The Reuben: The All-American Sandwich

Most recipes are the product of a type of culinary evolution, the outcome of generational trial and error.  The Reuben, on the other hand, is a recently invented sandwich, with a defined origin and creator.

That does not mean, however, that culinary historians agree on the timing of the sandwich’s creation or the identity of its inventor.

One version holds that the Reuben was the creation of Arnold Reuben, a New York restaurateur in the early 20th century.  According to family lore, a young actress, Annette Seelos—a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin, so the story goes—visited Reuben’s restaurant late one evening.  So hungry she “could eat a brick,” Seelos asked for a “combination.”  In an impromptu act of brilliance, the restaurateur relied on at-hand ingredients to create the “Reuben’s Special.”  The Reuben was born.

Well, maybe.  Historians have had trouble identifying an actress by the name of Annette Seelos, and Reuben’s descendants offer somewhat conflicting versions of their father’s alleged creation.

A competing group of Reubenites argue that the sandwich was the work of a grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky, in Omaha, Nebraska.  According to this version, the sandwich was created in 1925, during a late-night poker game held in Omaha’s old Blackstone Hotel.  As the game dragged into the night, the hotel owner, Charles Schimmel, asked Kulakofsky to scare up a sandwich.  Using accessible ingredients, Kulakofsky created a sandwich so delectable that Schimmel put it on his menu under the name “Reuben.”

This version is somewhat corroborated by the existence of 1930s-era menus from the Blackstone listing the Reuben.  Similarly supportive is the fact that Fern Snider, who once worked as a waitress at the Blackstone, entered the Reuben in the first-ever National Sandwich Contest in 1956.  The Reuben won, and the sandwich became nationally known.

Despite the differences in these origin stories, they agree in certain respects.  In both versions, the Reuben was invented in the early part of the 20th century and originated in the United States.

Indeed, this melted-cheese sandwich is the culinary version of America’s melting pot.    It was created by a Jewish immigrant, and made with rye bread (European), cheese (Swiss), dressing (Russian), and sauerkraut (German).  It is assembled from ingredients originating all over the world, yet with its strong, diverse and sometimes competing flavors, it remains uniquely and indisputably American.

Despite being featured in only a few of the 60-plus restaurants in Huntsville, the Reuben is also a local favorite.  At Five Loaves Deli, for example, the sandwich has been a hit for more than 10 years, with what co-owner Judy Owens refers to as a coterie of “die-hard” followers coming in weekly “to get their Reuben ‘fix.’”

That “fix” involves Reuben mainstays such as “thinly sliced top-grade corned beef, crisp and tart sauerkraut, [and] melted Swiss cheese” embraced between “two slices of buttered rye bread.” The Five-Loaves Reuben, however, foregoes the Russian Dressing in favor of a “tangy special dressing.”

Such variations are commonplace across the United States.   The “Rachel,” for example, substitutes pastrami for corned beef and cole slaw for sauerkraut.  The “Blue Reuben” dresses the sandwich in Blue Cheese, the “Grouper Reuben” uses fish instead of corned beef, and the “Virgin Reuben” preserves its chastity by eschewing meat altogether.  Curiously, the “Georgian Reuben” is eaten in, well, Michigan, and includes turkey rather than the traditional corned beef.

And, of course, the more adventurous can try the Reuben Egg Rolls, the Reuben Soup, the Reuben Spam, and the questionable Reuben Pizza—topped with sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and pickles!

Whatever the variant and whatever the origin, it is, according to Owens, a “dance party in the mouth,” grooving to a “symphony of flavors.”  It is an American original.

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