The Reuben’s Colorful History
This Jewish deli staple should be on everyone’s home menu
by Chris Kaiser
I have a friend who always orders a Reuben sandwich whenever we go out for lunch, but he will never cook one at home. He says it’s too difficult. I disagree with him, and I encourage everyone to consider having the Reuben become a staple of home cooking.
While making a Reuben is fairly straightforward (see Sidebar), the history of the sandwich is not. Two cities claim that the Reuben was invented there: New York and Omaha.
The New York story goes like this. In 1914, a silent-film actress, Annette Seelos (who worked with Charlie Chaplin), wandered into Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York City. She asked the proprietor, Arnold Reuben, for a big sandwich. He slapped together ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and coleslaw and put it on rye bread. That became the Reuben Special, according to a 1938 interview with Arnold for the Library of Congress.
But how the Reuben Special morphed into the classic grilled Reuben with sauerkraut remains debatable. Reuben’s son, Arnold Jr., claimed the chef at Reuben’s made the classic sandwich for him one night in 1926 as an alternative to his diet of hamburgers.
Now here’s Omaha’s side of the story. The year was 1925, and a group of men known as The Committee were playing their weekly poker game at the Blackstone Hotel. One player, Reuben Kulakofsky, asked for a corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich.
The hotel owner’s son, Bernard Schimmel, who had studied in Switzerland to become a chef, drained the sauerkraut and mixed it with thousand-island dressing. He then added Swiss cheese to the corned beef and grilled the sandwich on dark rye, according to Elizabeth Weil, Schimmel’s great-granddaughter, in an article in the New York Times Magazine.
A few years back, when New York and Omaha were duking it out to lay claim to the origin of the famous sandwich, several Nebraskan historical societies dug deep into their archives and unearthed two Blackstone menus that listed the Reuben sandwich. One was from 1934, the other 1937. These, according to Weil in an article for Saveur.com, are the earliest known printed references to the Reuben sandwich.
Omaha has another notch in its Reuben belt as well. In 1956, Schimmel’s Reuben won the National Sandwich Idea Contest (out of 600 entries). Its popularity soared after that, and Bernard Schimmel even published the recipe for the Reuben “in his otherwise fussy continental cookbook,” Weil said.
Several other stories persist about the sandwich’s birth, but no matter its origin, Reuben connoisseurs are passionate—and protective—about the grilled concoction. Most people prefer the classic Reuben, but some insist on pastrami as the protein filler, while others like it grilled with turkey and cole slaw. One friend said she likes the “Rachel,” a variation with smoked turkey instead of corned beef. A few friends prefer brown mustard to Russian dressing, and a friend from the South said she’d be tempted to add fried green tomatoes. And this is a testament to the Reuben’s popularity: A chef from New Jersey told me that he once shipped a couple of Reubens to his father-in-law in California.
Whatever your preference, you should think of the Reuben as an easy-to-prepare sandwich that is perfect for lunch or dinner. And you don’t have to wait for it to be shipped to you!
Photo by writer, Chris Kaiser.
Recipe for Classic Reuben Sandwich
Preparation time: 15 min. Yields 2 sandwiches
4 pieces dark or marble rye
8 pieces Swiss cheese
4 oz. Russian or thousand island dressing
8 oz. thinly sliced lean corned beef
4 oz. sauerkraut (naturally fermented is preferred), drained and squeezed dry
Butter (for spreading)
Butter one side of the bread and turn over. To help prevent the bread from becoming soggy, place the Swiss cheese (two slices) on the bread first, then slather the dressing on the cheese.
Most restaurants will then add the corned beef with the sauerkraut on top of the meat. But I like to stuff the sauerkraut halfway between the corned beef (2 oz. of meat down first, sauerkraut, then the remaining 2 oz. of meat on top). I find this makes the sandwich easier to eat (I’m all about sandwich architecture) and ensures the mixture of sauerkraut and corned beef in every bite.
Place the remaining slice of bread with cheese on top and grill.
To grill, place a skillet on medium heat. Put both sandwiches in the hot skillet. Let cook for about 3 minutes, then turn over. Be sure to flatten the sandwich with the spatula. Turn the heat to medium low and allow to cook for about 5 minutes so the middle of the sandwich gets hot. You can cover with a lid, if you like. Turn over one more time to brown it up nicely and remove from skillet.
Cut the sandwich in half and serve with a dill pickle spear and potato chips.
Chris Kaiser is retired from an award-winning career as a medical editor and writer. Before taking on journalism, he was a chef. He is currently studying and writing poetry, having been published in the Eastern Iowa Review, Better Than Starbucks poetry magazine, and The Scriblerus. His poetry has also appeared in “Action Moves People United,” a music and spoken-word project partnered with the United Nations, as well as the DaVinci Art Alliance’s “Artist, Reader, Writer” exhibit, which pairs visual art with poetry. He is currently reviewing poetry books for the Mad Poets Society and holds an MA in theater. He lives in suburban Philadelphia.