Sunday, January 01, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Nebraska III - Mutual of Omaha's Wild Reuben (or "A post that New Yorkers may not like very much")

What better way to start off the New Year than with that hearty, All-American sandwich, the Reuben?  (Actually, if you're hungover it might not be the most ideal way to start off the New Year, but anyway...).  And it certainly is All-American: no less than two US cities in two different regions of the country claim it as their own.

Official Name: State of Nebraska
State Nicknames: The Cornhusker State
Admission to the US:  March 1, 1867 (#37)
Capital: Lincoln (2nd largest)
Other Important Cities: Omaha (largest), Bellevue (3rd largest), Grand Island (4th largest)
 Midwest, Great Plains; West North Central (US Census)
RAFT NationsBisonPinyon Nut
Bordered by: South Dakota (north), Iowa, Missouri (east), the Missouri River (northeast and east), Oklahoma (south), Colorado (southwest), Wyoming (northwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: channel catfish (fish), honeybee (insect - of course, the honey is what people eat, not the bee), white-tailed deer (mammal)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: corn, wheat and honey; foods of the Great Plains, including Native American foods (pemmican, wojapi, etc); foods from German, Czech and Russian immigrants, and foods from Midwestern and Southern settlers; the Reuben and runza sandwiches; beef (Omaha steaks)

Omaha has a bone to pick with New York City, and it goes the other way, I might add.  You see, each city claims to be the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich - that wondrous concoction of corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing between two buttered slices of rye bread, and all fried together.  Later on in this series I will be exploring New York State and all of its wonders for a few weeks (from the comfort of my own kitchen, that is).  Whether or not that is the reason for this post is beside the point: though I don't mean to get in between these debates usually, just the existence of this post shows which city I am siding with in this debate.

There are two origin myths for the mighty Reuben sandwich, and to be honest I'm not sure which is the more correct.  Perhaps they both hold some merit.  Jim Rader of Mirriam-Webster [date unknown] and Linda Stradley of What' [2004] compiles the two origin myths.

Certainly the older version comes from New York City.  Rewind back to 1914, when German-American  restaurateur Arnold Reuben, Jr. apparently made a sandwich for a tired actress late one night which he called "the Reuben's Special".  Based on various accounts from Mr. Reuben and his daughter, the restaurant began making it around 1927 or 1928.  As Reuben's daughter Patricia Taylor told the New York Times' Craig Claiborne,
...He took a loaf of rye bread, cut two slices on the bias and stacked one piece with sliced Virginia ham, roast turkey, and imported Swiss cheese, topped off with coleslaw and lots of Reuben's special Russian dressing and the second slice of bread. [Claiborne 1976, in Stradley 2004]
This is clearly the oldest recipe, but there's one thing wrong: it's not a Reuben, or at least what Americans think of as a Reuben.  That clearly lies with Lithuanian-born Reuben Kulakofsky, as Jim Raber writes:
According to Omaha lore, the combination of rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut had been dreamed up in 1925 to feed participants in a late-night poker game at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Omaha by a local grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky. Charles Schimmel, the hotel's owner, was so taken with the sandwich that he put it on the hotel restaurant menu, designated by its inventor's name. Fern Snider, a one-time waitress at the Blackstone, entered the Reuben in a national sandwich competetion in 1956; her entry won--hence one of the earliest pieces of documentation for the name of the sandwich, an OED cite from 1956 from the food services journal "Institutions".  [Raber, date unknown]
Raber, who has a thorough discussion of the contentious origin myths surrounding the Reuben sandwich, seems to suggest that it is Lincoln, Nebraska's Cornhusker Hotel, and neither Omaha nor New York City, that is the very first documentation of a sandwich called a Reuben that is, in fact, made of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut "on Russian rye bread".  This confirmation didn't come until 1956.

