to avoid arrest by Spanish officials.
In 1869, Ybor re-established his business in Key West but encountered difficulties with labor disputes and transport issues.
“…ham for the Spaniards, pork for the Cubans and salami for the Italians – the salami ingredient somehow disappeared once the sandwich left Tampa.”
In the mid-1880s, Ybor identified a more favorable location for his business. He was enticed to settle in Tampa due to favorable weather for processing tobacco, cheap land, Henry Plant’s new railway line linking the city to the northeast markets – particularly the booming business mecca of New York City – and substantial subsidies from the Tampa government.
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Tobacco workers flooded Tampa to work in Ybor’s growing tobacco business and other ventures. The workers were mostly Cuban, but there were also Spaniards, Sicilians and other Italians, Germans and Eastern European Jews. By this time, the population of Ybor City was over 5,000.
To keep his workers on site and prevent them from traveling back and forth to Cuba as was the custom at the time, Ybor built modest homes, called “casitas” or little houses, for his workers and sold them at cost.
Needing to meet the ever-growing demand for cigars, the workers were encouraged to stay at their posts rolling tobacco instead of going home for the midday meal, another Latin custom. It was decided to bring the meal directly to the workers. But how to feed thousands of workers at their posts? Large cauldrons of soup or stew would have been too messy, time-consuming, and possibly dangerous. And what to serve to this diversity of ethnicities that would be palatable to all?
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It was determined to serve them a variety of hearty meats: ham for the Spaniards, pork for the Cubans and salami for the Italians – the salami ingredient somehow disappeared once the sandwich left Tampa. This was to be accompanied by cheese, and mustard for the Germans, all neatly stacked between two pieces of… you guessed it…Cuban bread. The first place to sell Cuban bread on U.S. soil was Tampa’s La Joven Francesca bakery in 1896, now a state museum.
The workers could consume their meal at their tobacco rolling stations and if there were any leftovers, they could pocket the sandwich and bring it home for dinner.
So, this hearty, delicious, convenient meal, made by Cubans to supply mostly Cubans, was aptly named the Cuban sandwich. It’s a culinary phenomenon now consumed worldwide from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, invented, without a doubt, in Tampa.
Miami frequently claims to have been the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich. In 1896, Tampa was the bustling home of the largest tobacco factory in the world with thousands of workers happily chomping down on Cuban sandwiches. Miami, on the other hand, had a population of slightly over 300 souls, mostly Bahamian laborers and the odd budding visionary-entrepreneur from the north: I’m looking at you, Julia Tuttle, founder of Miami.
Miami, The Magic City, would overcome Tampa as a financial powerhouse and nominal capital of Latin America, again heavily influenced by the Cubans, but it would take some time. Meanwhile, Tampa’s claim as the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich is unassailable.