You may have happily savored many Cuban sandwiches over the years without giving much thought to its origins. The history of the Cuban sandwich and its introduction to the United States are clearly linked to Cuban culture and immigration. A closer look at the sandwich’s history may give you an even greater appreciation of its rich flavors the next time you take a bite.

The Roots of the Cuban Sandwich

A ham and cheese sandwich is a staple lunch option in the United States, and the Cuban sandwich is a flavorful variation that has been imported directly from Cuba. The specific origin of the sandwich in Cuba is not known, but it made its way to the U.S. sometime in the middle or late 1800s. During this time, travel restrictions between Cuba and Florida were not in place. With relatively free movement of people back and forth, the Cuban sandwich may have trickled over in various immigrant households over the years. However, some sources indicate that cigar factory workers and sugar mill workers ate these sandwiches in Santiago de Cuba and Havana in the 1800s. Some of these workers migrated to Key West in the 1860s and may have increasingly incorporated the Cuban sandwich into the local culture at that time.

The Introduction of the Cuban Sandwich to Southern Florida

The Cuban sandwich did not stay in individual immigrant households or Key West factories. The cigar industry gradually made its way through Miami and up to Tampa and Ybor City. The Cuban sandwich was first mentioned in U.S. written documents around 1900 in relation to cafes in Ybor City, which was home to a large cigar manufacturing facility. Notably, Cuban immigrants also brought the sandwich directly from Cuba to other areas with large immigrant populations. These include New York City, Chicago, New Jersey and a few other areas.

Geographic Variations of the Cuban Sandwich Recipe

As is the case with many areas in the United States, southern Florida has a diverse blend of rich cultures, and these cultures impacted the Cuban sandwich recipe. For example, Tampa had a large Italian population, and Italian immigrants put their stamp on the sandwich by adding salami. In Miami, the sandwich retains traditional ingredients like Cuban bread, mustard, pickles, Swiss cheese, pork, and ham. Throughout southern Florida, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise are common ingredients, but these popular American ingredients are generally not associated with the traditional sandwich from Cuba.

Today, the “right” way to prepare a Cuban sandwich in southern Florida is a subject of intense debate. The debate has been raging for decades, and it was rejuvenated in 2012 when Tampa hosted its first Cuban Sandwich Festival. The sandwich has been featured in movies, books, food contests and more as well. Clearly, culture has had a major impact on the Cuban sandwich, and the sandwich likewise is influencing culture today.