So where did this delightful sandwich come from? How is it prepared and what constitutes the Reuben Sandwich?
From the whatscookingamerican.net website we learn that,
“A grilled sandwich made with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread. There are a couple of legends or stories involving the creation of the Reuben Sandwich. I can find no actual evidence to support either claim. You be the judge! Here is a link to one of many recipes for a Classic Reuben Sandwich
1914 – It is said that late one evening an actress came into the restaurant and said, Reuben took a loaf of rye bread created this Reuben sandwich. Arnold Reuben, Jr., the son of the restaurant’s founder, believes that the sandwich was first made in 1927 or 1928 by one of the chefs who though that he ate too many hamburgers, made him a “really good sandwich.”
Patricia B. Taylor, daughter of Arnold Reuben (1883-1970), the founder of Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, remembers that her father made the first Reuben Sandwich in 1914. She described the incident to Crag Claiborne of the New York Times in his book called Craig Claibornes – The New York Times Food Encyclopedia:
The year was 1914. Late one evening a leading lady of actor Charlie Chaplin came into the restaurant and said, ‘Reuben, 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 sliced Virginia ham, roast turkey, and imported Swiss cheese, topped 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.’
In 1938, Arnold Reuben gave an interview for the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, Reuben and his Restaurant, December 18,1938. Excerpts from the interview are as follows:
I’ll tell you about how I got the sandwich idea. I owned a delicatessen on Broadway and one day a dame walks in, one of the theatrical dames, and she’s down and out I suppose, and she asks me for something to eat. Her name was Anna Selos. Well, I’m feeling sort of good, so I figure I’ll clown around for the dame. That’s how it all came about. I’m clowning for the dame. Well, what do I do? I take a holy bread that I used to keep and grab up the knife and, you know, clowning like, I cut it right through on the bias. Then I take some roast beef, I don’t remember exactly what. But, anyway, I figure I’ll put anything on. So I take some meat and cheese and I slap it on, and I put on some spice and stuff and I make her up a sandwich; it was a foot high. Well the dame just eats it, that’s all. She must have been plenty hungry. And when she gets through she says, “Mr. Reuben, that’s the best sandwich I ever tasted in my life.” Well, the idea comes to me in a flash. I’ll call it the Anna Selos sandwich, after the dame. Then, one night, she brings some friends up, you know, stage people and a newspaper man, and this guy he goes right behind the counter and makes himself up a sandwich, and then he tells me why I don’t call the sandwich after celebrities? Like what happened with Anna Selos. Why don’t I call it the Anna Selos sandwich? Well, boys, in a flash, I get the idea. Anna Selos! I’ll call it a Reuben Special.
1925 – Another version is Reuben Kulakofsky (1873-1960), a wholesale grocer in Omaha, Nebraska and co-owner of Central Market in Omaha from 1900 to 1943, created the Reuben Sandwich. Kulakofsky belonged to a weekly poker group whose members apparently enjoyed fixing their own sandwiches every bit as much as they enjoyed playing poker. One of the players, Charles Schimmel, owner of the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, put the Reuben Sandwich on the hotel menu.
1950s – George Leonard Herter, is his book Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, Volume II, gives his account on who invented the Reuben Sandwich. Herter’s writings were known for their mixture of legend and history. NOTE: I have never been able to verify the below information in my research. You be the judge:
The Reuben Sandwich is unquestionably one of New York’s greatest contributions to the world of eating and is found in restaurants in all of the major cities of North America. The sandwich was invented by William Hamerly, a New York accountant and bachelor cook. He named it for Arnold Reuben, founder of Reuben’s New York Restaurant. Arnold Reuben has done a great deal of work for New York charities. He, in fact, received several awards for his charitable work. Hamberly named the sandwich for Reuben, not because he founded the famous Reuben Restaurant, but because he admired his charitable works. Like any really outstanding cooking recipe, the Reuben Sandwich spread over all of North America and even into Europe in a very short time.
