Though I love the Nebraska Reuben story, it isn't the one told most often. That would be the tale of Arnold Reuben of New York, NY.
According to Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America, Reuben opened his first deli in 1915 and, like many first-generation deli owners, he was a German immigrant. By 1920, he had a 24-hour restaurant on 82nd and Broadway, serving big sandwiches to actors and nighthawks.
The folklore behind the sandwich is as follows: an actress came into the restaurant and requested a big sandwich. In a story told in a letter from Arnold Reuben's daughter, her dad put together a sammie made from ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on rye:
He served it to the lady who said, "Gee, Reuben, this is the best sandwich I ever ate. You ought to call it an Annette Seelos Special." To which he replied, "Like hell I will. I'll call it a Reuben's Special."
He may have called it a Reuben, but it's not what we call a Reuben, so it would seem the Omaha invention story carries more weight. Arnold's son, Arnold Reuben Jr., attempted to remedy this later in life by telling yet another invention story. In 1993, he told the St. Petersburg Times that the sandwich was invented in the 1930s, when the chef made him a meal of corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on pumpernickel.
Revisionist history or true story? Either way, you've got to give credit to Arnold Jr. for understanding that when it comes to sandwich history, the best or loudest storytellers usually win. So which invention tale do you believe?
Rarely do we have proof of a sandwich's invention. It's not as if the creators draw up documentation and have it notarized; usually they're just hungry. So the Reuben, as with many foods, has several origin stories. I like the one about Reuben Kulakofsky, an Omaha grocer said to have made up the sandwich in 1925.
In Nebraska, home of sandwich precursor the bierock, beef and cabbage were a familiar combination, and according to lore, the corned beef/Swiss cheese/sauerkraut on rye combo was first conceived at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha.
Like Earl of Sandwich John Montagu, who is credited with inventing the first sandwich during a long card game, Kulakofsky (often called Reuben Kay) needed to nosh while playing cards and supposedly came up with the Reuben to feed his late-night poker buddies. Like the hot brown sandwich, you might call the Reuben a pioneering drunk food.
The hotel's owner, Charles Schimmel, added the sammie to the menu and named it after Reuben; in 1956, the sandwich won a national competition, providing the first documentation of the name for the Oxford English Dictionary. A Nebraska newspaper columnist dug up menus from the 1930s and '40s that featured Reubens, though Mr. Kulakofsky's obituary made no mention of his claim to fame.
I actually have a friend of a friend whose grandmother's great uncle was Reuben Kulakofsky — four degrees of separation — but he didn't hear stories about the Reuben at his grandmother's knee or anything. Maybe Reuben was just too humble, because it's another not-so-humble inventor who typically gets credit for the Reuben. Stay tuned.
To me, a good Reuben sandwich is like a good cocktail. It combines ingredients I don't typically consume on their own — say, corned beef and thousand island dressing, or gin and tonic water — to invent a flavor that's new and magical. The same could be said for any good sandwich, I suppose, but the Reuben fascinates me most of all, partly because it's the only way I'll eat corned beef or thousand island dressing.Unlike many American sandwiches, the Reuben's formula is universally agreed upon. Walk into any neighborhood deli, and the Reuben is the same: corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, rye, and the dreaded orangey dressing, comfortingly warmed and sliced in half. Dating back to 1914 or 1925 depending on who you believe, the Reuben contains so much American sandwich history between its rye bread, following in the footsteps of the rural German bierock, urban Jewish delis, and late-night drunken eats everywhere.
Not surprisingly, the Reuben also has a conflicted history, with several people staking a claim to its invention, so this week, I'm serving up a series of posts all about the Reuben. So come back and come hungry.
- Chick-Fil-A's spicy chicken biscuit: why, yes, I'd try it — Slashfood
- Whoa: the foie and bacon PB&J at Lafitte does it up — SFoodie
- Dave's Pasta in Somerville makes a mean Cubano too — Simply Sandwiches
- A sandwich a day: Reuben at Jake's in Milwaukee — Serious Eats
- Studying the art of the Danish open-face sandwich — NPR
- A delicious sandwich for Trader Joe's devotees — YumSugar
What began as a pocketful of beef and cabbage eventually led to the Reuben we know and love today. Similar to the Cornish pasties popular in Michigan by way of Cornwall, the bierock is a sort of German calzone made from yeasty dough stuffed with beef, cabbage, and onions.
This portable sandwich precursor arrived in the Great Plains thanks to Germans who migrated from Russia to the Nebraska and Kansas farmland. Cabbage is a classic cold weather crop, and bierocks can warm you right up. The name bierock is probably related to the Russian pirozhki, another type of meat-stuffed dough dish. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the several origin stories about the Reuben sandwich (more on that later) starts in Nebraska.
Baked in a half-moon or bun shape, bierocks are also called cabbage burgers, something my house boy remembers from growing up in Wyoming and is always threatening to make. Other fans refer to it as a runza, which inspired an entire chain of "ovenstuff'd sandwiches" in Nebraska. These oblong baked sammies look suspiciously similar to the cheesesteak pretzels that debuted last year.
Have you ever been to Runza or eaten a cabbage burger or bierock?
Source: Fork Fingers Chopsticks
After a sunny Saturday in Dolores Park, the gang and I headed to 500 Club in the Mission, which has long been one of my favorite dive bars but scores even more points now thanks to its alliance with Clare's Delicatessen & Late Night Kitchen. The next-door deli is super cute, and the sandwiches are above average, but the best part is you can place your order at the deli counter and they'll deliver the sandwiches to the bar. Our six-sandwich order was ready in a flash and deliciously fulfilling. Click through to hit the scene.
Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side arguably has the best pastrami in NYC, but Carnegie Deli has the biggest, without a doubt. Between the Bread reader Danielle recently ordered the $16 Reuben at the famous Midtown deli. All I can say is, OMG.
Write Danielle: "There is bread way down under the piles of pastrami. I added lots of mustard." It's possible to have too much meat, but you can never have too much mustard.
Have you recently eaten a sandwich worth sharing? Send in your sandwich photos to email@example.com, along with a description of what's on your sandwich.
San Francisco doesn't have corner delis like New York does. I'm not talking great Jewish delis (thought we don't have those either) but those little bodegas that sell candy bars alongside cold-cut sandwiches, bagels to go, and, if you're lucky, coffee where they mix the cream and sugar for you.
Recently I discovered the closet thing I have to this in my neck of the woods: Pete's Deli and Cafe on Divisadero. They've got racks of chips and candy, sandwich specials posted on colored paper, and vinyl chairs. We sampled two very different sandwiches, and both were delicious: a classic grilled Reuben and a chicken-pesto sandwich on ciabatta. Feast your eyes.