The Club

My first exposure to a club sandwich was at the Rexall drug store next to the supermarket, where I worked after school and weekends. One Saturday the lunch counter waitress (yes, back then drug stores had lunch counters), a young hottie with whom I was totally infatuated suggested I buy the “daily special” to help her win the weekly sales contest. That, my friends, was the day I enjoyed my first Turkey Club Sandwich–four wedges of triple-decker sandwich, pinned together with fancy frilled toothpicks, and neatly arranged in a circle on my plate with potato chips piled high in the middle.

I’m not sure what, at the time, gave me the most pleasure: knowing my purchase scored points for me with the cute waitress, or the deliciousness of my first club sandwich. I like to think it was the sandwich because it is still one of my all-time favorites. But as much as I enjoyed eating them, my distain for making club sandwiches is equally strong. In fact it’s this love/hate relationship that has, in over thirty years as a professional chef, prevented me from adding this classic to any of my menus.

One of my first culinary assignments was “pantry chef” (formally called garde manger), the position responsible for salads and cold sandwiches. It was there that I learned to loath everything about making club sandwiches–spreading mayo edge-to-edge on three pieces of freshly toasted bread, slicing the turkey, slicing the tomatoes, making sure the iceberg lettuce was dry but crisp, and of course the bacon. OMG, the bacon! It had to be crisp, but not too crisp or customers complained, and my head chef at the time hated complaints. But I believe the worst part was assembling the sandwich. Not only was it the most time consuming sandwich on the menu (especially when there were ten or twelve other orders at the same time), but if not properly stacked, cutting it into four neat, equally sized quarters was all but impossible and led to ugly plate presentations. And ugly plate presentations brought–you guessed it–customer complaints! So after my fourth month as pantry chef, I guess the chef got tired of hearing complaints and told me to “pack my knives and go.”

“Too few people understand a really good sandwich.” – James Beard

As with many of our foods, there are generally several versions of who, how, and where the dish was created, and the club sandwich is no exception. According to one legend, the sandwich was created in 1894 at the famous Saratoga Club House, a gentlemen’s club in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York. It should be pointed out that the original version of the club sandwich consisted of two slices of buttered white toast, thin slices of chicken, bacon, tomato slices, leaves of iceberg lettuce, and mayonnaise. That’s right, it was not the triple-decker, turkey sandwich we think of today when someone mentions a club sandwich. Those versions came a few years later.

Another popular story about the origin of the club sandwich first appeared in the 1916 book Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes, by Marion H. Neil. It goes like this: One night a man arrived home very late after an evening of gambling at his club. Being very hungry, but with servants gone and his family tucked in for the night, he decided to prepare something himself. In checking the pantry and ice box he found some bread, butter, and mayonnaise. He also found a few strips of cold broiled bacon, some slices of leftover chicken, and a tomato. So he toasted the bread, added butter, mayonnaise, the bacon, chicken, a slice or two of tomato, topped it with another slice of buttered toast, ate his snack and went to bed. The next evening, he told friends at the club about his new sandwich, they in turn had the club’s cook prepare one for them. They enjoyed it so much it was added to the menu as the Club Sandwich.

The earliest published recipe I can find for “A Club Sandwich” appeared in 1903, on page 224 of the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book originally compiled by the Good Housekeeping staff.

A Club Sandwich
Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly and butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over on half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a generous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious ‘whole meal’ sandwich with the remaining piece of toast. –A. W.

The initials A. W. at the end of the recipe suggests it was submitted to the magazine by one of their readers and helps explain the confusion it imparts to those who try to follow its origin. Still, it demonstrates accurately the components of the sandwich.

At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the club sandwich gained world-wide popularity with no less than four restaurants including it on their menus–Mrs. McCready’s Restaurant, American Inn, The Old Parliament House, and the Japanese Restaurant within Fair Japan.

While the classic triple-decker club sandwich still maintains a strong foothold within the world of sandwiches, it’s not without its distracters. Today, there are vegetarian clubs, California clubs with avocado, fish clubs with salmon or tuna, roast beef clubs, and even breakfast clubs with eggs. It seems though any sandwich that incorporates bacon qualifies as a club sandwich, even a PB&J.

As a culinarian, I’m totally into naming my sandwiches and other fare names that I feel will set them apart from similar dishes. But for me personally, a club sandwich is three slices of toasted white bread, lots of mayo, thinly sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon, iceberg lettuce leaves, and tomato slices, neatly stacked and cut into four equal pieces skewered with a frilly toothpick. Those other so called clubs are simply sandwiches with added bacon.

