Not too many sandwiches are worthy of a name beyond their own ingredients. If they’re really good, they’re lucky to acquire an acronym à la PB&J or the BLT. But somehow the Reuben outdid them all and garnered a menu listing that has no mention of what’s actually on it. Somehow corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing melted on rye has become a deli staple—one so iconic that it got a name of its own.
But who actually invented the Reuben? Was it someone named Reuben? Well, maybe. But who? History is a crazy thing, and like most common recipes that become household names, it can be hard to track down the origins of something so basic. There are a few conflicting theories as to who actually created this beloved sandwich.
One of the oldest reports traces the Reuben back to 1920s Nebraska. Supposedly, Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian-born grocer living in Omaha, with the input of his poker-playing friends, came up with the sandwich to serve as a late-night snack during their weekly games. The games took place at the Blackstone Hotel between 1920 and 1935, and it was at some point in between that the hotel manager, Charles Schimmel, began serving the sandwich on the hotel’s lunch menu. Naturally, he named it after his friend and its creator. Its renown grew when a former hotel employee entered the recipe in a national contest in 1956, which the Reuben went on to win. While these midwestern origins have been challenged, Omaha proudly takes ownership of this culinary creation. The city even declared March 14 as National Reuben Day.
New York City, however, takes issue with this claim. Supposedly, Arnold Reuben, the German owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen, came up with the “Reuben Special” in 1914. Whether or not this assertion is true, New York is already home to so many iconic foods. We have pizza, cheesecake, and halal carts on every corner. We don’t really need to call dibs on the invention of a sandwich. So let’s throw a bone to Nebraska on this one.
Instead of debating historical details, let’s try actually making (and eating) one for ourselves. You can get our recipe for the classic Reuben sandwich, in which we recommend replacing swiss cheese with gruyere for a stronger, nuttier flavor. If you’re looking for other alternative variations, you can also try making Kielbasa Reubens; the Polish sausage adds a level of smokiness that complements the sauerkraut especially well. And for those who prefer tater tots, try these Reuben Potato Skins. There really is no wrong way to make a classic.
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