Claiborne, at least, seems to slant towards the Nebraskans.  And until I find out otherwise, so will I.  New York has so much else going for it anyway, why not let Omaha have the Reuben?  Or maybe Lincoln?

The Recipe: The Reuben Sandwich

The classic Reuben sandwich, whose recipe I more or less followed from the various descriptions of it online (plus my own memory of the many Reubens I have eaten) incorporates the following ingredients:

* corned beef (about $8 per lb at Wegman's, I bought half a pound and used most of that on this sandwich.  It still wasn't enough but I didn't complain).
* Swiss cheese (much cheaper at about $4 per lb.  Again, half a pound.  I used a few slices)
* sauerkraut (had a can in the pantry)
* Thousand Island dressing (geez, at $3.50 a bottle of Thousand Island dressing is pricey these days)
* rye bread (a good loaf will be about $3.50 to $4, more if you go to an actual delicatessen)
* butter (had it, though I wish I had used some of that fancier European butter from Ireland or Iceland - the kind that's meant to actually taste good - instead of the generic Giant brand)

Start with the corned beef, which you will place on one slice of the rye bread.

Top the meat with some of the sauerkraut.

And then top that with the Swiss cheese.

Put a healthy dollop of Thousand Island dressing on both sides.

It is probably better to soften the butter and spread it on before you assemble your sandwich.  Note to self: next time, soften the butter and spread it on before you assemble your sandwich.

Place the assembled sandwich in a heated pan (I like my grooved cast iron griddle), and fry on each side for a few minutes.  I kept turning it about every minute, until the cheese melted).

Cheese is melted!

Although my Reuben wasn't stacked nearly as much as your typical diner Reuben, the same burst of juicy goodness from the meat, the sauerkraut and the buttery bread all made this a sandwich I have made again since I first made this sandwich.  Not much more to say: this is perfection, whoever the hell made the first one.  Now don't you want one, too?

- - - - -

We are on our way past the Continental Divide now, heading from the Great Plains to the Great Basin.  It's the land of pine cones, mega-casinos with mega-buffets, wedding chapels, lounge acts, and fictitious zany cops who don't know what the hell they're doing.  It's Nevada time!


Abourezk, Kevin.  "Ponca Tribe to honor Milford for historical gesture".  Lincoln Journal Star.  Posted May 29, 2011.

American Indian Health and Diet Project.  "Traditional Indigenous Recipes: Wojapi".  American Indian Health and Diet Project, date unknown.  Copyright 2011, American Indian Health and Diet Project

Carson, Dale. New Native American Cooking.  Random House: New York, 1996.

CzechMate Diary (Tanja, blogger).  "Czech christmas magic: Vanocka / Kouzlo Vanoc: Vanocka".  CzechMate Diary.  Posted December 11, 2008.

Hill, Cheryl Joy.  "Blueberry Wojapi". Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes.  Date posted unknown.  Copyright 2011 NativeTech.

Nebraska Folklife Network.  "Recipes: Traditional Foods of Nebraska Ethnic Groups".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2011, Nebraska Folklife Network

Nebraska Guide (Nebraska-Guide.Info).  "As American as Apple Pie".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2004-2011, Interatctive Internet Websites, Inc.

NebraskaStudies.Org.  "The Immigrant Experience: The Czechs Move to Nebraska".  The Homestead Act: Who Were The Settlers? From Nebraska Studies.Org, date unknown.

Rader, Jim.  "Brief History of the Reuben Sandwich". The Reuben Realm, date unknown.

Red Star Yeast.  "Vanocka".  Red Star Yeast, date unknown.  Copyright 2011, Red Star Yeast.

Stern, Jane & Michael (  "Runza"., date unknown.  Copyright 2011,

Stradley, Linda.  "Reuben Sandwich - History of Reuben Sandwich".  What's Cooking America (, 2004.

Weisman, Karen.  "Baking a Four-Strand Challah Bread Loaf"., date unknown.  Copyright 2011,

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Nebraska" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Nebraska".