Back in 2015, my cousin decided he wanted a traditional Cuban noche buena (Christmas Eve) dinner. No American-style dishes. I don’t know what inspired this imposition of Cuban pride but this, self-identified, gringo was offended. I’d always had an uneasy relationship with my Cuban heritage and, besides, this is a family where everyone’s favorite holiday dish is my aunt’s sweet potato pie; a buttery, creamy, sweet casserole baked with pecans on top instead of marshmallows. To be denied this annual treat is to deny us one of our reasons to live another year.
I wasted no time in calling bullshit on the entire endeavor. I also represented the family and asked the only question that mattered: was she still going to make sweet potato pie?
You’re damn right she was!
I normally made things like mashed potatoes or a cornbread soufflé so I was not pleased despite the sweet potato pie decision. I’m not the guy you ask to make yuca.
But me being me, I had a subversive idea. I was going to make a dish so Cubanazo that it would never be questioned despite not being a traditional noche buena food (whatever that means). But I knew, even then, that it was actually invented right here in the USA: the humble Cubano, or Cuban sandwich, would be provided by me.
This despite never having made one before and I wasn’t even a fan. The classic combination of pork, ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, and yellow mustard on fresh Cuban bread, never delivered on the flavors I expected. I knew Cuban sandwiches could be improved and I was going to do it on the biggest family stage. Never underestimate the snark and arrogance of a guy who barely accepted his own cultural roots.
I devised my plan for the sandwiches like a screenwriter plotting a thriller. The pork and ham was to be roasted from scratch, establishing a familiar genre but executed in a new way. The mojo (a marinade of citrus and spices that is a Cuban staple) would also be freshly made as I played with expectations. The sandwiches would then be assembled by hand and lovingly pressed in so much butter that we’d all hear each other’s heart palpitations beat to the rhythm of Guantanamera sung by the spirit of José Martí himself during the climactic third act. This was going to be legendary.
I chose pork loin to be the star. Weird choice, I know. Normally, you’d roast a whole pork shoulder but who has time for that? Loin was leaner, would cook faster, and was more manageable to slice and keep in the fridge. I created a dry rub consisting of classic Cuban flavors: cumin, garlic and onion powder, dry oregano, some ground coriander seed, and salt and pepper. I coated the loin in the rub and let the magic happen for 24 hours before roasting.
I used the same spice mixture to create the base of my mojo, adding the juice of some oranges, limes, and lemons rather than the traditional juice of sour oranges. It’s all the same, right? I drizzled it over the pork loin every 15 minutes while roasting to compensate for the leaner, potentially drier, meat.
The ham, though, was the twist nobody would see coming. The most boring and unassuming component of the sandwich would now be sweeter by being glazed with brown sugar and maple syrup to cut the tang. Don’t you love it in movies when villains unexpectedly switch sides to help the hero take down a bigger threat? Ham is probably more neutral than villainous but the bigger threat of a bland sandwich was going down.
Ordinary dill pickles and classic yellow mustard would complete the presentation and wait to be slathered on the fresh Cuban rolls I bought the day of.
Once everything was ready, I gazed at the glory of my mise en place:
My one obstacle to greatness was that I did not have a plancha, the sandwich press that finishes every Cuban-style sandwich. I improvised by laying them down on my cast iron pan, which already had an ungodly amount of butter in it, and pressed them with another heavy cast iron pot on top, flipping them regularly to ensure both sides got that delicious buttery toasting and that the cheese was properly melted.
Just look at those things:
They were a hit. The explosions of flavor delivered on causing hoarding and unearthly noises of satisfaction. The sandwiches barely lasted an hour. Many attendees didn’t even get a chance to try them. I just sat there with a plate of sweet potato pie, taking in the compliments, and looking on silently, contently, like the Mercury astronauts at the end of The Right Stuff with Clair de Lune playing in my head. Or maybe it was Guantanamera. I don’t know. But I won Noche Buena.
I’m asked to make those Cuban sandwiches every Christmas now but I now know something I didn’t know then: it was all wrong.
Do not make my cynical remix of a Cuban sandwich.
I’ve now had a lot of Cuban sandwiches. I’ve even found some that I love, like the one made at Sanguich in Little Havana. I’ve tasted the history and felt the love of people who made them with pride and took solace in sharing a nostalgic piece of Cuban-American culture with the world. The good folks at Sanguich, Columbia, or Versailles don’t make sandwiches that accommodate the tastes of their diverse patrons that extend well beyond Cuban families. They just make good versions of a sandwich that should be respected and not reduced to chemically engineered potato chip flavors or culturally homogenous condiments.
The world got harsher for immigrants in this country since my cousin made that request in 2015. It didn’t matter if you were American-born or a newcomer chasing a better life. This isn’t always apparent in the cultural bubble of Miami. I reassessed who I am and how I represent myself during those years.
When I made those sandwiches, I treated my Cuban-American heritage like an obnoxious online movie enthusiast (who always fashions themselves as an expert) who mistreats a movie others love. I went negative and I assaulted my audience with a snarky, know-it-all, commentary on how they should’ve made a thing that will outlive us all. It might be satisfying in its own way but I brought down the cultural discourse.
I was a fool and I seek absolution.
You might not understand why I feel this way but I do. If you make something, anything, make it with love not cynicism. Do it the hard way. Put in the work. Respect the traditions and be humble before history. Don’t take shortcuts until you pay your dues and understand the why of it all. Be proud and represent who you really are so others can see you and the culture you are celebrating.
A Cuban sandwich must be made properly and respectfully.
How, you may ask? Let’s find out together in 2022.