"Who Was Reuben" Might Be the Ultimate Food Fight
It is said that no two people are alike. Billions of souls have inhabited our planet, each one possessing their own unique beliefs and viewpoints, loves and desires. Despite our differences, there are two activities shared by all of us which are central, actually vital to our being—our first response when delivered from the womb is to breathe, the next is to eat. Yet eating is far more than simple sustenance. Food is how we relate to others.
We care about food, our food, the food of our childhood and culture and ethnicity. Food is a part of us, it tells a big part of the story of who we are. It’s personal. And because it’s personal, there have been disagreements, feuds, and even battles waged over what you might call “bragging rights” to regional dishes. Who did it first seems to be paramount to who does it best.
For example, in 2008 hummus became a political hot button. The president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists filed a lawsuit against the nation of Israel for food copyright infringement. This, dear friends, is known as the “Hummus Wars.” To further promote national pride, the government of Lebanon petitioned the EU to have hummus classified as a uniquely Lebanese food. Of course, a battle over whose bean dip reigns supreme can only be settled in the kitchen. In January 2010, Israeli cooks assembled the largest plate of hummus, a staggering 4,082 kilograms. Not to be outdone, 300 Lebanese chefs retaliated with a Guinness World Record plateful (actually it was a satellite dish) weighing in at 10,450 kilograms. To this day, Lebanon is undefeated.
Messrs. Jean-Paul Roy and Fernand LaChance for decades claimed to each be the originators of the Quebec meal known as poutine.
And then there is the blue cheese controversy. It is said that centuries ago, a young man in Italy, a cheese apprentice, was distracted by love, and left his cheese curds unattended overnight. To hide his oversight, the next morning he mixed them with fresh curds, but a few weeks later noticed that the batch was turning blue. The mistake could no longer be hidden, but it proved to be a happy accident, and Gorgonzola was born . . . or something like that. Oddly enough, the French have a similar story for the creation of Roquefort.
There is another food fight to share with you—who is the “Reuben” of the Reuben sandwich?
And Now, the Rest of the Story
The year 1927 was a life-changing one for young Bernard Schimmel. At just 18 years of age, his father sent him to Europe to learn how to be a chef. One year later he returned from the École Hôtelière in Lausanne, Switzerland, and began his career at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska.
One would hope that he acquired that position on merit alone, but the family story is that his father played poker at that very same hotel every Sunday evening.
Every family has a claim to fame. A friend’s great-grandfather (times 16) was king of Poland for a day in 1586, according to family lore. My neighbor claims he’s related to the man who punched Houdini in the stomach, which may have killed him. My grandfather invented the Reuben sandwich. I’ve had some doubts since seeing the movie “Quiz Show” in 1994, but it’s what I choose to believe.
— Elizabeth Weil, New York Times, June 7, 2013
Bernard's granddaughter, Elizabeth Weil, shared the rest of the story, saying that one night, one of the regular poker players, Reuben Kulakofsky, asked for a sandwich "with corned beef and sauerkraut." Bernard put aside his newly acquired chef skills as a saucier. He drained some sauerkraut, stirred in a dab of Thousand Island salad dressing, and layered it with corned beef and Swiss on a stable slab of rye bread. The grill made the bread toasty, the cheese melty, and the corned beef and dressing all ooey-gooey and delicious.
According to the Schimmel family, the sandwich dubbed the Reuben was an instant hit and was placed on the hotel's menu. But, that bit of family folklore was shared by Ms. Weil on the back page of the New York Times Magazine. This is where things start to get a bit paskudne (Yiddish for nasty).
Elizabeth Weil's ‘My Grandfather Invented the Reuben Sandwich. Right?’ tells a nice story about her grandfather inventing the Reuben sandwich in Omaha, Nebraska. It is a nice story, but the correct answer to the question is, ‘Wrong.’
— Andrew Smith, food Historian and author, in his letter to the New York Times
The Truth (According to Mr. Smith)
Andrew F. Smith is no Carb Diva. He actually has some valid credentials and writing chops.
