Thursday, May 3, 2018

HOT BREAD NOW! A Tampa Food Manifesto

Lately, my home city of Tampa has been going through a kind of food renaissance. In fact, the city seems to be bending over backwards to establish itself as a foodie destination. In the past year we went from having no trendy food halls, to having two (about a block away from each other)- and my long-time neighborhood of Seminole Heights is now crawling with pun-named food trucks, and places where you can eat blow-torched pork belly by the light of an Edison bulb while listening to New Order. And while I’m happy to see a surge in interest in what is called local cuisine- it begs the question: what exactly is local cuisine? Is there such a thing as Tampa food? or Florida food for that matter? And if so, is this it? While blow-torched pork belly or truffle mac and cheese are delicious, they’re nothing you can’t get in any sufficiently sized American city (Though Tampa Bay was where pigs were first introduced to North America by Hernando DeSoto, so in a very tenuous way, we can lay some claim to the pork belly). Being ‘Local’ has, unfortunately, become a ubiquitous branding strategy for a specific kind of quirky sanitized urbanism that seems, ironically, to be pretty much the same wherever you go. It’s characterized by craft beer bars with giant Jenga sets, selfie-bait murals, and the afore-mentioned ‘local’ cuisine. Weekenders looking for authentic experiences will find pretty much the same set-up in Nashville, Tampa, Louisville, Cleveland, or any number of other mid-sized cities around the U.S. (a recent Buzzfeed article on the bachelorette party industry in Nashville offers a particularly incisive takedown of this ‘faux local’ phenomenon). So, in a world where so many things that advertise themselves as local just turn out to be a loose remix of a set of tropes, what even is local? Who the heck are we? And what do we eat?

What then, is Tampa Food?

We can find clues in Tampa’s history—the city begins a Fort Brook, a tiny resupply outpost built during the second Seminole War. Then the outskirts of Fort Brook, known as The Scrub was colonized by newly-free African Americans shortly after the Civil War- still, the area never had a population over 700 people until the 1880’s when the railroad and the cigar industry brought in a wave of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and the Caribbean. In the early part of the 20th Century, difficult times in Europe resulted in another wave of immigration- with Sicilian, German, Romanian-Jewish, and Greek people moving to the city. Large numbers of people from the surrounding rural communities came to Tampa seeking work during the Great Depression of the 1930’s- followed by people from East Asia, India, and Central and South America in more recent years. Tampa is a very diverse city, and that is reflected by the wide variety of different cuisines available.

“It is not amiss to say that the Latins in Ybor City make a very fine bread, equal in all respects to the French article of that kind and unexcelled by the Vienna product.” –Tampa Daily Journal, 1896

Cuban food in Tampa is different from Cuban food in Havana in much the same way that Chinese food in New York is different from Chinese food in Beijing. There are similarities, of course, but what you get in the diners and shops along Columbus Avenue is a unique interpretation that reflects the history of Tampa’s immigrant communities. In Ybor and West Tampa, Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian cultures coalesced into what was, in earlier times, referred to as Tampa’s Latin community- and this is evident in the food. The Cuban Sandwich is the best-known example- it was likely invented as a cheap and quick lunch for Ybor City factory workers- and the specific mix of ingredients reflects the mix of cultures that worked side-by-side in Ybor and West Tampa: Cuban roast pork, Spanish style Ham, Italian Salami, and Eastern European cheese and mustard. The name of the Cuban sandwich most likely refers to the bread, rather than the origins of the sandwich itself, and the Cuban bread we know is another example of the organic cultural fusion that happened in Tampa. While it’s unclear exactly when and where it originated, Cuban bread was first commercially produced at the Joven Francesca Bakery in Ybor City in the 1890’s. The bread became the staple food of Ybor and was often delivered to homes early in the morning and hung on a long nail by the door.

