Reuben sandwiches are widely served in American delicatessens and lunch rooms. They are usually made with rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing or Thousand Island dressing, and are either griddled, grilled, or fried and served hot. The corned beef is sometimes replaced with pastrami or thinly sliced ham; the sauerkraut is sometimes replaced with coleslaw; and sometimes the bread is toasted. In these, and similar cases, the sandwich is then frequently called a Rachel. Although generally served hot, it can also be served cold.
The Reuben sandwich is part of American food folklore and is often associated with Jewish food traditions even though all its variants combine meat with cheese and therefore are not kosher.
Conflicting stories exist about the origin of the sandwich. The two main competing ones—both involving immigrants with Jewish roots—are:
- The Reuben sandwich was named for Arnold Reuben, who, in the early part of the 20th century, owned the now-closed Reuben's delicatessen in New York. Reuben reportedly created the sandwich to honor Annette Seelos, an actress, in 1914.
- Alternatively, the sandwich was created by Reuben Kulakofsky, sometimes referred to as Kay, an Omaha, Nebraska, grocer, who made the sandwich during the course of a poker game. His sandwich then won a national contest about 30 years later.
In order to clarify the etymology of Reuben sandwich for the Random House College Dictionary, which cited New York City as its origin, Jim Rader thoroughly researched the two claims after a 1989 complaint by a Nebraskan reader but without arriving at a definite answer.
New York: Arnold Reuben
Arnold Reuben was the founder and owner of Reubens, from 1935 to the mid-60s a fashionable landmark restaurant in New York on East 58th Street near Fifth Avenue; it was famous for its sandwiches created for and named after celebrities. According to a 1938 interview, he created his first "star" sandwich—consisting of bread, "some meat and cheese" and "some spice and stuff"—to impress an actress named Anna Selos during World War I when his delicatessen was situated on Broadway: this was the first Reuben Special.
This assertion was then expanded by Reuben's daughter, Patricia R. Taylor, in a 1976 letter to the New York Times food columnist Craig Claiborne. According to her, the invention of the sandwich took place in 1914 (before the delicatessen had been moved to Broadway) and involved an actress named Annette Seelos (not Anna Selos), who was said to be playing in a recent Charlie Chaplin movie. In her account the sandwich was made of rye bread, "with sliced baked Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, sliced imported Swiss cheese," and topped "with coleslaw and lots of Reuben's special Russian dressing". James Beard, the noted American cook and cookbook author, also remembers Reuben sandwiches from his youth as being made with turkey as an ingredient—and as frequently being made on thick pumpernickel instead of rye bread.
According to Reuben's son, Arnold Jr., speaking in 1993 to the St. Petersburg Times, the sandwich was actually created much later, in the 1930s, by Alfred Scheuing, chef at the Reubens restaurant, who served it to him as a change from his usual hamburger. According to Arnold Jr., it was made with "Russian dark pumpernickel bread, which he had buttered and toasted", fresh corned beef, Swiss cheese, and fresh sauerkraut.
Omaha: Reuben Kulakofsky and/or Bernard Schimmel
In the 1920s, Charles Schimmel was the owner of the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Omaha, where poker games were regularly played in private rooms. As told in 1965 and 1968 by his son, Ed Schimmel, at one game one of the players, a local grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky, came up with the idea of combining rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut. Because of its success, the recipe was put on the menu of the hotel's restaurant as a "Reuben sandwich".
This version is supported by Louise Ware, who, in 1989, related that in 1922 she had once visited her uncle Harvey Newbranch during a poker game at the Blackstone and was served a sandwich made with "corned beef, sauerkraut, and so forth".
This origin is also corroborated by a menu from the Plush Horse in the Blackstone Hotel offering a "Rueben" (sic) sandwich around 1943-1946—and perhaps also one from the 1930s. Moreover, a "Reuben" described as "corned beef, Sauer Kraut (sic), Swiss cheese on Russian Rye" has been documented in 1956 for the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, and is claimed to have been introduced in 1937.
In 1956, well after its original appearance, whether in New York City or elsewhere, a Reuben sandwich won a national sandwich competition. It was entered by Fern Snider, a former waitress at the Blackstone.
An article by Elizabeth Weil in The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, June 9, 2013, corroborates this account. Her grandfather, Bernard Schimmel, she says, trained for two years as a cook in Switzerland, then returned to work at the Blackstone Hotel, which his father owned. According to Weil, it was Schimmel in the kitchen, not Kulakofsky in a hotel room, who created the sandwich, using ingredients that the poker player specified, as well as adding his own sauce and grilling it. There are numerous comments appended to this article, several from descendants of the Schimmels and Kulakofskys. One relative says that the original spelling of his ancestor's name was indeed "Rueben" and not "Reuben".
- Frequently, in secondary sources, mistakenly referred to as Arthur, for instance in the apparently authoritative The New Food Lover's Companion, Sharon Tyler Herbst, Barron's, Hauppauge, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-8120-1520-7, page 478
- James Beard's American Cookery, James Beard, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 70-165755, page 805
- "Lives: The Midnight Lunch Special: My grandfather invented the Reuben Sandwich. Right?", The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, June 9, 2013, page 62, at