Reuben, Reuben What’re You Thinking?

One of my favorite sandwiches to order in the restaurants is a Reuben. It surpasses a burger in my opinion in many ways. The corn beef is leaner that the ground beef burger and it is topped with delicious Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut. Thinking about the grilled rye bread which melts the gooey Swiss cheese inside makes my mouth water.

Although you will find the Reuben sandwich listed on the menu of most diners and delis, it is sometimes popularized as German cuisine. But the Reuben sandwich is an American creation designed by German immigrants. The sandwich recipe itself did not cross the ocean but accommodated the American palate.

There seems to be two possible claims to fame for the Reuben. Either it was created in Nebraska, at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha or the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln or at Reuben’s Restaurant in New York City. There are stories to accompany each claim, of course.

In Omaha lore, the sandwich was dreamed up in 1925 to feed the late-night poker players at the Blackstone Hotel. The creator, Reuben Kulakofsky, aka Reuben Kay, was a local grocer who supplied the food. The hotel owner, Charles Schimmel, liked the sandwich so much, he added it to the hotel restaurant menu. So it is not uncommon to attribute the sandwich as Shimmel’s Reuben. In 1956, Fern Snider, a former Blackstone waitress, entered the Reuben in a national sandwich competition and won. The recipe was available nationwide after that.

Since there is no written corroboration of the Omaha poker claim, some Nebraskans claim the sandwich actually originated in Lincoln since there are copies of the Rueben on depression-era Cornhusker Hotel menus from 1937. You could buy one for 50 cents back then. The hiccup here is that there is no Rueben story from Lincoln about how it received its name. After a closer look, it seems the Schimmel’s also ran the Cornhusker so now wonder they adopted the sandwich on their menu as well. In any case, the sandwich seems to have traveled the 50 miles between the two Nebraska cities in the early twentieth century.

New York City, however, has its own story about the Rueben that connects to Hollywood glamor. Reuben’s Restaurant at 802 Park Ave opened around 1908 by German immigrant, Arnold Reuben. It was open 24 hours a day and served many of the Broadway crowd and those leaving clubs late at night. The story for the sandwich is set in 1914.

One of Charlie Chaplin’s leading ladies tells the restaurateur, “Rueben, make me a sandwich, make it a combination. I’m so hungry I could eat a brick.” He took a loaf of rye bread, cut two slices on the bias and stacked one piece with the sliced baked Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, sliced imported Swiss cheese, topped it off with coleslaw and lots of Reuben’s special Russian dressing and the second slice of bread…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.
Charlie Chaplin 1915.

Notice that this Rueben’s Special recipe has some variations from today’s typical Reuben. Therefore, some researchers claim that this is not the same sandwich offered in Nebraska. The other problem with these stories is that Rueben Kulakofsky in Omaha was a practicing Lithuanian Jew. It is not logical that he would create a non-kosher sandwich including both meat and cheese together. 

Regardless of the origin, I’m glad someone created this sandwich. The Holy Reuben I ordered at the Holy Cow Idaho (yes, that’s what it is really called) in Eagle, Idaho yesterday also included mouth watering grilled onions. Home | Holy Cow! ( I saved some and ate the rest of it today. You can make yourself one at home if you don’t want to go out. There are many recipes online. Beware! They are not low fat or low calorie, but they are delicious.

Holy Cow Idaho wall.


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