Corned Beef's Finest Hour

by Mark R. Vogel

       Arnold Reuben (1883-1970), opened a deli in New York City in 1908.  After a few relocations it settled into its final home at Madison and 58th or 59th Street (depending on the source), where it stayed for the next three decades.  As the story goes, in 1914 an actress by the name of Annette Seelos, who was working on a Charlie Chaplin film at the time, stopped into Reuben’s.  Allegedly she stated:  “I’m so hungry I could eat a brick.”  Reuben took some rye bread and added Virginia ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing.  Seelos was so pleased with his concoction that she requested it be named after her.  Reuben, taking his due credit and rebuffing her narcissism stated:  “The hell I will.  I’ll call it a Reuben’s Special!” 

       The next scenario takes place somewhere between 1920 and 1935, or in the year 1955, again, depending on whom you ask.  Supposedly a grocer by the name of Reuben Kay created a sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye bread, during a weekly poker game in Omaha, Nebraska

         In yet another twist in the ontological saga of the Reuben, other Nebraskans claim the sandwich was invented by a grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky, in Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel in either 1922 or 1925 for the players of a poker game.  It was a big hit so the hotel owner placed it on the menu and named it a “Reuben” in Kulakofsky’s honor.

         And if that’s not confusing enough, a final yarn is that a waitress of the Blackstone Inn, whose employer’s father played poker with Reuben Kay, entered the sandwich in a sandwich contest and won.  Supposedly her boss, a trained chef, tweaked Kay’s recipe by adding Russian dressing, replacing the rye bread with pumpernickel, and then buttering and grilling the bread.

         Whatever its origins the Reuben is a classic sandwich and an American favorite.  The current recipe includes corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut (although some still use cole slaw), and Russian dressing on rye bread, with the option of buttering and toasting/grilling the bread. 

          Corned beef usually comes from the brisket.  The brisket is a cut taken from the breast section.  It is rather tough and requires long, slow cooking.  It is best when braised.  Corned beef is made by curing the meat in a seasoned brine.  Curing refers to various procedures primarily employed to preserve foods, but also to add flavor.  Foods can be cured with smoke, salt, or a brine.  A basic brine is a mixture of water and salt but customarily, as in corned beef, the mixture will also include seasonings to enhance flavor.  The term “corned” has nothing to do with corn (as in on the cob).  “Corn” is an English word for any small particle.  Hence, it is derived from the “corns” of salt used to preserve meats. 

      Russian dressing is so named because it originally contained caviar.  Putting real Russian caviar in salad dressing is like mixing a bottle of top-notch Bordeaux into a punch bowl.  Be that as it may, Russian dressing has more recipes than the Reuben has stories of its origin.  Russian dressing will always contain mayonnaise, ketchup or chili sauce, and grated onion and/or chives.  From there the sky’s the limit.  Other possible ingredients include sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, sour cream, horseradish, paprika, parsley, dill, etc.  Here’s my recipe for Russian dressing but feel free to augment it to your taste.


3 oz. mayonnaise

1 oz. ketchup

1 oz. minced onions or chives

1 teaspoon horseradish

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Half teaspoon paprika

Chopped parsley or dill to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

            OK, let’s make a Reuben.  Once again, like almost everything else in the culinary world, there are a number of possibilities.  First you must decide whether you want the bread toasted and/or the cheese melted.  If not, it’s pretty straightforward:  Simply pile whatever amount of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on your rye bread and dig in.  If you want just the bread toasted but nothing else heated, place it in a toaster, the oven, or on a grill.  The latter two options give you the choice of buttering it first.  Or, if you’d like the cheese melted, place the buttered bread, topped with the cheese into an oven and toast the bread and melt the cheese concurrently, then add the remaining ingredients.  If you want the entire sandwich heated take two slices of bread, build each half, and then place them into an oven.  Another option is to compile the entire sandwich first and place it on a griddle.  Press it down with a sandwich press or a heavy skillet and flip it when the first side is browned.  Or, the ultimate method would be to use a panini press.  A panini is basically a toasted sandwich.  A panini press is two grills connected by a hinge.  Place the sandwich on the bottom grill and close the upper grill on top of it.  This allows both sides to be grilled simultaneously.  Any way you slice it, you’ll have a great sandwich. 

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