Which type of protein is traditionally used on a Reuben sandwich?

And the answer: corned beef.    

Photo credit: Beefitswhatsfordinner.com

The ingredients of a traditional Reuben sandwich are corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, piled between two slices of Rye bread. While it's widely accepted that the sandwich originated in the United States, there are conflicting stories as to whether it was first created in New York City or in Omaha, Nebraska.

Few would guess that a delicious sandwich would be the subject of hotly contested debate; yet, in 2016 it was indeed the Reuben that captured the attention of food critics and Reuben-descendants alike. While it has become a distinctly American delicacy, there continues to be much debate as to its exact origins.

As one side of the story goes, Charles Schimmel opened a series of hotels in the Midwest in the early 20th century. In doing so, he trained each of his four sons in an aspect of the business. One of such sons was Bernard Schimmel, who studied in Switzerland as a chef before returning to Omaha to cook at one of his father's hotels. It was at the hotel that Bernard would often serve his father's poker games for what they called a "midnight lunch." One of the players, Reuben Kulakofsky (ahem, notice his first name), asked for a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. According to granddaughter Elizabeth Weil's telling of the story:

In the kitchen, my grandfather, who spent the previous year perfecting his sauces and ice-carving skills, drained the sauerkraut and mixed it with Thousand Island dressing. He layered that with homemade corned beef and Swiss cheese on dark rye bread and grilled it. His typewritten notes call for the sandwich to be served with a sliced kosher dill pickle, a rose radish and potato chips. The sandwich was a hit.

Or so the story goes. The contested side, spearheaded by food critic Andrew Smith, argues that the Reuben is a uniquely New Yorkian delicacy. Instead of a passed-down family story, Smith's evidence rests on a 1941 cookbook whose pages contain a recipe for a Reuben with “Rye Bread, Switzerland Cheese, Sliced Corn Beef, Sauerkraut, Dressing.” Its author? A New York resident.

While the debate has been intense, pressure to find the truth has led Weil to it: in 2016, the Nebraska Historical Society unearthed a 1937 menu offering a 50 cent Reuben "with chicken." While the food critic Smith isn't happy with the addition of chicken, apparently that's enough to settle the debate (for now).

To learn more about the debacle, check out Weil's 2016 response to Smith here.


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