That Hoodoo That You Do So Well

One of the charms of Wewahitchka is the absence of fast-food chains. Except for a Subway. These days the sandwich chain boasts in billboards, like one on Highway 22 right outside of town, that it has a "Cubano." Yes, a Cuban sandwich. In a town where I'm pretty sure the only Cubans are my sister and I.

In nearby Panama City a number of places dispense Cuban sandwiches, and one such spot, the Key West Sandwich Shop in adjoining Lynn Haven, is known for them. They're good, particularly if you ask for the "traditional": ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickle, mustard. They also serve black beans and rice, and it too is good. The owner is Greek-American, and the times I've been there I know I'm the only Cuban.

What Panama City -- how it got that name is a long story of little to do with Panamanians -- has is a fairly big Mexican population. A number of restaurants, most of them run by Mexicans, cater to non-Mexicans with the usual mixed combos, lots of melted cheese and no chili heat. One of these places, Maddie's La  Casita, downtown, expanded its menu a while back to include street-style tacos . And two local restaurants are the real item: La Pasadita and the wonderful La Michoacana, with downhome Mexican dishes and tacos of the very savory nasty bits like head, tongue, soft chicharrones and tripas. These cater to a Mexican clientele, the occasional hipster and this lone Cuban who loves Mexican food.

This lone Cuban is the only one pushing a cart at a Publix supermarket where I find Cuban bread, guava pastry (pastelitos) and even take-out papas rellenas, a Cuban snack food that's a deep fried ball of mashed potato with picadillo in the middle. And the deli departments of Publix and Winn-Dixie, both Florida chains, carry some version of Cuban roast pork, meaning seasoned with mojo.

Americans pronounce it like the African-American word, not with the hard Spanish "j" that sounds like an "h." Mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) is made from mashed garlic (Cubans don't cut up garlic cloves but mash them with a mortar and pestle), sour orange (preferably) or lime juice, optional seasonings like cumin and oregano, and hot pork fat. Many recipes call for olive oil instead, but that pushes it into a Spanish al ajillo sauce. Mojo gives Cuban grilled and roast meats its mojo.

Pork is marinated in mojo de ajo before cooking and then more poured on when served. However, some savvy Cuban-sandwich makers insist on roasting the pork with just salt and pepper and then basting the slices with mojo before pressing the sandwich. According to an article I assigned decades ago on the fabled Silver Ring in Tampa, where the best Cuban sandwiches were made, that's how they did their pork.

Either way, the Cubano, as Subway calls it, is now an American staple, as is mojo sauce. When a Mexican-American Trump supporter warned Americans about the dominant nature of Mexican culture, I had to acknowledge that though I disliked the guy and his presidential choice he had a point. Some cultures are hegemonic. I'd argue that's the case with African-American culture, in spite of racism, a racism that also attempts to keep Mexicans in their place. But Cubans are less (though not totally) hit by the worst aspects of racism because the bulk of the Cuban-American population is white, that mysterious race. Thus, in a country with a huge Mexican-American population, none was a major-party candidate for President last year, and two from the much smaller Cuban-American community were serious contenders. (Gracias a Dios y los santos that's as far as they went.)

Cuban culture is hegemonic. Otherwise why is the island, no longer of much economic or political advantage to the US, so in our media faces? Whenever Cuba is not in the news the people in power there think there must be a political conspiracy to keep them out. That Cuba and Cubans may not be newsworthy never crosses their minds.

And why should it? Right here, outside a backwater town in the Florida Panhandle, a billboard reads simply: CUBANO. We are the cat's pajamas, or so we think with great self-assurance. After all, we got the mojo.