The Hotly Contested Origin Of The Reuben Sandwich

It's not unusual for multiple entities to lay claim to the invention of a legendary recipe. There's the debated origin of the Boston Cream Pie and the state-versus-state face-off over who created the classic American ice cream sundae that made national headlines in 2006 (via Fodor's Travel). Some food-industry entrepreneurs — like KFC and Bush's Baked Beans — know a good thing when they find it and take extra measures to protect their secret recipes by patenting them (via CNBC). But unless the inventor is in recipe development or a food industry mogul-in-the-making, most recipes are the result of trial and error, attributed to unlikely pioneers who made the best of the ingredients they had on hand and ended up with a hit.

This brings us to the creation of the Reuben sandwich. According to Saveur, theories about when and where the first person stacked Swiss cheese, corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing between two slices of Russian rye bread, abound. However, two stories stand out. One traces the history of the classic Reuben to Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s. The other pins the genesis of the Reuben to a New York deli in 1914. The dates alone appear to give credence to the New York story, but it's complicated.

Where's the corned beef?

In 2016, a writer named Elizabeth Weil penned an article for The New York Times recounting her family's role in the creation of the Reuben sandwich. According to the story, Weil's grandfather, Bernard Schimmel, served the first Reuben during a card game at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Weil's great-grandfather, owned the hotel where he hosted a Sunday night poker game. When one of the players requested a corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich, Schimmel, who had studied at École Hôtelière in Lausanne, Switzerland, put his own spin on the snack, mixing Thousand Island dressing with the sauerkraut and added Swiss cheese before piling it high on dark rye bread and grilling it. 

The sandwich, served with a dill pickle, a rose radish, and potato chips, became a staple on the hotel menu. The snack-craving poker buddy's name? Reuben Kulakofsky. Ah ha, you say? Not so fast. Turns out Weil's article generated some heated discussion (via Saveur), including a response from a New York-based food historian who took issue with her family legend, insisting the Reuben was created in 1914 by New York deli owner Arnold Reuben who concocted a sandwich consisting of ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing for Annette Seelos, an early 20th-century actress who occasionally worked with Charlie Chaplin. Which sounds close, but where's the corned beef?

Everyone's a winner

According to a 2016 article in Saveur, the debate between Schimmel descendants and food historian/author, Andrew Smith, continued until Smith acknowledged the differences between the Omaha Reuben and the New York City Reuben. Still, the author remained steadfast, eventually citing a recipe in a 1941 cookbook, "Menu Making for Professionals in Quantity Cookery." The entry, listed as a Reuben sandwich made with rye bread, Switzerland cheese, sliced corned beef, sauerkraut, and dressing, prompted Smith to declare, "The Reuben sandwich is a New York invention; it's time to put the Nebraska origin myth to bed."

Smith, a self-described pedantic culinary historian, offered to reconsider his position if Weil could produce solid proof, like a pre-1941 original menu listing the Reuben, to confirm its Nebraska roots. It took a lot of sleuthing, calling on archivists, family members, and even subsequent owners of the Blackstone Hotel to sort through long-forgotten boxes of memorabilia. The effort paid off when researchers at the Douglas County Historical Society turned up a circa 1934 Blackstone's menu offering the Reuben for 40 cents in the hotel's main dining room, and the Nebraska State Historical Society found a hotel menu from 1937 listing the Reuben for 35 cents at the in-house coffee shop. Clearly, the findings for both sides are nuanced, but regardless of its origin, the classic Reuben consistently ranks among the most popular sandwiches in America (via YourGovAmerica).