Who Really Invented the Reuben?
Matt Taylor Gross | Animation: Nissan Haque
We all need stories in order to live. A cliché, yes, but true for writers, and a few years ago I decided to tell my family’s best one: My grandfather invented the Reuben sandwich. To be honest, I’d been avoiding the inevitable throughout my young adult life, more focused on defining my future than examining my past. Plus, I had sauerkraut issues, having grown up in suburban New England in the 1970s, pre-fermentation boom. But just 500 words, not a big deal, no definitive claim. On the back page of the New York Times Magazine, I laid out the basics: My great-grandfather started a chain of hotels along the railroad southwest from Chicago. He trained each of his four sons in a hospitality skill, sending my grandfather to Ã‰cole HÃ´teliÃ¨re in Lausanne, Switzerland where he learned to cook. In the 1920s, my great-grandfather’s friends in Omaha, Nebraska, began gathering to play poker at the Blackstone Hotel. Inevitably the men grew hungry and called down to my grandfather, who oversaw the hotel’s kitchen, for snacks. For Reuben Kulakofsky, one of the players, my grandfather created a sandwich: corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, pressed hot on rye bread. Reuben loved it! Everyone loved it! The sandwich went on all the hotel menus. In 1956, a waitress entered the Reuben in the National Restaurant Association’s National Sandwich Idea Contest. It won! Now you can buy Reuben-flavored potato chips. God bless America!
As expected, upon publication, I did receive a few e-mails from the Kulakofsky clan, laying out their family’s claim. The Kulakofskys have long contended that my grandfather, whose name was Bernard Schimmel, just delivered a deli platter to the poker players and that Reuben made his sandwich himself. The movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, did include the question “Who invented the Reuben sandwich?” and the answer: “Reuben Kay.” (I know.) But this is a well-established controversy and basically an in-house fight. What’s more, the Reuben is pressed. Did the poker room include a panini maker? Make of that what you will.
Schimmel making his iconic sandwich at home.