- He teaches food studies and professional food writing at the New School University in New York City.
- He is the author or editor of 21 books, including Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine (2009)
- Serves as the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America.
- He has written and lectured extensively about New York City food history.
So, when he talks, people listen. Smith presented the theory that the Reuben was an offering from the sandwich shop of Arnold Reuben in New York City. As Smith explained
"Around 1914 Arnold Reuben came up with the 'Annette Seelos Special' for one of Charlie Chaplin's leading ladies. It consisted of 'ham, cheese, turkey, coleslaw, and dressing."
He stated that the sandwich was a New York invention and the middle-America myth needed to be put to rest. And then he threw down the gauntlet to Ms. Weil, professing to her (and all who would listen) that he was "a pedantic culinary historian” who put his trust in primary sources, and if she had “primary sources, such as any menu with Reuben sandwich that lists the ingredients before 1941,” he'd love to see them and would retract his letter. Without such documentation, he was calling it for New York.
But, he didn't know who he was up against. Ms. Weil was not alone in this battle. She had at her side her husband Dan, a descendant of Irish story-tellers, self-proclaimed food maniac, and PhD-wielding researcher. Dan began his pursuit of the truth, contacting all relatives of Grandpa Schimmel, the hotel where the sandwich had originally been created, and even the family of the original restaurant owners.
The Reuben turned into the Forrest Gump of sandwiches.
— Elizabeth Weil, in Saveur Magazine, September 6, 2016
The Reuben Sandwich Became a Celebrity
The Reuben gained celebrity status. With husband Dan's super-sleuthing, it was discovered that:
- Years ago Tom Brokaw's wife had been a teacher at a high school in Omaha; she and the woman who would become the wife of Warren Buffet used to dine at the Blackstone. The Reuben was a memorable part of their dining experience.
- While researching his part in the movie Quiz Show, Robert Redford had eaten often at the Blackstone where he learned that "Reuben K" had invented the sandwich.
- Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food and dozens of other books, magazine articles, and recipient of numerous awards) had married a Kulakofsky.
But, there was no physical proof that the sandwich had been created before 1941 at the Blackstone. Dan would not let it go—like a dog with a bone he would not relinquish his family's rights to a Midwest sandwich without a battle.
Finally, the Nebraska State Historical Society found the Holy Grail, a 1937 menu from the Blackstone coffee shop that offered "a Reuben sandwich for 35 cents, 50 cents with chicken." Digging even deeper, the Douglas County historical society unearthed a 1934 menu (from the Blackstone dining room) that offered the sandwich for 40 cents.
What Makes a Perfect Reuben?
Corned beef or pastrami? Thousand Island or Russian dressing? Pumpernickle or marbled rye bread? What type of cheese? Is there cheese? Is sauerkraut a necessity?
Questions, there are so many questions and happily, I have answers.
Hands down, you must use corned beef. Not pastrami, not roast beef, not sliced deli turkey. If you are vegetarian or vegan I will allow you to use a plant-based substitute.
Always use Russian dressing. Thousand Island is nothing more than a combination of mayonnaise and catsup. Your perfect Reuben needs, no it demands more zing. Here's how to make your own.
- 5 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 4 tablespoons sour cream
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon dill pickle relish
- 1 tablespoon finely minced shallots
- 1 teaspoon grated horseradish (jarred is fine)
- 1/2 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
This recipe actually makes twice as much as you will need for four sandwiches.
A Reuben without sauerkraut is like an omelet without a filling; in other words, it isn’t a Reuben, it’s just a corned beef sandwich (and a very sad one, I might add). I’m 50 percent German, so I’m quite opinionated about sauerkraut, too.
Please, I beg you, don't purchase canned sauerkraut. It's not crisp; it's limp and flabby and much too acidic. If you have access to a local purveyor of small-batch kraut please take advantage of that gift. Many large grocery store chains have it in the refrigerator section with fresh eggs, cheese, and salsa. If that isn't possible, sauerkraut in a jar can be an almost acceptable substitute. If you must buy the stuff in a jar, rinse and drain it before using it.