Strike Kitchens, Chilau, and Devil Crab

Ybor’s ‘Golden Age’ of the late 1800’s soon gave way to a time of turmoil, as changes in the cigar factories led to Ybor’s first major Labor uprisings in 1899 and 1902 (More on this here). The Anarchist La Resistencia Movement, which grew out of those early actions, established communal kitchens to pool resources and to feed workers and their families during strikes. Though La Resistencia effectively disbanded after the strike of 1902, the tradition of the strike kitchens continued through the Great Depression, and these lean times resulted in some of the city’s most beloved and unique foods. Blue crabs were extremely plentiful in the waters of Tampa Bay in the early part of the 20th Century before pollution and coastal development greatly reduced their numbers, and for a long time they were one of the cheapest and most readily available foods in the area- and it’s the main ingredient in two foods of necessity that became beloved local classics. I’ve written at length about Chilau before (Here- including a recipe), it’s made with crab and other seafood (whatever you happened to get out of the bay that day) cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and served on top of rice or pasta, or with a slice of bread. During an extended strike in the 1920’s some absolute genius came up with a way of making Chilau portable by wrapping it up inside a football-shaped roll made of stale Cuban bread. The Devil Crab (some call it Deviled Crab- but my favorite in the city, from Mauricio Faedo’s bakery, is clearly labeled ‘Devil Crab’) was invented as an ingenious way to combine the cheapest ingredients available into something convenient, filling, and delicious, and though it was born of necessity, it soon became the favorite street food of Ybor City, commonly sold from bicycle carts and at baseball games.

Scachatta: Tampa’s Rare Endangered Pizza

Another local food that most likely came out of necessity and then took on a deeper life (though not as common as the Devil Crab) is Scachatta, a Tampa variation on a Sicilian style pizza, is a square, bready, pizza slice usually served at room temperature out of a bakery case. Toppings are simple- a tangy red meat sauce made with either ground beef or sausage, and a shake of parmesan cheese, and that’s it (though the Alessi Bakery in West Tampa offers more variation). The bread is the main event here- Scachatta is thicker than most pizza- but not nearly as thick as Sicilian pizza. Some places, like La Segunda, add egg yolks to a slightly sweet dough, making it almost like a challah or medianoche roll. At its best, the texture of Scachatta is delicate and pillowy, with some light crispness on the bottom and at the edges. It’s a unique thing, but nowhere near as ubiquitous at the Devil Crab. In fact, you can count the places that serve it on one hand (and we almost lost one recently when the Housewife Bake Shop threatened to close). I wonder about the future of Scachatta, partly because it’s already rare, but also because, well, soft, kind of soggy, room-temperature pizza isn’t really for everyone, and I suspect that someone who didn’t grow up with it might find it off-putting.

The Goody Goody P.O.X. Theory

The recent resurrection of Tampa’s classic burger joint, the Goody Goody gave me some hope for the future preservation of one of our local delicacies. Though the reboot is MUCH more polished than the original local mini-chain, the signature P.O.X. burger is very close to the old school version. P.O.X. somehow stands for pickles, onions, and secret sauce – and that secret sauce is, well, somewhat controversial. It’s a tomato-based concoction almost like a thin marinara, tomato soup, or sloppy joe sauce. (fun fact: sloppy joes, though a staple of Middle-America’s school lunchrooms were invented in Cuba). It leaks out of the burgers and drips onto the fries and your hands and everything else. I love the stuff (though I prefer to get it on the side for dipping), but my completely un-scientific theory is that if you didn’t grow up eating it, you’re probably not going to be into it. In fact, without the context of 90 years of Goody Goody, it really does seem like a weird thing to put on a burger. Like Scachatta, or even Devil Crab, it’s not for everyone. Tampa’s food is an organic ad hoc fusion of different cultures that came together over a rough and tumble century and a half (even Goody Goody, though styled as a classic American drive-in always kept the slogan ‘Koom Essa Goot Essa’ as a nod to the founder’s German roots). It’s been shaped by the landscape and the history of the city, becoming something unique, beautiful, and yes, local, and while foodie trends can come and go, there’s still something deeply exciting about walking down my street to Faedo’s bakery and seeing the neon sign lit up in the window letting me know the Cuban bread is hot and fresh.