The Reuben – A Sandwich Story

Ok we’re gonna go ahead and kick this history of the sandwich thing off with what I consider, probably, the most controversial of sandwich stories.

It’s not the only sandwich we’re gonna learn about that has a disagreement over who created the original. However, I do feel like this one has the most disagreements of who, where and when a sandwich was created.

So, let’s just go ahead and get down to it…

The Ruben… Corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing or 1000 island dressing, rye bread, done.

Now where did this sandwich come from?

Well the first claim of ownership of the sandwich comes out of Omaha, Nebraska. Yes, yes, you did read that right, Omaha, Nebraska. Not only is it claimed to originate out of Omaha, Nebraska, but it does not come from a restaurant, it comes from a hotel, the Blackstone Hotel, to be specific.

In this story, the Reuben takes its name from a guest, who hosted a poker tournament in the hotel, Reuben Kulakofsky. Ruben, a local grocer, hosted these popular poker games from 1920 to around 1935. Ruben asked the hotel owner Charles Schimmel to please provide a sandwich made of corned beef and sauerkraut for the weekly poker game.

Charles Schemmel’s son, who worked in the kitchen at the Blackstone hotel, was responsible for preparing the first ever Ruben. He chose to add the  Swiss cheese and thousand Island dressing and served it on rye bread. It became such a hit at the poker games that Charles decided to put it on his lunch menu.

Well, once Charles put the sandwich on Blackstone‘s lunch menu it was pretty much history from there. The sandwich quickly gained local popularity and it’s fame grew even more when a former employee of the Blackstone hotel won a national sandwich idea contest with the recipe.

Before I get into telling you about the other guys who claim to have invented the Ruben, just know the people of Omaha are so convinced that Omaha is the birthplace of the Ruben, that they have proclaimed March 14 to be Reuben sandwich day in Omaha, Nebraska.

Now let’s  head north just a little bit for a much more traditional sandwich origin story, the other guys if you will, Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York City, New York.

In New York, they will tell you straight up, the sandwich gets its name after the delicatessen’s German-Jewish owner, Arnold Reuben. Side note, Rubens delicatessen served the citizens of New York City and it’s visitors for almost 100 years, from 1908 until It finally closed its doors in December of 2001. That’s a amazing run.

Anyway back to the story. So, the reason the story around Ruben’s delicatessen feels a looser is because there’s also a discrepancy between Exactly who at the delicatessen created the sandwich and when the sandwich was created.

So, we got three different stories, three different time frames, all out of the same little deli in New York City.

Version one, very simply, in an interview with the New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne, Clairborne states Arnold Ruben created the “Ruben special” around 1914.

Version two, again very simply, gives the credit to Alfred Scheuing, a chef at Rubens, created the sandwich for Ruben’s son, Arnold Jr, sometime in the 1930s.

Version three, still gives the credit of the sandwiches creation to Rubens Delicatessen, but does not give credit to any specific person that worked at the deli, nor does it give a specific time reference. The Reuben sandwich is mentioned in Bernard Sobel’s 1953 book,  Broadway heartbeat: memoirs of a press agent. In this book Bernard claims the sandwich was a creation for Marjorie Rambeau. The Broadway actress visited Rubens deli one night and they were extremely low on product and the sandwich was the end result.

Now, for the argument, where we try to decide, who really is the inventor of the Ruben?

Well here’s the way I see it we got the facts and then we got stories.

The facts…

The oldest documented reference of a Reuben sandwich belongs to a 1930’s menu from the Blackhawk Blackstone hotel.

The oldest documented reference staking claim of ownership for Ruben’s deli, would be the statement about Marjorie Rambo in Brian Sobel’s 1953 novel. It wasn’t until after the this novel in 1953 that the other variations of earlier claims for the Reuben came about.

For me, I like the guy who’s got one story and he’s sticking to it, more than I like the guy that’s got three stories. I can’t say one ‘ssandwich is better than the other’s,  I’ve never tried them, although I have had plenty of Rubens, but if you ask me I’ll tell you the Ruben comes from Omaha, Nebraska.


Related: John Montagu and the Legend of the Sandwich.