Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: A Cuban Sandwich


Religion contributor

If you’ve never had a real Cuban sandwich, you’ve missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. I’m not talking about a Cuban sandwich from a sandwich shop that offers four dozen different sandwiches. I’m talking about a real Cuban sandwich made with Cuban bread, pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, sometimes salami, and if you’re in a really good sandwich shop, mayonnaise.

For those of you who aren’t sophisticated enough to know the background, the Cuban Sandwich hails from Tampa, Florida. Miami claims the Cuban sandwich originated there, but that’s a lie. There were Cubans in Tampa in the late 1800s before Miami even existed. They came to make cigars. Tampa was “Cigar City”. There were large brick factories where workers rolled cigars and small shops where expensive cigars were rolled. The Cuban sandwich was the perfect lunch for a busy factory worker.

Cuban bread may look like French or Italian bread, but it is deliciously different. The dough has a generous portion of lard (yes, there is still lard) and is stretched. A wet palm leaf is laid on top, creating a shallow hollow. The crust is crisp, the inside soft and flaky. Most fake Cuban sandwiches are made with French bread, which is like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with a set of Dollar General watercolors.

A real Cuban sandwich is in a hurry, like a panini. This melts the cheese, heat the meat and the bread to bind. The sandwich is better hot.

The best Cuban sandwich I have ever had was in Ybor City, Tampa. Ybor City is the Cuban / Italian section of Tampa. There was a cafe in the wall on Seventh Street that my father-in-law knew called “The Silver Ring”. The men who worked there spoke little English but knew how to ask: “Half or Whole?” Whole. Always whole. We stopped here every time we were in Tampa and had a sandwich, fries, and a six ounce bottle of iced coke.

The second best Cuban sandwich I have ever had was the one from La Segunda Bakery in Tampa. Run by the same family for four generations, they bake Cuban bread for many restaurants in Tampa and serve excellent Cuban sandwiches.

On a recent visit to Florida, we took my most amazing son, daughter-in-law and the world’s most amazing grandson to the Tampa airport for their return trip to North Carolina. Then it was time for us to come home. Normally I ask my wife where she would like to eat, but this time I left her with no choice. “Let’s go get a Cuban sandwich in La Segunda.” She loves me and accommodates my eccentricities. La Segunda is not a fancy place; there is a door, a line and a counter. The lady who ran the cash register did not have English as a mother tongue, and we had a little trouble communicating my order: “A big hot Cuban, a hot little Cuban, fries and two drinks.” I wanted to order a Guava Circle (which will turn you into a diabetic), but I held back. A Cuban sandwich would be more than enough to fill me up.

I have my bag, and we hit the road. In a way, there was confusion. They gave us not two but three Cuban sandwiches. An extra Cuban sandwich was a blessing from God, a sign of grace.

We were in a line of cars about to get on the highway. On my side, there was a man, a little rough, walking in the line of cars. He was holding a cardboard sign that read: “Homeless, hungry”. I’m never quite sure what to do when I see people like that. I know some are in dire need. I know some are trying to rip you off. I never know if the money I donate is used for food or drink. My confusion troubles me because Jesus said that whenever I see someone who is hungry and feed them, I feed them. I pray about this that God will guide me on what to do.

I shared my discomfort with my wife. She was thoughtful, then as the man walked past my window she said, “Give her the extra Cuban sandwich.”

Give him my special blessing? Give him the Cuban sandwich, made with real Cuban bread, that I had planned to bring back to South Carolina and enjoy? Ah good?

I would like to tell you that I rolled down my window and called the man back to give him the Cuban sandwich. But in my seconds of indecision, the light turned green, the traffic started to move, and I had to move with it. My opportunity to give was gone. Now the Cuban sandwich is in my fridge, slowly drying out. I have the impression that it is not for me to eat; it’s a reminder of my greed. I, who already had a Cuban sandwich, wanted to amass a Cuban sandwich that I had not paid for, that I did not need and which could have met a need.

The lesson from this story is simple: say “yes” to giving before the opportunity arises. Who knows, you might end up giving Jesus a nice Cuban sandwich.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the Senior Pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at [email protected]

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