“You know,” I said to the boy behind the McDonald’s counter, “it seems unfair that there is not a McCuban sandwich simply because the word poblano doesn’t fit well into a catchy TV jingle.”
His name tag read ‘Luis’ but everyone called him Paco because every day for lunch he ate fish tacos that his mom packed in a brown paper bag.
I know this because I asked him “Why does everyone call you Paco?” and when he replied with a confused look on his face that nobody called him Paco, I ignored him completely and called him Paco, while at the same time creating a quick fictional anecdotal history for him starring his poor immigrant mother, who woke up at 5 am every morning to make fresh tortillas for Paco and his seven brothers and sisters.
Later, Countess Penelope (you remember Penny — thin, waif-ish type, likes to dress alternately like a hipster of the Bright Eyes/Death Cab For Cutie/Decemberists variety, or, contrariwise, like something out of Lewis Carroll’s worst nightmare) would create a grander, Dickensian history for Paco that involved an alcoholic mother, a pederast pimp of a father, fourteen siblings floating on a door across ninety miles of shark infested water (only three of whom would arrive with both life and limb intact), and then something involving the use of an Arab Strap.
And speaking of Dickensian, that was a very, very, very long sentence, darlings.
We had arrived in sunny Miami two hours previously, and had been sweating along South Beach ever since, so when Penny declared, anything but sotto voce, that she was starving, and couldn’t we just get something to eat already, I recanted my quest for the perfect Cuban sandwich in favour of getting out of the sun. We had passed several restaurants, cafes, and assorted panaderias that advertised Cuban sandwiches, but none of them had just what I was looking for.
“And why, pray tell, do we need to find a Cuban sandwich?” The Countess inquired impatiently.
“My dear Penny,” I chided, “don’t be so obtuse.” I had recently watched The Shawshank Redemption, and ‘obtuse’ had been officially added to my top ten all-time favourite words. “When we were in that shitty little dive in Philadelphia, what did we order?”
Well, in all fairness, I ordered a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, but Penny, distracted into a distemper by the dubious dinginess of the dining facilities, deigned only to order toast, which was, she declared indelicately, all she dared desire in such a desperately disgusting diner. However, at my insistence, she did at least add Philadelphia Cream Cheese to her toast.
“Yes, yes,” Penny moaned, “and while we were waiting at the Buffalo airport, you insisted we have Buffalo wings — even though we’ve had them, like, a zillion times before…”
“And in Montreal?” I prodded.
“You had me walk through the red light district in fishnets just so you could have a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich from Schwartz’s – yes, I get it. But why a Cuban sandwich, Helena? Why here?”
“Look around, you, Penny. There are more Cubans here than anywhere on earth. Well, except maybe Tampa. So when I say Miami, you just think Cuba — ergo, Cuban sandwich.”
“Whatever you say,” The Countess Arcade sighed, exhausted from the heat on her too-pale skin.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Whatever I say. And I say we are on the hunt for the perfect Cuban sandwich.”
“Okay, as long as it’s not pork. My people don’t do well with pork,” decreed The Countess Penelope of Arcadia, as if Arcadia were somehow a suburb of Tel-Aviv.
“Your people?” I asked, incredulously. “But you’re not…”
“Yes, my people,” Penny insisted. “Vegetarians.”
Mea culpa, dear readers, mea maxima culpa. I had recently introduced my dear young associate to the music of my youth, and she had fallen, like so many a young maid, for a certain Mancunian with a reputation of being outspoken, particularly on the matter of vegetarianism and animal rights, and had immediately declared herself a vegetarian. However, this all occurred last Thursday, and while I really had no issue listening to Meat Is Murder repeatedly for the past few days, I was doing my best to hold my tongue when she made sweeping statements about my barbaric eating habits, as if she hadn’t just eaten an entire ten taco family dinner from Taco Bell the week before on a dare. (Although I guess an argument could be made that there was no actual meat consumed during that exercise in gluttony.)
“Fine,” I said, clenching my teeth a little. “We’ll go somewhere where you can get a salad or something, okay?”
“We could go to McDonald’s,” she said cheerfully. “They have good salads! Ooh! Or a Filet-o-Fish.”
I stared at her and waited for the moment to dawn on her that fish might not be on the list off Morrissey-approved foods.
“What?” She asked, eyes bugging out at me in annoyance. “Fish don’t have faces, Helena. It’s not the same thing. Lots of vegetarians eat fish.”