Rye bread is a must. It’s sturdy, not wimpy. It has flavor. It toasts beautifully and doesn’t turn into a mushy mess with the juiciness of the meat, kraut, and dressing. Accept no substitutions.
1. How to Assemble That Perfect Reuben
Yield: 4 sandwiches
- 1 pound thinly sliced corned beef
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/2 pound sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed dry
- 8 slices marbled rye bread
- 4 tablespoons softened butter
- 8 tablespoons Russian dressing (see recipe above)
- 8 slices Swiss cheese
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Cover a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Warm the corned beef in the microwave. It doesn't need to be steaming hot, but please, at least take the chill off.
- In a large skillet heat the olive oil to medium; add the sauerkraut and saute until the kraut is warmed and just ever-so-slightly charred. (I know this sounds unorthodox, but you will thank me for this). Remove from heat and set aside.
- Smear one side of each slice of bread with the softened butter. Saute (buttered side down) in batches or griddle (if you are lucky enough to have a grill pan large enough to accommodate all of the slices) until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Place 4 of the bread slices (butter-side down) on the prepared baking sheet. Spread Russian dressing on the un-buttered sides of the bread. Evenly distribute the corned beef on top of 4 of the slices, then the sauerkraut, and then finally the cheese slices.
- Top with the remaining 4 bread slices, toasted side up.
- Bake in the oven until the cheese is melty and ooey-gooey (about 3 minutes).
2. Reuben Sliders
My friends who live outside of the United States might not be familiar with the term "slider." Originally, it was the name given to the little steam-grilled onion burgers of White Castle made with a diminutive sandwich roll. Over the years the definition has become a bit looser and refers to any small-size sandwich.
Teri loves to present classic recipes with a twist. These Reuben sliders have all the flavors of the big sandwich but in cute three-bite form. I think they'd be great for a tailgate party or backyard gathering.
3. Reuben Stromboli
Here's a fun fusion—Italian-American meets Irish corned beef and Jewish deli favorites to create a huge sandwich that can serve up to 8 people (definitely less if you're feeding teenage boys, of course). When you assemble this Reuben stromboli be sure to squeeze the excess moisture from the sauerkraut.
4. Reuben-Style Corned Beef Hash
My son-in-law told me of an amazing brunch he and my daughter enjoyed a few weeks ago—corned beef hash, dotted with sauerkraut and topped with Swiss cheese and rye bread croutons. That's a combination that had never occurred to me, but now I've become obsessed with it. I can't get it this dish out of my mind.
Of course, there's a perfect poached egg on top.
5. Reuben Strata
A strata is the cook's best friend (next to the slow cooker or instant-pot). As the name suggests, it is a dish of layers—think of it as a savory bread pudding. Cubes or slices of bread alternate with meats and cheeses and veggies and then everything is covered with a blend of eggs and milk/cream. When they bake in the oven the bread becomes soft and custard-like.
It's a boon to the cook who needs an easy dish for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner because it can be assembled and stored ahead of time, covered and chilled, and then popped into the oven to bake when the time is right. Easy-peasy.
This Reuben strata has all the flavors you crave in a sandwich, but with less mess. It's one of my favorite brunch dishes.
6. Vegan Reuben
I cannot leave this topic without providing some Reuben-esque relief for my vegetarian friends and family members. Jackfruit is a relative of the fig tree; it grows in the tropics and produces a huge fruit that, when cooked, resembles meat fibers (much as spaghetti squash succumbs to the raking of a fork to produce strands of "pasta.")
It's amazing to me (and anyone who samples it) how willingly those plant fibers absorb flavors (they are a blank canvas of flavor) and submit to heat to resemble the texture of cooked animal flesh (sorry, my daughter made me say that).
This recipe by Johnna for a jackfruit Reuben explains step-by-step how to prepare jackfruit so that it not only tastes but looks like corned beef. She also provides recipes for a vegan Swiss cheese spread and dairy-free dressing, but if you are not taking the step to avoid dairy you can use the cheese and salad dressing of your liking.
© 2019 Linda Lum