Many folks are familiar with the Saturday BBQ that happens out front of our Cambridge shop from early spring through mid-fall. When BBQ season ends, it is a sad day in the shop. We are somewhat mollified, however, by the onset of Reuben season. Instead of BBQ, each Saturday, trays of Reubens are prepared for toasting on the panini grill.
One recent Saturday, staffers were swapping bits of Reuben lore gleaned via word of mouth. Because our collective knowledge consisted primarily of hearsay, we decided to take things a step further, do a little research and get the definitive story behind this iconic sandwich.
Turns out, there is no definitive story. According to “The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches” by Susan Russo and Matt Armendariz, the Reuben has several Genesis stories:
“The first credits Arthur Reuben (1883-1970), founder of Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York. The story goes that one evening in 1914 one of his customers, an actress named Anna Selos, asked for something hearty to eat. Reuben whipped up a hefty sandwich made with Virginia ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and his special Russian dressing, christening his concoction the ‘Reuben Special.’ The second theory holds that Reuben Kulakofsky, a wholesale grocer from Nebraska created the sandwich one night during a card game. Charles Schimmel, one of the players, was so smitten that he dubbed it ‘the Reuben’ and put it on the menu at his hotel’s restaurant, where it quickly gained fame. The third version claims the inventor was Fern Snider, grand-prize winner of a 1956 national sandwich idea contest.”
In doing a bit of online research, we came across this interesting rundown of the Reuben debate. According to the recap by Jim Rader, it seems correct to credit Fern (a waitress at the Blackstone, Charles Schimmel’s hotel) with one of the earliest official codifications of the sandwich. However, it also seems to be quite well-established that the sandwich pre-dated the 1950s, making Fern a contributor to the Reuben’s history but not its inventor. Rader argues in his post that the Reuben Kulakofsky story seems to hang together marginally more than the Arthur Reuben story. However, as he points out, the discovery of an antique menu may eventually help to resolve the dispute conclusively.
The origin of the sandwich aside, one thing that does seem to be agreed upon are its defining characteristics. In order to be called a Reuben, mandatory components of the sandwich are: corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, all on rye bread. Variations do exist and we were interested to learn that a Reuben containing turkey instead of corned beef is sometimes called a “Georgia Reuben.” There is also a sandwich called “The Rachel” which involves substituting pastrami for the corned beef and coleslaw for the sauerkraut. Here at the shop, Julie, our charcutière, makes both pastrami and corned beef and so we occasionally sub in pastrami but have yet to try the coleslaw variation – maybe we should call ours the “Rachel + Reuben.” What would you think of us branching out to making a few “Rachels?” Tyler who often preps the Reubens on Saturdays says he makes a mean slaw…
Update: Tyler ended up making some “Rachels” – to see the pics, click here!