December 31, 1970, is the date on which longtime New York restaurateur Arnold Reuben died, at the age of 87. Reuben is one of two men whose names have been put forward for the coveted title of inventor of the Reuben sandwich, and even if it turns out that it’s the other guy who deserves the crown, Arnold Reuben was a figure deserving of merit in his own right.
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Arnold Reuben was born in Germany in 1883, and immigrated to the United States with his family as a young child. By 1908, apparently, he was operating his own delicatessen in New York, at Park Ave. and 75th St.
Over the years, he changed venues several times, moving between the East and West sides of Manhattan. It was at the 57th and Madison location – in a private room at the back – that gambler Abe Attell is said to have talked racketeer Arnold Rothstein into paying off players for the Chicago White Sox to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
A few years before that, Reuben hosted an actress who requested a hearty sandwich, telling him she was “so hungry I could eat a brick.” As Reuben’s daughter, Patricia R. Taylor, wrote to New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne decades later, he concocted on the spot a sandwich with Virginia ham, sliced turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing.
“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.’”
Meat and dairy?
The problem with that story is that the “Reuben’s Special” doesn’t describe the sandwich universally identified as a “Reuben.” A very different version was apparently created by a Jewish grocer in Omaha named Reuben Kulafkofsky.
According to anecdotal evidence, the first time the dish in question was served was in 1925, when Kulafkofsky, a Jewish grocer in Omaha, Nebraska, assembled and grilled a sandwich comprised of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut between two slices of rye bread, and served it to his partners at a regular poker game at the city’s Blackstone Hotel.
So taken was the Blackstone’s owner with the sandwich that he began offering it in the hotel dining room. In about 1956, a waitress at the Blackstone entered “The Reuben,” as it was called, in a national sandwich competition – and it won.
That would seem to settle it, except that Kulakofsky, who died in 1960, never actually claimed to be the inventor of the Reuben. Nor, for that matter, did Arnold Reuben, although his restaurant in all its incarnations served both the Reuben’s Special and the Reuben. Also, the latter’s son, Arnold Reuben, Jr., who worked for years in his dad’s establishment, told the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, in 1993, that the corned beef-Swiss cheese-sauerkraut melt had been invented for him in the 1930s by a chef named Alfred Scheuing, who was tired of seeing his boss eat hamburgers.
All of these versions are considered by Merriam-Webster etymologist Jim Rader in an entertaining article on the subject that appears on the website “Reuben Realm” (yes, an entire site devoted to the Reuben sandwich). In the end, Rader feels compelled to go with Kulakofsky as the Creator, though he is uneasy with his conclusion. (For one thing, he quotes an obituary for Kulakofsky, who died in 1960, noting that his funeral service was held at “Beth El Synagogue,” leading Rader to muse, “Would this man have improvised a sandwich mixing meat and a dairy product?”)
In an article in The New York Times last year, contributing writer Elisabeth Weil, granddaughter of Bernard Schimmel, son of the then-owner of Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel, says that the lore in her family is that it was Bernard who made the first Reuben, after Reuben Kulakofsky, poker partner of Bernard’s father, Edward Schimmel, requested a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. Weil asks, rhetorically, if “the customer should be credited with the sandwich,” before answering her own question in the negative.
As for Arnold Reuben, whose eponymous restaurant was finally shut down by New York health authorities in 2001, even without the Reuben to his credit, he is also remembered for serving what was perhaps the first cheesecake made with cream cheese rather than cottage cheese, and also for his 12-inch pancakes, five of which, according to food writer Marian Burros, called for 30 eggs, 2.5 pounds of butter and 5 cups of sugar.
No wonder the health department pulled the plug on Reuben’s.