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Beef on Weck: Buffalo's Best

August 19, 2012 1:41 pm · Posted by Nancy Einhart

Unless you’re from Buffalo or well acquainted with a Buffalonian, you maybe haven’t heard of beef on weck. But this regional favorite is one of the country's oldest sandwiches. Though I still haven't made it to Schwabl's, the Buffalo joint that opened in 1837, I recently tasted a very authentic (says my Buffalo friend Jonas) beef on weck sandwich in San Francisco.

So what the heck is weck? Weck is short for kummelweck (or kimmelweck), the caraway-seeded and salted bun the sandwich is served on. Think of the best pretzel roll you've ever had, but with crunchy bursts of flavor in the form of caraway. Otherwise, the sandwich is similar to a French dip, with tender pink roast beef drizzled with its own roasting juices. Simple, but delicious.

In San Francisco, the beef on weck shows up as an occasional Thursday special at Greenburger's, a casual restaurant in the Lower Haight that serves delicious milkshakes, sammies and burgers, American comfort food, and tributes to the USA's regional cuisine. Though the owner is from Buffalo, the restaurant seems to admire all aspects of American cooking. But the beef on weck is definitely worth a stop.

Slice of History: What About the Butter?

March 16, 2011 7:06 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

I love getting questions from readers, especially when they pertain to sandwich history. This one comes from loyal reader BettyPuff:

"Dear sandwich lady, Can you tell me what the origins of putting butter on a ham sandwich are? I always wonder about the butter."

This is a tough one, since there isn't one definitive reason that almost all early American and British sandwiches feature butter. But butter is undeniably the condiment of choice in 19th century sandwich recipes, such as Eliza Leslie's ham sandwich from 1836.

I don't know what old-timey sandwich makers had against mustard, but I have my theories about the butter. Before they were called sandwiches, these meals were simply referred to as "bread and cheese" or "bread and meat," so butter was a logical addition to what was really a souped-up version of toast.

Also, consider the bread. Before the advent of presliced bread and enzymes added to make it fluffier, sandwich bread was too delicate and crumbly to contain anything but cold, tidy ingredients. Presumably the butter helped soften the bread without making the sandwiches soggy.

Since sandwiches of this era were more of a polite snack for wealthy indulgers than an everyday convenience food, they were designed to be as easy to eat as possible. Most were delicate, crustless, and involved mixing cheese or egg with other ingredients to make a tidy paste. The softer and easier to bite, the better, and in this case, butter made the sliced ham and bread better — that is, softer to the teeth.

Flickr User Robert S. Donovan

The New York Deli Reuben Story

January 22, 2011 8:20 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

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?

The Nebraska Reuben Story

January 19, 2011 7:24 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

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.

Slice of History: A Tribute to the Reuben

January 18, 2011 7:27 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

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.

Sandwich Precursor: the Bierock

January 6, 2011 7:07 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

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

Slice of History: Elvis Falls For the Fool's Gold Loaf

August 23, 2010 7:03 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

Peanut butter and banana sandwiches and Elvis Presley are forever linked. The King's favorite appears on the diner menu at Graceland, and Peanut Butter and Co. in New York serves an Elvis sandwich that's a PB&B, plus honey and bacon. If you think that sounds decadent, sit down to the tale of Elvis and the Fool's Gold Loaf.

According to The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, legend has it that in 1976, Elvis hopped a plane from Memphis to Denver and back in a single night just to get his jaws around a sandwich called the Fool’s Gold, served at the Colorado Mine Company restaurant in Denver. He'd been reminiscing about the delicious $50 sandwich when he decided to sate his friends' curiosity by flying them to Denver for a very extreme takeout order.

Serving eight to 10 people and containing more than 40,000 calories, the Fool’s Gold may be the most quintessentially American sandwich ever created. Here's why.

Pimento Cheese, If You Please

July 19, 2010 7:14 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

Growing up in the South, I didn't eat a ton of pimento cheese sandwiches. But as a beloved Southern spread, pimento cheese was everywhere: at pool parties with crackers, at baby showers and funerals on white bread, and for sale at supermarkets like a salsa.

Only when I moved away did I realize that most people don't even know what pimento cheese is. It is truly a regional food, one I've gained more appreciation for since leaving. What we call "pimento cheese" is actually a cheese spread, usually made with grated cheddar cheese, mayo, chopped pimentos (you can buy them in a jar), and sweet relish. Recipes range from somewhat bland grocery store blends to complex homemade recipes. In the South, most folks have a friend who makes the best pimento cheese, often requested at parties.

Dating back to the 1900s, pimento cheese comes out each year for the Masters Golf Tournament in August, GA., and lately, it seems to be spreading to the rest of the food world. I've recently salivated over a grilled cheese sandwich version (why didn't I think of that) and Food & Wine's recipe for pimento cheese and bacon crostini.

I made my own once and it was pretty yummy for a first attempt, but I lost the photos in a digital camera mishap. Just writing this post makes me want more, so next time there's a party, look out.

Photo Source: Flickr User Amy_B

 

Slice of History: America's Dainty Sandwich Beginnings

July 6, 2010 4:15 pm · Posted by Nancy Einhart

John Montagu didn't invent the sandwich, but he gets the credit. In American sandwich history, Eliza Leslie is the name to know. Though she wasn't the first American homemaker to make one, her humble ham sandwich holds the title of earliest printed sandwich recipe in U.S. history.

Eaters of America's heartier early handheld meals — such as Cornish pasties, beef on weck, and fried oyster po'boys — would find it absurd that the first printed sandwich recipe in America involves ribbons. As in, ribbons and bows. But like the people making them, the earliest U.S. sandwich recipes are polite American counterparts to their proper British predecessors; Leslie, who published the ribbon-tied sandwich in question, spent her formative years in England.

In her 1836 cookbook, Directions for Cookery, Leslie explains that her ham sandwich is to be served “at supper, or at luncheon.” The recipe calls for a loaf of white or wheat bread, cold boiled ham, and butter. Leslie suggests using French mustard and serving the sandwiches laid flat or rolled up: “For the rolled sandwiches, roll the long sides of a sandwiches to make a long, thin roll, then tie with ribbon.”

Well, I know what I'm doing next Easter!

Sandwich Precursor: the Cornish Pasty

June 21, 2010 5:32 am · Posted by Nancy Einhart

The cheesesteak pretzel may seem newfangled (and gross) but its lineage might be linked to one of England's indigenous foods, the Cornish pasty. (That's pronounced PASS-tee, not PASTE-tee, lest you have visions of strippers.)

Traced back to 16th century England, these handheld pies predate the golden age of sandwiches and may have inspired some of America's classics 'wiches, from the cheesesteak to the Reuben.

Resembling a turnover or an empanada, these semicircular, crusty pies provided easy underground lunches for miners in Cornwall and, later, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The workers' wives would bake the pies, often marking the miner's initials in the dough and stuffing them with "courses": meat, vegetables, and other savory fillings on one side, and a sweet fruity dessert on the other.

A meat-and-potato meal, popular pasty stuffings include thinly sliced steak or ground beef, onions, tubers, and turnips. So you see, the cheesesteak pretzel could be called a pasty variation, if an ill-advised one. Apparently, the two-course pasty is a lost art, but that's one of my favorite parts of the pasty story. I think it's primed for a comeback.

Source: Flickr User Joyosity