Midnight in Cuba

From Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown: “Miami” (S5 E2, 5/3/15), as quoted in the Eater.com site‘s “19 best quotes” from the episode:

4. [Bourdain] On the medianoche sandwich: “Many of you watching who are dimly aware of Miami and this sandwich thing they call a Cubano that you may or may not have had before, you’re thinking, ‘Yes, a Cubano sandwich.’ But you’d be wrong. This, is not a Cubano sandwich, strictly speaking. This, my friends, is a medianoche. Close. A cousin. Like a Cubano, it’s got roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and a little mustard. And like a Cubano it’s pressed until hot and runny inside. But:”

5. [Miami chef Michelle] Bernstein, interrupting, on the medianoche sandwich: “You see the bread? It’s darker and it’s sweeter, so you have a real contrast with the salty pickles and the pork, and the bread.”

Una medianoche, uno Cubano. Not the same, because the bread is different (and maybe the kind of pork or the kind of ham or the pickles or the mustard). I can get uno Cubano at my local Whole Foods (and often do) — “slow roasted pork, Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard” — and it seems to be pretty authentic, except that it’s on a French roll. Best not to argue names and ingredients and authenticity.

Standing in for all of them, this exemplar:

  (#1)

Wikipedia on la medianoche:

Medianoche (… “midnight” in Spanish) is a type of sandwich which originated in Cuba. It is served in many Cuban communities in the United States. It is so named because of the sandwich’s popularity as a staple served in Havana’s night clubs right around or after midnight.

A medianoche consists of roast pork, ham, mustard, Swiss cheese, and sweet pickles. It is a close cousin to the Cuban sandwich, the chief difference being that a medianoche is made on soft, sweet egg dough bread similar to Challah rather than on crustier Cuban bread [pan Cubano]. Like the Cuban sandwich, the medianoche is typically warmed in a press before eating.

A much more detailed entry on el Cubano:

A Cuban sandwich is a variation of a ham and cheese sandwich that originated in cafes catering to Cuban workers in Key West and Ybor City, Tampa, two early Cuban immigrant communities in Florida. Later on, Cuban exiles and expatriates brought it to Miami, where it is also still very popular. The sandwich is made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and sometimes salami on Cuban bread. Salami became a staple ingredient for Cuban sandwiches made in Tampa where there was a large Italian population, but never became popular in Key West or Miami.

As with Cuban bread, the origin of the Cuban sandwich (sometimes called a “Cuban mix,” a “mixto,” a “Cuban pressed sandwich,” or a “Cubano”) is murky. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, travel between Cuba and Florida was easy, especially from Key West and Tampa, and Cubans frequently sailed back and forth for employment, pleasure, and family visits. Because of this constant and largely undocumented movement of people, culture and ideas, it is impossible to say exactly when or where the Cuban sandwich originated.

Some believe that the sandwich was a common lunch food for workers in both the cigar factories and sugar mills of Cuba (especially in big cities such as Havana or Santiago de Cuba) and the cigar factories of Key West by the 1860s. Historian Loy Glenn Westfall states that the sandwich was “born in Cuba and educated in Key West.”

The cigar industry in Florida shifted to Tampa in the mid-1880s, and tens of thousands of Cuban workers moved to the area over the next decade. The first recorded mentions of a distinct Cuban sandwich survive in descriptions of workers’ cafés in Ybor City and West Tampa from around 1900, leading other historians to theorize that the sandwich as now constituted first appeared there. Researcher Andrew Huse states that “the old ‘mixtos’ coalesced into something more distinct – the Cuban sandwiches we know and love – an original Tampa creation.”

A travel article published by the Mason City Globe Gazette in 1934 said that Tampa’s cooking was “much more distinctive than elsewhere in the state” and lists Cuban sandwiches (along with Cuban bread) among the city’s signature foods.

By the 1960s, Cuban sandwiches were also common on Miami cafeteria and restaurant menus, as the city had gained a large influx of Cuban residents after Fidel Castro’s 1959 rise to power in their native land. The Communist Revolution caused a wave of Cuban expatriates to settle in other locations as well, and they brought their culture and cuisine with them. Cuban sandwiches and variations thereof are now served in various Cuban exile communities in places such as New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, and Puerto Rico, among others.

Even unto Palo Alto. Where there used to be an unpretentious Cuban place (Jose’s Caribbean) just south of Stanford (2275 El Camino Real). And where there is now La Bodeguito de Medio a block further south (463 California Ave.), a place that describes itself as a “trendy sibling of the Havana original [offering] Cuban fare, cigars & rum cocktails in a colorful space”; the original is famous for having been patronized by celebrities in the 40s and 50s.

From a story on the SFGate site by Cynthia Liu on 3/26/04:


(#2) Jose at his place in 1992

Jose Ibanez is a culinary Icarus who went from chef to high-flying restaurateur before he crashed. In 1975, he opened a Cuban deli on Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto, then moved it around the corner to become Jose’s Caribbean restaurant [at 2275 El Camino Real].

By 1990, Jose’s had expanded to a supper club with a dance floor and live music. “That was my fall,” he said, as he recalled focusing more on the entertainment than the food, basking in his celebrity status at the front of the house rather than cooking in the back.

Perhaps he was being a little hard on himself, because what really did him in was real estate prices during the dot-com years — Jose’s closed abruptly on Dec. 31, 1999, when his rent soared from $4,000 a month to $24,000.

The building was torn down and replaced by a pretentious bank building.

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