Reuben, Reuben, I've Been Thinking

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 2002.


A Reuben at River City Cafe in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

When eating a Reuben sandwich last week, I thought back to the best one I ever had, one consumed in, strangely enough, a Holiday Inn in downtown Richmond, Virginia, in the early 1980's. I have been looking out for likely Reubens for decades in both the Midwest and the South. A lot of them just don't measure up. The one I ate last week at River City Cafe (see related article) in downtown Myrtle Beach was quite good, although I think the bread was too buttery/margarine-y on the outside. A touch of “grease” for the griddle or grill I understand, soaked I don't like. Also I like a big dill pickle served with a Reuben. River City doesn't. Nevertheless, the basic ingredients — the rye bread, the corned beef, the Swiss cheese, the sauerkraut, and the Thousand Island dressing — were fine. (I order the dressing on the side, so I can add the amount I like. I also enjoy mustard on my Reuben — earlier recipes for the sandwich do include Dijon mustard. Some versions also specify black Russian rye bread or pumpernickel; and, surprisingly, some recipe instructions leave off the grilling — hence, a cold Reuben.)

Supposedly the secret to the best and “original” Reuben (or one of the claimants to that title), is to marinate the sauerkraut in Russian dressing for 24 hours before assembling the sandwich. That, at least, is how Charles Schimmel, the innkeeper of the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska did it. However, the “creator” of the Reuben, Schimmel's friend Reuben Kolakofsky, first used ummarinated sauerkraut because the men had run out of lettuce for sandwiches during their weekly poker playing session. Wholesale grocer Kolakofsky substituted the kraut, and grilled the sandwich, it is said, to somewhat hide the pickled cabbage flavor, and to melt the cheese. The sandwich was invented between 1920 and 1935.

Charles Schimmel (or his son) eventually put Kolakofsky's sandwich on the menu at Schimmel's hotel, and in 1956 Fern Snider, a waitress there, entered the sandwich in the National Sandwich Idea Contest. The Reuben won first place, and achieved national popularity.

Another contender for the title of “Reuben inventor” is Arnold Reuben, the founder of Reuben's Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York City. Reuben is said to have created the sandwich using sourdough rye bread, ham, cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. The Manhatten restauranteur made his first Reuben's Special in 1914 for leading lady Annette Seelos, who was, at the time, shooting a film with Charlie Chaplin.

Variations on this story are that the sandwich was created in 1927 or 1928 by one of the cooks at Reuben's restaurant, or that William Hamerly, New York accountant, invented the sandwich in the 1950's and named it in honor of Arnold Reuben, because he admired Reuben's charity work.

Reuben, the sandwich, has a sister, Rachel, in which pastrami is substituted for the corned beef and coleslaw for the kraut. — What do you think of that?