In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine’s innovations issue, Elizabeth Weil offers the bold, impressive assertion that her grandfather invented the Reuben sandwich. It turns out Weil’s grandfather, Bernard Schimmel, studied at the École Hôtelière in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the behest of his father, who wanted him to learn how to be a chef at one of the family’s hotel chains. When he returned, he worked at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Neb., taking food requests during his father’s Sunday night poker game at the hotel:
Out of each pot, my great-grandfather and his card mates set aside a nickel or a dime to order what they called “a midnight lunch” from room service. One night one of the players, Reuben Kulakofsky, who owned a grocery store that has gone down in family lore as the Zabar’s of Omaha in the 1920s, asked for a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. In the kitchen, my grandfather, who spent the previous year perfecting his sauces and ice-carving skills, drained the sauerkraut and mixed it with Thousand Island dressing. He layered that with homemade corned beef and Swiss cheese on dark rye bread and grilled it. His typewritten notes call for the sandwich to be served with a sliced kosher dill pickle, a rose radish and potato chips. The sandwich was a hit.
Bernard’s father put the Reuben sandwich on the Blackstone Hotel’s coffee-shop menu, and then all the coffee-shop menus of all the hotels in the chain. Then in 1956, Fern Snider, a waitress from one of the hotels, entered the Reuben in the National Sandwich Idea Contest, and it won. My grandfather published a recipe for “the Schimmel Reuben Sandwich” in his otherwise fussy continental cookbook, the recipe sharing a page with his take on “Charcoal-Broiled Butterflied Leg of Lamb, Provençale.”
That story is great, though the claim to singular invention is, Weil admits, iffy. A wrench was thrown into the origin story with the 1994 film Quiz Show, in which the inventor of the Reuben is identified as Reuben Kay—close enough to Weil’s Reuben Kulakofsky but still disconcertingly different. No matter, we’d order the Bernard Schimmel any day.
Almost as revealing as the story, though, is the comment section:
From JonathanF in Dallas, TX:
As a kid growing up in there, I heard that the Rueben was invented in Omaha. My parents told me it was first served at the Rose Bowl bowling alley and Dad got into a pretty animated discussion with one of his buddies one time, who insisted it originated at the Blackstone Hotel.
From TS-B in Ohio:
I’m reminded of the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where the man claims his grandfather invented the Cobb Salad and takes it as a personal affront when anyone orders it with substitutions.
From Nero in NYC:
It is rather pathetic that so much prideful ink has been exhausted on a lousy and unhealthy sandwich that has kept many cardiologists busy and prosperous.
But the best comment by far comes from Dr. Ebbyguru in Gainesville, Florida:
I’m not related to anyone. Nobody in my family invented anything. The beauty of the Reuben is that you don’t have to be anybody to enjoy it.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.