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

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PB&J: Every American Kid’s Favorite Sandwich

The peanut is thought to have originated in Brazil and Central America, making its way to Africa by means of Spanish explorers and traders. When African slaves were brought to United States, the peanut arrived with them. In fact, the name “goober,” as they are called in the southern states, comes directly from the African word “nguba.”

Peanuts were first grown commercially in the early 1800s in North Carolina and Virginia, but the first notable consumption didn’t occur until the outbreak of the Civil War where they were used as food by soldiers on both sides. By the last half of the century, peanuts were a popular snack sold by street vendors, at baseball games, and circuses.

Contrary to what some believe, it was not George Washington Carver that invented peanut butter. While Dr. Carver discovered more than three hundred uses for this popular legume, the precursor to peanut butter as we know it today got its beginning in 1884 when Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada was issued a patent for the finished product of his method of milling roasted peanuts.

At first, peanut butter was hand made by some physicians as an alternative high protein food for geriatric patients with bad or no teeth. In 1895, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of the Kellogg cereal fame) patented his own method of creating peanut butter using steamed nuts, which he served to patients of his Battle Creek Sanitarium. The next year, Joseph Lambert, an employee of Dr. Kellogg, began making and selling a hand-operated peanut grinder to housewives who wanted to make peanut butter for their own families. Three years later his wife, Almeeta, published The Complete Guide to Nut Cookery, America’s first nut cookbook.

Then in 1903, Dr. Ambrose Straub of St. Louis patented a peanut butter-making machine. Later that year, Bayle Food Products bought the commercial rights to Dr. Straub’s process and in 1904 introduced their new product to visitors of the St. Louis World Fair. Selling samples for one penny each, Bayle Foods sold out in just three days earning $705 and put them on the path to becoming Americas first peanut butter vendor. Soon peanut butter was available at grocers all across the country.

The first known reference to the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich was published in an article by Julia Davis Chandler in the Boston Cooking School of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics in 1901. At that time, peanut butter was considered a delicacy enjoyed by aristocrats in America’s finest tearooms and upscale affairs in some rather exotic ways–peanut butter and watercress; peanut butter and pimento; peanut butter spiced with paprika and Worcestershire sauce.

By 1914 there were a number of companies making peanut butter, including Krema Products Company in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest peanut butter company still in operation today.

With the continued commercialization of the peanut butter industry came a sweeter, creamier product at a price that made it affordable to just about everyone. This, along with the invention of sliced bread by the 1920s, provided children the ability to make peanut butter sandwiches themselves. Originally peanut butter sandwiches were extremely adventuresome, as evidenced by the following sampling of recipes from Florence A. Cowles’ 1928 book, Seven Hundred Sandwiches:

Peanut and Pimento Sandwich
Peanut and Celery Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Cabbage Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Orange Sandwich (orange juice and peel)
Peanut Butter amd Marshmallow Sandwich
Peanutpine Sandwich (peanut butter, honey, walnuts, lettuce, pineapple)
Peanut Butter and Ham Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Tomato Sandwich
Peanut Butter and Pickle Sandwich
Pimcel Sandwich (celery, pimento, salad dressing, salt, and paprika)
Peanut Butter and Ginger Sandwich
Egg and Peanut Butter Sandwich
Dixieland Sandwich (roasted peanuts, fried bacon, pimentos, and salad dressing)
Peanut and Lettuce Sandwich
Southern Sandwich (tomatoes, mayonnaise, and salted peanuts on whole wheat)
Peanut Butter and Olive Sandwich (with mayo on white or rye)

There were also several sandwiches made with peanut butter and fruits ranging from apples, raisins, and prunes to bananas and cherries. There were peanut butter sandwiches with honey and maple syrup and, of course, various jams.

Despite its popularity, early peanut butters had freshness problems. Since peanut oil has an extremely low melting point, peanut butter kept at room temperature would separate, oxidize and turn rancid. Also, salt added to the product to enhance flavor would separate and crystallize. Therefore, peanut butter, which was sold to grocers in tubs, had to be stirred frequently to prevent the problem.

During the 1920s, Joseph L. Rosefield, a food businessman and industry innovator, began experimenting with ways of preventing oil separation and spoilage. He found that replacing eighteen percent of the product’s natural oil with hydrogenated oil allowed for a thicker, more creamy peanut butter that didn’t separate. It also did not stick to the roof of the mouth as badly as previous products. By 1932, he introduced “Skippy” brand peanut butter, named after a children’s comic strip. Three years later, his company came out with the first wide-mouth peanut butter jar, which too became a standard with the industry.

During World War II, peanut butter and jelly were part of U.S. soldiers’ rations. On the homefront, food rationing was commonplace during the War with meats and dairy products scarce and expensive. Peanut butter on the other hand was a cheap, readily available source of protein, just as during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Not only has the salty-sweet flavor of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches become a mainstay of the American diet for the past sixty years, for many people, its preparation has become a sacred ritual–the kind of bread, jelly, or jam that is used (grape is the number one choice), even the way it is cut (40% diagonal, 31% horizontal). Twenty-five percent don’t cut their sandwich as all, and another one in four have to have the crust removed.

Any way you slice it, the average child in America will consume 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates high school making it America’s most popular children’s sandwich.

Find Em: Peanut Butter & Company, New York, New York; Peanut Butter Bar, Los Angeles, California; The PB&J Shop, Louisville, Kentucky

Make Em: The Elvis PB & J, Krispy Kreme Bacon Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich, Peanut Butter & Jelly Flautas