One of my favourite scenes in Robert Redford’s fantastic film Quiz Show takes place over lunch. Ralph Fiennes’ character, Professor Charles Van Doren, has taken Rob Morrow’s character, Dick Goodwin, to the Harvard Club for a bite. The special that day is a Reuben, about which Goodwin decides to “educate” Van Doren. He tells Van Doren that the “Reuben sandwich is the only entirely invented sandwich”, having been invented only “two years prior by a man named Reuben Kay at a poker game in Nebraska”. Then, referring to the obvious WASPishness of the club’s clientele and the underlying Jewish origins of the Reuben, Goodwin remarks, “Unfortunately they have the sandwich here, but, uh, they don’t seem to have any Reubens.”
For the two of you out there that don’t know what a Reuben is, it is a sandwich made with toasted Russian Rye, corned beef or pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. When made well it can be sublime. The best I have ever had — which is pretty darned surprising after having lived in New York City, home of the Reuben, for 14 years — was just recently, over my Christmas break in Columbia, South Carolina, at a small cafe called Ela’s European Market & Deli. Run by Jimmy and Ela, who have Cuban and Polish roots respectively, this tiny hole in the wall made such amazing sandwiches that S and I insisted on visiting it three times in one week. Jimmy’s Reuben was pretty amazing. Buttery, crisp, thin slices of Rye. Delicious layers of homemade corned beef; not piled so high you can’t fit the sandwich in your mouth (a pet peeve of mine with several famous NYC delis). Homemade sauerkraut and homemade Russian dressing. All the elements were perfectly proportioned so that every bite was a pleasure.
Quiz Show came out in 1994 and for a good many years I took Robert Redford and his scriptwriter’s words to be fact. After all the movie itself was based on a true story and if you’re going to throw in some sandwich trivia, there’s no reason for us to doubt that the writer has done his research. But, in fact, he didn’t. (Some, though, I have read think that the facts were off on purpose — trying to show that Dick Goodwin wasn’t as smart as he pretended to be. I don’t think the writer — no offense — was that clever.) He did get some facts correct, but he also left out some pretty important items.
According to some, the Reuben was invented at a poker game in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. But the man responsible for creating the sandwich was a Reuben Kulakofsky, a local grocer. The game itself was played at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Omaha. The owner of the hotel at the time, Charles Schimmel, supposedly liked the sandwich so much that he then put it on the hotel’s restaurant’s menu and named it after its creator. Then in 1956, Fern Snyder, who formerly waited tables at the Blackstone, entered the Reuben in a national sandwich competition. And won.
Now, I said, “according to some”, because there is an alternative origin for the Reuben, popularized by, among others, famed food journo Craig Claiborne. According to this history of the sandwich, the Reuben was invented by one Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant who opened his first restaurant in New York City in the early 1900s. According to Arnold Reuben’s family and supporters, the Reuben was created in 1914 for one of Charlie Chaplin’s leading ladies. Here’s a quotation from Arnold Reuben’s daughter, Patricia Taylor, that ran in a 1976 New York Times column written by Claiborne:
“I would like to share with you the story of the first Reuben’s Special and what went into it. The year was 1914. Late one evening a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin’s came into the restaurant and said, ‘Reuben, make me a sandwich, make it a combination. I’m so hungry I could eat a brick.’ He took a loaf of rye bread, cut two slices on the bias and stacked one piece with sliced baked Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, sliced imported Swiss cheese, topped it off with cole slaw and lots of Reuben’s special Russian dressing and the second slice of bread…. He served it to the lady who said, ‘Gee, Reuben, this is the best sandwich I ever ate. You ought to call it an Annette Seelos Special.’ To which he replied, ‘Like hell I will. I’ll call it a Reuben’s Special.'”
Personally, I don’t quite know which story to believe. All I know is that the sandwich, when made well, is fantastic. And ever since returning to Singapore from the States, S and I have been happily whipping up our own Ruebens. We can get good quality corned beef from Huber’s Butchery. They also sell nice, freshly baked Rye bread, sliced Gruyere, and a pretty good prepacked sauerkraut (open, drain, heat up and enjoy). For the dressing though, we make our own. We’ve found an excellent recipe for Russian dressing in Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. It asks for you to make your own mayo, which is much easier than most people think. I like that the sauce is spiked with hard-boiled egg and cornichons. It’s really delicious and works well not just in Reubens but on salads or as a dipping sauce for prawn cocktail.
Once you have all the ingredients, assembly is easy. Butter one side of each slice of Rye. On the non-buttered slice of one, spread the dressing. Then pile on the corned beef, some sauerkraut and then some cheese. Cover, non-buttered side down, and then pop the sandwhich into a panini press or fry the way you’d cook a grilled cheese sandwich.
2 extra-large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1.5 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons warm water
In the bowl of an electric mixer or in a medium-sized stainless steel bowl, whisk the egg yolks and salt by hand. Slowly drizzle in the oil, drop by drop, whisking constantly. As the mixture begins to thicken, add a teaspoon of the lemon juice and a teaspoon of water. Once you have added half the oil, place the bowl in the mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and mix on medium speed, or continue to whisk by hand. Pour the oil in a slow, steady stream, scraping down the sides as neccessary. As the mixture thickens, add a little more of the lemon juice and water, whisking until the remaining oil is completely incorporated and the sauce is thickened.
1 extra-large egg, hard-boiled and chopped into tiny pieces
1 cup of the homemade mayo (above)
3 tablespoons ketchup
1 drop Tabasco
1/8 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few drops of lemon juice, to taste
2 teaspoons finely chopped red onion
2 teaspoons finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
3 cornichons or gherkins, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
In a large bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, chopped egg, onion, parsley, cornichons, and salt. Adjust the seasonings to taste.