The Reuben Sandwich
Jim Rader, Merriam-Webster Inc.
The deficient documentation of food terms is a serious issue if you want to go beyond folklore and get at some real history. But I know the evidence is out there. I got an object lesson back in 1989 when I got in a tussle with an Omaha newspaper columnist over the origin of "Reuben sandwich". The tussle began when R.G. Cortelyou, an Omaha resident, sent me the July 24, 1989, column by Robert McMorris in the "Omaha World-Herald". McMorris had read the etymology of "Reuben sandwich" in the "Random House College Dictionary", which read "after Arnold Reuben (1883-1970), U.S. restaurateur who first created it." Random House, it turned out, had trod on a local legend (not by my foot--the etymology was written before my tenure at Random House).
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".
In a reply to Mr. Cortelyou I questioned the existence of Reuben Kulakofsky outside of Omaha folklore and challenged him to come up with evidence documenting an Omaha origin for the Reuben sandwich. Cortelyou--not very ethically to my mind--sent my letter without my permission or knowledge to McMorris, who pilloried me in his column for Aug. 23 ("Amazing. The man admittedly knows nothing about the Reuben, but he has doubts about Reuben Kulakofsky, somehow equating him with folklore figures like Paul Bunyan. One wonders how Rader feels about the Earl of Sandwich.") To my delight, though, he challenged his readers to come up with evidence for the sandwich ("Any of you out there have older Blackstone menus that document the Reuben's existence?").
One of McMorris's readers produced a Depression-era menu--though datable only by its reference to "world confusion" and exaggerated pessimism," as a sort of apology for the sumptuous decor--from the Plush Horse, a newly opened restaurant in the Blackstone Hotel that offered under sandwich specialties a "Rueben" [sic] for 50 cents. Another reader produced a menu containing the sandwich from the coffee shop of the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, which was actually dated: October 9, 1937. McMorris stated in his column of Sept. 13 that he planned to send copies of this material to me. Unfortunately, he never came through, despite a couple of pleading letters on my part.
Mr. Cortelyou, who initially provoked the exchange, did some research on his own, however. He sent me a copy of a menu from the Plush Horse held in the library of the Douglas County Historical Society. The "Rueben" (same spelling as above) is now 60 cents. This menu too is undated but a note at the bottom states "All prices are our ceiling prices or below. By O.P.A. regulation, our ceilings are based on our highest prices from April 4 to 10, 1943." The Office of Price Administration, which regulated prices during World War II, ceased operations in 1946, so it is probably safe to date the menu from somewhere in the period 1943-46 (assuming prices were raised as soon as regulations were lifted). This is the earliest attestation of at least a variant of "Reuben (sandwich)" that I have in hand.
Another item Cortelyou sent me was a copy of an obituary for Reuben Kulakofsky that appeared in the "Omaha World-Herald". Kulakofsky, who had been co-owner of a wholesale grocery, the Central Market, died in Omaha on March 6, 1960, at the age of 86. The obituary says nothing about the Reuben sandwich.
In a letter sent directly to McMorris, I relented and said that Random House would change its etymology to reflect Reuben Kulakofsky's role as the probable originator of the sandwich. In retrospect, I think this was a hasty decision. At the time, I had not really examined Arnold Reuben's claim.
Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant, opened his first restaurant in New York at 802 Park Ave. ca. 1908 (sources differ on the exact year); he relocated to Broadway and 82nd St. several years later, to Broadway and 73rd St. (near the Ansonia Hotel) in 1916, and to 622 Madison Ave. in 1918. In 1935, the formal opening of Reuben's Restaurant at 6 East 58th St. was attended by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Reuben's Restaurant remained at this location until 1965 or 1966. The "N.Y. Times" columnist Marian Burros recalled the decor in a Jan. 11, 1986, column: "Italian marble, gold-leaf ceiling, lots of walnut paneling and dark red leather seats--to a small-town girl it was the quintessential New York restaurant."
Burros recalled the apple pancakes and cheesecake, but she says nothing about Reuben sandwiches. About 1964, Reuben sold his interest in the restaurant to Harry L. Gilman and retired to Palm Beach. He died Dec. 31, 1970, at the age of 87. His obituary in the "Times" (Jan. 1, 1971) contains most of the above information, but says nothing about Reuben sandwiches. The restaurant's offerings are described as follows: