Reuben on rye at Katz’s Deli, Ernesto Andrade via Wiki Commons
What do you get when you order a Reuben? It is a large, hunger-killing sandwich consisting of corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and melted Swiss cheese, all grilled on buttered rye bread. While it can be considered an iconic New York City food, its origin is unclear. There are several different claims as to the inventor of this sandwich, none of which have ever really been proven. There are stories about it starting here in this city, while there are conflicting assertions that it was invented, surprisingly, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Most of the claims to a New York City origin are attributed to Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant who owned Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, known for large sandwiches named after celebrities. In 1914, it was located on Broadway and 82nd Street. In Craig Claiborne’s New York Times column in 1976, Reuben’s daughter, Patricia Taylor, said that one night in 1914, an actress named Annette Selos, girlfriend of Charlie Chaplin, came in to her father’s place and said that she was famished. Reuben made her a sandwich of ham, turkey, coleslaw, cheese and dressing on rye. She said it was the best sandwich she’d ever had. He named it the Reuben’s special. However, this combination is not what is considered a Reuben sandwich.
Another story comes from a 1968 book, Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Hertner. He wrote that the Reuben was invented by William Hammerly, a New York City accountant and amateur cook. Hammerly named it after Arnold Reuben because of his well-known charity works.
One more claim to the inventor of the sandwich comes from Reuben’s son, Arnold Reuben Jr. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times in 1993, he gives credit to a chef at the restaurant during the 1930s, Alfred Scheuing. Reuben said that he would work in his father’s restaurant many late nights and would grab a burger to eat. One day Scheuing said he was sick of seeing the boy eat so many burgers. He said he had “some nice fresh corned beef.” He put some on rye bread, added fresh sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, and grilled it for him. Other than these interviews, the only other substantiation to these claims is the fact that Reuben’s menus from these times list both a Reuben’s Special, the ham and turkey version, and a Reuben sandwich, the traditional corned beef version.
The other claim to the invention of the Reuben comes, unexpectedly, from Omaha, Nebraska. In the 1920s there were a group of men who would meet for a weekly poker game in a room at the Blackstone Hotel. The lore goes that they liked to make their own sandwiches during the game. One of the men was grocer Reuben Kulakofsky. His family has claimed over the years that he made up this sandwich from a platter sent up to the room by the hotel. There is a competing story about the hotel chef, Charles Schimmel. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Weil, wrote to the New York Times that Schimmel invented the sandwich specifically for Kulakofsky. That’s why he named it after him. Schimmel subsequently put it on the hotel menu. A 1934 menu from the Blackstone does list the Reuben sandwich. Note that a Reuben sandwich is grilled. It’s not clear if there was a grill in the hotel room where the men played poker.
Another Omaha tie comes from 1956. Fern Snyder was a chef at the Rose Bowl Hotel in Omaha. The National Restaurant Association had a contest that year for the best hotel and restaurant sandwich. Snyder’s entry of a recipe for a Reuben sandwich won the contest.
Wherever it comes from, this meal-sized sandwich is relatively easy to make at home. Just butter one side of a slice of rye bread, then put it in a hot pan or grill. On top of the bread place several slices of corned beef. On top of the beef put some drained sauerkraut. Over the sauerkraut, pour some Russian dressing. Top it all off with a slice of Swiss cheese. Butter one side of another slice of rye bread, place it on top of the sandwich, butter side facing out. Press the sandwich together, and continue to grill and press, flipping occasionally, until the cheese had melted and the bread is golden and crispy on the outside.
There are many restaurants in this city that offer a Reuben sandwich. One place close to our university is Ess-a-bagel on Third Avenue near 51st Street. The Brooklyn Diner on 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue also offers a Reuben. And there is the famous Katz’s Deli, on Houston Street near First Street. Of course, many diners have Reubens on their menu. While not the healthiest choice for a meal, it is savory, satisfying, and delicious.