Having been on strike for 6 months, Cigar workers in Tampa called a workers’ meeting and voted to continue the strike. The Tampa Tribune reported on the meeting and called closed shops “un-American.” When the strike ended 4 months later, it had been the longest and most expensive in the Tampa cigar industry.
Several of Tampa's most notable culinary creations remind us of life's difficulties. The elongated loaves of Cuban bread betray a history of hunger and rationing during Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain. The Cuban sandwich turned those thin loaves into symbols of plenty. Tampa's deviled crab croquettes tell a similar story of want and abundance.
Deviled crabs probably first appeared in the 1920s as street food in Tampa. Two companies–Miranda and the Seabreeze Restaurant—popularized the snack during that decade. Tampans could not get enough of the spicy, plump croquettes. Although tapas bars would not become fashionable until the late 1990s, deviled crabs would serve as an ideal Spanish snack. They may have originated in northern Spain, supplying many of Ybor City's residents. The addition of fiery red pepper flakes to the crab gave the rolls their infernal name. The rich, savory croquettes may have epitomized the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, but the dish was born in days of quiet desperation when hungry families ran out of options.
The traumatic cigar worker strike of 1920 likely helped to popularize the deviled crab. The work stoppage dragged on for months with no result except violence and anger. As usual, soup houses were the backbone of the union's efforts. Sister unions throughout the country collected funds for Tampa's strikers. The Tampa Tribune complained, "Over-paid and corn-fed agitators are gloating over the fact that they intend to absolutely annihilate the cigar industry in this city." Labor-based newspaper El Internacional offered another perspective:
The gentlemen who compose this union-busting association have never suffered the pangs of hunger–champagne and caviar have always been at their service when thirst or hunger threatened–and they don't know the anarchist-breeding effect of hunger on the victim. Even with the twin methods of starvation and falsehood, the manufacturers seem to be playing a losing game.
The manufacturers didn't think starvation was a losing game. Union member Domingo Cuesta discussed the opening of a makeshift union-funded "restaurant" and the violent reaction:
All the cigar workers on strike were fed here. However, the manufacturers made some accommodations in combination with the authorities. One day, police officers came to this place, destroying everything they could lay their hands on. The food was already cooked, and all the groceries were thrown onto the street.
The destruction of soup kitchens dealt the union a deadly blow. Before long, even the most zealous of strikers began to cave in. One told the newspapers, "I have never had a part in breaking a strike until now, and I am forced to work because my seven children need food and clothing." Hysterical union leaders refused to back down. In a manifesto issued by the Strike Advisory Board, the young men of Ybor City were ordered to work in the phosphate mines (where several had already died in accidents), and the old men to "shoot their brains out if they could not get food."
In such extreme conditions, many strikers caught the plentiful crabs in the bay to feed their families. But even well-fed strikers had additional needs, such as cash for rent and other goods. "During the long, lengthy cigar strikes," B.B. Menendez of the Tropicana Restaurant recalled, "there were no other means of income, so the cigar makers used to go fishing for crabs. They boiled them and made crab rolls to sell on the street corners."
Tampa Bay didn't lack crabs early in the century, so workers picked generous portions of their meat from the shells, seasoned it with sofrito and spices, and surrounded it with a crust made from breadcrumbs and stale Cuban bread softened in water. It soon became apparent that deviled crabs were perfect street food and did not waste a scrap of meat. They could be made in advance in large batches, kept warm and crispy on the go, and quickly eaten with one hand. Cubans made smaller thin croquettes out of all kinds of meat, especially ham and chicken, but deviled crabs became known as rolls due to their rotund shape. Whether the strike of 1920 gave birth to the deviled crab is debatable, but the timing works. For decades, peddlers sold deviled crabs from pushcarts and bicycles.
By the end of the 1920s, deviled crabs (in contrast to the smaller crab croquettes) entered Tampa's culinary lexicon. Residents and visitors took to the delicacy with such enthusiasm that peddlers sold deviled crabs on the street for over fifty years after the strike of 1920, and one can still find them in restaurants all over town.
Unfortunately, the quality of today's deviled crabs does not match their ubiquity. Over the years, the "hot as the devil" crabs have been tamed to pander to the Anglo's sensitive palette. Adding hot sauce became necessary to replace the fire of red pepper flakes. Instead of a lush interior of spicy sofrito and abundant crab meat, we often find starchy, pasty mush with questionable seafood inside. It doesn't help matters that nearly all of our restaurants serve inferior frozen deviled crabs, thinking we are none the wiser. Some of us are. One wonders how the militant union members of 1920 would have reacted to such inferior, deviled crabs.
The strikers held firm for ten months in 1920, but hunger exacted a heavy price. Not even the sale of deviled crabs could save the strike, which exhausted the cigar workers, their unions, and several factories before they sued for peace. The ordeal ended in February 1921 with $12 million in wages lost. Both sides claimed victory, but no clear winner emerged–not the workers. Perhaps Tampa's delectable deviled crab was the only good from that terrible strike.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Andrew Huse works as a librarian who specializes in archives at the University of South Florida Tampa Library's Special Collections. He writes, speaks and cooks about history when he can. His past work includes the centennial history of the Columbia restaurant (2009) and his latest book is called "From Saloons to Steakhouses: A History of Tampa." (2020) With Noel Smith and Wenceslau Galvez, Huse also co-authored "Tampa: Impressions of an Emigrant," an annotated translation of a rare book from 1896. (2020) All of his books are published through the University Press of Florida. He also has a website along with his partners Dr. Bárbara Cruz and Jeff Houck called The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers
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