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The History Behind the Elena Ruz, the Quintessential Cuban Sandwich

MIAMI — When the Cuban socialite Elena Ruz Valdés-Fauli was in her early 20s, she would often go to a show or a movie and have a late-night bite with friends at the restaurant El Carmelo in Havana. Her usual meal was an off-menu request: a turkey sandwich on medianoche bread, with cream cheese and strawberry preserves.

She had to explain the sandwich so many times that she asked the restaurant’s manager to put it on the menu to make it easier to order. At some point in the late 1920s or the early ’30s (nobody remembers when), she returned to find her name in neon lights, with the sandwich on the menu for 25 cents.

“It was quite a surprise for her,” Margarita Ulacia, 82, of San José, Costa Rica, said about her mother’s reaction to the sign. “But she was delighted, and my grandmother was horrified.”

A friend of Ms. Valdés-Fauli’s even had a dream that the sandwich would become famous. And it did. When Cubans left the island after the Cuban revolution, the sandwich followed.

Nearly a century after the sandwich was invented, classic Cuban establishments like Versailles, La Carreta or Pinecrest Bakery still have a place for the Elena Ruz on their menus.

“It became an icon of Cuba,” said Antonio “Bobo” Llizo, the second-generation owner of Los Bobos Cafeteria in Doral, Fla. “It’s one of the sandwiches that my dad had to recreate and place on the menu.”

At Mr. Llizo’s restaurant, chefs butter the medianoche bread — a sweeter, softer sibling of Cuban bread, similar to brioche — stuff the sandwich with thinly sliced turkey breast, Philadelphia cream cheese and Smucker’s strawberry preserves, and then heat it.

Ms. Ulacia said that her mother, who died in 2011, probably didn’t request butter on her sandwich. But chefs have found it helps brown the toasted Elena Ruz.

Despite its long-held fame, the sandwich is barely ordered anymore, Mr. Llizo said. Young Cubans are forgetting about the sandwich and its history. When his daughter brought little Elena Ruz sandwiches to her elementary school for a presentation on Ms. Valdés-Fauli, most of the Cuban parents had never heard of it.

But Mr. Llizo and other restaurateurs wouldn’t dare take it off the menu.

“Not having it would kind of remove your Cuban card,” said Daniel Figueredo, who serves a version of the sandwich at his restaurant Sanguich de Miami on Calle Ocho.

His Elena Ruthless is an adaptation of the original Elena Ruz, substituting homemade guava marmalade for the strawberry preserves and adding bacon to mix. It’s on his secret menu because it’s a sloppy sandwich to prepare.

“I believe traditions should be protected,” Mr. Figueredo said. “But I do believe that you have some parameters you can develop and have fun.”

Michael Beltran, who was raised in a Cuban household and runs Ariete, Navé and Chug’s Diner, agrees.

“People need to stop getting into, ‘Well that’s how it’s supposed to be,’” he said. “Cuban food is up in the air for interpretation. Interpret it all the ways.”

In fact, there have been many interpretations of the Elena Ruz, something that her daughter takes issue with, at least when it comes to the origin of the dish.

“Respect the form in which the sandwich was created, and if you do a variation,” Ms. Ulacia said in Spanish, “don’t play with the name.”

Recipe: Elena Ruz Sandwich

Susan Campbell Beachy contributed research.

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