That’s the beauty of living in this great country of ours–you are free to make your sandwich any way you like it, and you can even call it a club if that’s what your into.

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The Reuben: New York or Omaha Born?

I’m not exactly sure when I had my first Reuben sandwich, although I believe it was at the lunch counter of a Skillern’s Drug Store when I was about 17 years old. What I do know is that it was love at first bite–the nuttiness of toasted rye, the sweet and sour sauerkraut mixed with thousand island dressing, the thinly sliced tender corned beef, the creaminess of melted Swiss cheese. It came with a large dill pickle spear and potato chips. What, I ask, is there not to like?

The Reuben’s origin, like that of so many of our great foods, has been distorted over time with various claims and counter claims leaving us with only legends and lore as to its real creator.

One such story, for which there are several variations, is that the sandwich was created in 1914 by Arnold Reuben, the owner of New York City’s famed Reuben’s Delicatessen. One major flaw in this version is that his original “Reuben Special” was said to be a cold sandwich made with roast beef, cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing on sourdough. What happened to sauerkraut, corned beef, and grilling the sandwich? Another story says the sandwich was created in the 1930s for Reuben’s son Arnold Jr. by Alfred Scheuing, one of the cooks at the deli, in order to provide a break in Juniors steady hamburger diet brought on by the working such long hours in his father’s restaurant. But there are many distracters of this version.

It’s also rumored to have been prepared for the popular Broadway actress, Annette Seelos (or was it actress Marjorie Rambeau, as some say?) who was shooting a film with Charlie Chaplin. Others say there was no actress working with Chaplin at the time.

The earliest printed reference to the Reuben Special is thought to have appeared in a 1926 issue of New York’s Theatre Magazine. And while some proponents of the New York story offer this fact as proof that the above story of origin is true, it in itself does not provide conclusive evidence as to its veracity.

Perhaps the most plausible story of the Reuben’s origin, at least in my mind, takes place in Omaha, Nebraska, around 1925. It seems that a group of businessmen who called themselves the Committee enjoyed a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Hotel. Out of each pot the players would put aside a few cents for what they called a “midnight lunch” ordered from the hotel’s room service. One particular night, Reuben Kulakofsky, a regular player and the owner of the area’s largest grocery store, asked that the kitchen make him a sandwich of corned beef and sauerkraut. In response, Bernard Schimmel, a Switzerland trained chef and the Blackstone owner’s son, drained the sauerkraut and mixed it with Thousand Island dressing, layered the mixture with corned beef and Swiss cheese on dark rye bread and grilled it. The sandwich was such a hit with Kulakofsky and his fellow players that Schimmel’s father immediately placed the “Rueben” on the Blackstone’s menu, in honor of the man who suggested it.

An extension to the Omaha story is that in 1956, Fern Snider, a waitress at the Blackstone entered the Reuben sandwich recipe in the National Sandwich Idea Contest and won. According to an article in the September 1956 issue of American Restaurant Magazine: “The Reuben, 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 which more than 600 different sandwich items are entered from all parts of the country and Hawaii.” And while there are accounts of folks all over the country enjoying the Rueben prior to this contest, it would seem that Fern’s entry brought it national attention, pushing its popularity to that of one of America’s top sandwiches.

So as you can see, there are numerous thoughts and debates on the origin of the Reuben sandwich. There is also a variety of ideas on how this classic sandwich should be prepared:

  • Should it be made with Thousand Island or Russian dressing?
  • Should the dressing be mixed with drained sauerkraut before putting it on the bread, or simple slathered on each slice of bread?
  • Should one add caraway seeds to the sauerkraut?
  • Should one use Russian rye, deli rye, marble rye, or pumpernickel?

As for me, I like my sauerkraut completely drained of its brine and mixed with a good quality Thousand Island dressing. But I also want a bit more dressing spread on both slices of a great artesian marble rye. Add a nice slice of real imported Swiss cheese, a pile of thinly sliced cooked corned beef, and another slice of cheese. Grill this to a golden brown, and you have my kind of Reuben.

Did you know that Reuben has a sister by the name of Rachel? It’s true! The Rachael is made the same as a Reuben except with pastrami for the corned beef (some people use turkey), and coleslaw rather than sauerkraut. Try them both. You’ll be glad you did.

Make Em: Classic Reuben Sandwich; Classic Rachel Sandwich