And so, without further debate, we found ourselves in the line-up at McDonald’s. It wasn’t long before we became the centre of inevitable, yet unwanted attention. It didn’t help that Penny was dressed in military green khaki shorts and an admittedly adorable matching khaki waistcoat over a red t-shirt with an ill-advised (I told her it was a bad idea, considering) portrait of Che Guevara, complete with ankle high oxblood Doc Martens and a similarly bloody beret to boot.
Perhaps it was the spirit of la revolución that compelled Penny, all hundred and three pounds of her, to leap over the McDonald’s counter and grab Luis by the polyester labels and scream something about her not caring how many back alley blow jobs he’d had to give to work his way up to the McDonald’s counter, and if he thought that he could just stand there and deny her mistress’ request, then he was madder than those fat cat gringo pendejos who thought that they could keep Cuba under their oppressive boot heel.
Then she jumped up on the counter, pumped her fist in the air and yelled, “Viva la Cuba Libre! Viva Castro! Viva La Vida Loca!” Then, for some reason yet-to-be adequately explained to me (and believe me, I’ve asked her since), she launched into an impromptu rendition of We’re Not Gonna Take It, complete with the opening dialogue where the dad asks what the kid wants to do with his life, and the kid responds “I wanna rock!”
Luis looked at me in utter bewilderment, and apologized again that they didn’t have a McCuban sandwich, but then suggested that he knew a good place get one. After all, he beamed, he’d lived in Miami his whole life (a fact which shattered both my and Penny’s fictional histories for the dear boy), and he knew all the best places.
“That’s really very nice of you,” I said, having to shout a little over Penny’s off-key singing, as a girl no older than the Countess, but with the distinction of having the word MANAGER pinned to her lapel tried to talk her down off the counter. “But you see, we’re here now, and my dear friend has clearly had too much sun (she’s very delicate), and if you could just make me a Cuban sandwich, I’d very much appreciate it, and I’m sure you have the ingredients on hand. You just take a thinly filleted chicken breast, and top it with a roasted poblano pepper, some Raclette if you have it, but if not, then whatever cheese you have will… what?”
Luis looked blankly at me, then went to speak, and saw something in my face that caused him to hesitate. After an awkward pause that could not be called silence as it was filled with the wailing Countess of Arcadia on her third refrain of the only Twisted Sister song I could name, even under duress, Luis finally said:
“But miss, that is not a Cuban sandwich. A Cuban sandwich is made with roasted pork, swiss cheese and pickles. Plus, it’s on the best bread you ever had, miss — better than anything we serve here.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No no no no no, that’s not right. I know what a Cuban sandwich is. Penny, get down off of there and come do your thing with Luis again, dear — he’s trying to tell me I’m wrong, and we both know that I cannot be wrong.”
“You can be,” Penny said, jumping down off the counter with one final fist pump, “and frequently are.”
Annoyed, I shot Penny a look that said that I would deal with her insolence later, and then told Luis again that I knew what I Cuban sandwich was, that I had eaten a Cuban sandwich before.
“Remember that cafe in Napa, Penny?”
“Yes, I remember,” she said, losing patience with me. “I had chewy chorizo and eggs, you had a chicken poblano sandwich, and you kept making goo goo eyes at our waiter, and if I can remember his name I’ll die a happy, if hungry young woman.”
“No, I had a Cuban sandwich,” I retorted, “I distinctly remember. And I do not make goo goo eyes. Never have, and never will.”
“No, no, no,” Penny corrected. “You had The Cuban, yes, but all their sandwiches had names. The Italian Stallion, The Snooty Frenchman, Der BullzenSchnitzel. But The Cuban was a chicken poblano sandwich, which you raved about the whole rest of the trip. Apparently you’re not the only one who doesn’t know what a Cuban sandwich is.”
I turned to Luis.
“So you’re saying that there’s no poblano or chicken in a Cuban sandwich?”
Luis shook his head. ”Sounds like you want a chicken poblano sandwich, miss.”
“Really?” I asked, nonplussed.
Luis nodded, insisting that he’d lived here all his life, and therefore, was a reputable authority on the matter of what goes in a Cuban sandwich. He then also reminded me that I was holding up the line.
“Huh,” I said, feeling foolish. “Well, can you make me one of those?”
“No, miss, I’m sorry, we cannot,” Luis shook his head said, “but I think the 1909 Café over on Bird Road has something like that.”
“Well, all right,” I said, tugging the Countess Penelope’s khaki-clad arm out of the fast -food disappointment, “let’s go get one of those, then!”