The Histories of the Reuben

Is it possible that the one sandwich that people equate to New York City was actually developed at a poker table in Omaha, Nebraska?

There are several “discovery” stories involving the Reuben, most of them legendary, most of them false. The problem in discovering the truth is that there is often very little in the way of evidence to back most people’s claim. Oftentimes, the only evidence available are undated menus. So verifying any of the claims is simply not possible.

There are two basic stories out there, with variations and side stories that have evolved into urban legends. There’s the New York City stories and the Nebraska Stories. The New York Story is usually a variation of the story of Arnold Reuben, proprietor of Reuben’s Deli. One night, actress Annette Seelos came in, hungry and in need of something “different”. Mr. Reuben put together a sandwich that contained toasted and buttered slices of rye bread, added Virginia ham, roast turkey, Swiss cheese and cole slaw, spread on some Russian Dressing, and presented it to Ms. Seelos. Quick readers will note that this sandwich sounds less like a Reuben and more like a Rachel (A Rachel is a Reuben with Pastrami and Cole Slaw rather than corned beef and sauerkraut). However, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this sandwich evolved into what is now known as the Reuben.

The Omaha story goes as follows. Local grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, while playing poker with his pals in tha backroom of the Blackstone Hotel, discovered that there was no lettuce available for the sandwiches. In an experimental mood, Kulakofsky used some sauerkraut that was on hand, and voila! – found that it worked very well with corned beef and swiss cheese.

Poker pal Charles Schimmel, the Blackstone’s owner, agreed with Kulalofsky, so much that he put it on the hotel’s restaurant menu, naming it after his friend and poker partner.

Fast forward thirty years or so. The National Sauerkraut Packers Association hold a sandwich contest, looking for the best sandwich using sauerkraut as an ingredient. Fern Snider, a one-time waitress at the Blackstone, entered the Reuben in the competition and promptly won, thus cementing the popularity of the Reuben nation-wide.

Both stories are great legends, and may or may not be true. But if I had to pick one over the other, I’d say the Omaha story sounds more believable. For one, there are no “celebrities” involved, simply some guy looking to find a replacement for lettuce whilst playing cards. As the cliche goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

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