1956 – Fern Snider, chef of the Rose Bowl Restaurant in Omaha, was named grand prize winner in the 1956 national sandwich idea contest sponsored by the National Restaurant Association. The Reuben Sandwich obtained almost immediate national fame. According to the September 1956, American Restaurant Magazine, in an article titled “National Sandwich Winners:”
THE RUEBEN, a hearty man-sized sandwich of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese on Russian rye bread, is the nation’s top hotel and restaurant sandwich in the opinion of judges of the National Sandwich Idea Contest in which more than 600 different sandwich items are entered from all parts of the country and Hawaii. The Rueben was submitted by Fern Snider, chef at the Rose Bowl Restaurant in Omaha, Nebr.”
And from http://www.rowlandweb.com, we read that “…Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant, opened his first restaurant in New York at 802 Park Ave. ca. 1908 (sources differ on the exact year); he relocated to Broadway and 82nd St. several years later, to Broadway and 73rd St. (near the Ansonia Hotel) in 1916, and to 622 Madison Ave. in 1918. In 1935, the formal opening of Reuben’s Restaurant at 6 East 58th St. was attended by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Reuben’s Restaurant remained at this location until 1965 or 1966. The “N.Y. Times” columnist Marian Burros recalled the decor in a Jan. 11, 1986, column: “Italian marble, gold-leaf ceiling, lots of walnut paneling and dark red leather seats–to a small-town girl it was the quintessential New York restaurant… from a letter from Patricia R. Taylor of Manhattan, the daughter of Arnold Reuben Sr. (and presumably brother of Arnold Jr.), part of which runs as follows:
I would like to share with you the story of the first Reuben’s Special and what went into it. The year was 1914. Late one evening a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin’s came into the restaurant and said, “Reuben, 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 sliced baked Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, sliced imported Swiss cheese, topped it off with cole slaw 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.”
The most interesting thing about this story is that the “Reuben’s Special” is not a Reuben sandwich, though it has certain features thereof: it includes meat, some form of cabbage, and cheese. During the Reuben sandwich debate with McMorris, one of his researchers phoned Reuben’s Restaurant in Manhattan and was told that the restaurant carried both a “Reuben’s Special”–described exactly as Ms. Taylor described it–and a Reuben, described as “corned beef, sauerkraut, and melted cheese” (McMorris “World-Herald” column of July 27, 1989).
This would seem to settle the matter in favor of the Nebraskans–the sandwich created in New York is connected to the Nebraskan sandwich by onomastic coincidence–were it not for a story told late in his life by Arnold Reuben Jr., who himself claimed credit for the sandwich’s origin. As related to the “St Petersburg Times” (Dec. 1, 1993),
The sandwich, he [Arnold Jr.] says, goes back to the 1930’s. The restaurant, which his father founded in 1915 [sic!], was open 24 hours a day, and the younger Reuben worked from noon until 3 or 4 in the morning. He didn’t take time to sit down to eat. He had too many customers.
So every day, Reuben asked the chef to make him a hamburger. One day, chef Alfred Scheuing said he was sick of seeing Reuben eating the hamburger.
The chef said, “I’ve made some nice, fresh corned beef.” He layered slices onto Russian dark pumpernickel bread, which he had buttered and toasted. Then Scheuing said, “Let’s see what we can do now to make it tastier,” adding Swiss cheese.
The chef also had a huge pot of fresh sauerkraut, which he made the sandwich’s finishing touch.
I suppose that if Reuben had told this story about his father, it would be family folklore. The fact that he makes himself a participant means that it is either truth or (charitably) very faulty memory. The only thing that could possibly validate it would be evidence from old Reuben’s Restaurant menus attesting to the antiquity of the corned beef-Swiss cheese-sauerkraut Reuben (as opposed to the Reuben Special).
So there you have some of the history of the infamous and what I would consider the traditional Reuben sandwich. Cheers!