The Real Cuban Connection
As we said in our the Part I, there’s nothing like a Torta Cubana in Cuba. However, we do find something similar like Don Polo’s Cubana on the island: the Medianoche -”Midnight”, in Spanish-, a sandwich made with roasted pork leg, ham and cheese in a soft egg roll. This sandwich -a kind of father to Miami’s Cubanos- was often served late at night in the pre-revolution Cuban clubs.
So, imagine*: mid 1950’s, Mexico City is a swarm of anti-Bautista oppositors. They are hungry for freedom and actual food too. A humble guy from Colima has recently installed a grill in his fresh juice shop to serve hot tortas –a novelty at that time– in Colina Del Valle, a quarter populated by Cubans immigrants.
They speak to him about the home food they miss. Maybe they even ask him to make something similar to a Medianoche. He agrees and as the sandwich is good and has acceptance, Leopoldo Sanchez, the humble guy from Colima, names it “Torta Cubana”.
The myth is born.
Torta Cubana, a Frankenstein Torta
México D.F., 1950’s-1960’s. Traders install grills in their shops to cook something new: hot tortas. According to food writer Pedro Reyes Aceves, cooked pork, sausages, and breaded cuts of meat make their appearance as fillings for tortas.
Revolution has sprung in Cuba, receiving the World’s attention and there’s a nice sandwich around under the name of Torta Cubana. Soon traders incorporate it to their offer but they want to be original while keeping the prestigious name, so they add some of the stuff they have on their grills.
One guy opened the can of worms and added just a single extra ingredient. The race has started. They are fuelled by a powerful feeling: jealousy.
-“If my neighbour puts beef escalope, I’m putting longaniza -sausage-“.
-“If my cousin is using two cheeses, I’m using three!”
-“I’m very Mexican. Avocado, jitomates and jalapeños must be in my Torta Cubana!”
-“Longaniza is bullshit, chorizo gives a better sazón -taste-“.
-“Longaniza and chorizo are expensive, if I add 2 or 3 of these cheap frankfurters no one will complain because the torta will look bigger.”
And so on. A Frankenstein was born, with 3 legs, 4 arms and, sometimes, 2 heads. And when they couldn’t add any more elements, they made the monster bigger.
Mexico City in a Telera
Mexico is famous for adapting foreign food to their taste and customs. Tacos al Pastor are an excellent example of how to make Mexican a Middle East food. They changed the marinade, the lamb for pork, and the wheat flatbread for the corn tortilla but the spirit of the food is the same. But with the Torta Cubana they got it totally wrong. As wrong as New York got the Italian sandwiches wrong: not because you add more ingredients you are actually improving something.
Torta Cubana is Mexico City’ signature sandwich, and you will never find its creator because there are multiple fathers but only one mother: Mexico City. The Torta Cubana grew “sin orden ni concierto” as the city did, in the same style. And because of this, the Torta Cubana is not Cuban anymore. It’s Chilanga: each bite it’s Mexico City’ story, people and essence.
Hate it or love it.