Nothing suggests an iconic order from a New York deli more than a Reuben sandwich. It’s no surprise that Max & Louie’s Reubens are among the diner’s most popular menu items. Its sibling sandwich, the Rachel sandwich, is almost as popular, and both have interesting histories.
Of course the origin of the Reuben sandwich is controversial. Given its iconic status at New York delis and diners, it’s not surprising that New York city proudly claims that the original Reuben sandwich was invented by Arnold Reuben in his landmark restaurant Reuben’s, a place known for naming its sandwiches after celebrities.
In 1938 Arnold Reuben claimed he created the first Reuben Special in 1914 to impress actress Anna Selos when she sauntered into his restaurant starving one day and requested a sandwich. According to Reuben:
“I’ll tell you about how I got the [Reuben] sandwich idea. I owned a delicatessen on Broadway and one day a dame walks in, one of the theatrical dames, and she’s down and out … and she asks me for something to eat. Her name was Anna Selos. Well, I’m feeling sort of good, so I figure I’ll clown around for the dame. That’s how it all came about … [W]hen she gets through she says, ‘Mr. Reuben, that’s the best sandwich I ever tasted in my life …’ Well, boys, in a flash, I get the idea … I’ll call it a Reuben Special.”
Reuben’s claim was amplified in 1976 when his daughter, Patricia R. Taylor, wrote a letter to the New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. She asserted that the sandwich was invented in 1914 for an actress named Annette Seelos who had a role in a Charlie Chaplin film. According to her, that version of the Reuben sandwich featured Virginia ham and roast turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw slathered with Russian dressing on rye bread.
However, Reuben’s son, Arnold Jr., told the St, Petersburg Times in 1993 that the Reuben sandwich was created in the 1930s by a chef at Reuben’s restaurant who created it on the fly when Arnold Jr. asked for something to eat besides his usual burger. This version of the Reuben was made with buttered, toasted pumpernickel bread topped with corned beef, Swiss Cheese, and sauerkraut.
This version of this iconic NYC grilled sandwich is closest to the contemporary item, which is typically made with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.
The second claim to inventing Rueben sandwiches isn’t in the home of the deli, New York City, but in the heartland of America: Omaha, Nebraska.
This version of the origin story begins in Odessa, Russia during WWI. According to the Schimmel family historian, Judy Weil, Charles Schimmel fled Odessa to avoid being conscripted into the czar’s army, and he came to America as a stowaway. His lack of funds to purchase a ticket didn’t quash his dreams of becoming a hotelier, and eventually he and his three brothers owned many hotels, some of which were in Nebraska.
In the 1920s Charles Schimmel owned the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Omaha. Although his focus was primarily on food service, the Blackstone was considered the finest hotel between Chicago and San Francisco. That’s how it attracted high stakes poker games.
Ed Schimmel, son of Charles, recounted twice (in 1965 and 1968) that at one of these poker games a local green grocer named Rueben Kulakofsky was playing cards and wanted a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut.
Down in the kitchen, Charles Schimmel mixed the sauerkraut with thousand island dressing, then added the corned beef and Swiss cheese on rye bread. His original notes indicated the sandwich was to be served with a kosher dill pickle, a radish, and potato chips. It was an immediate hit.
So much so that it was put on the hotel’s menu as a Reuben Sandwich.
This version of the story was corroborated by a historical menu plucked from the Plush Horse restaurant in the Blackstone Hotel circa 1930s that offered a “Rueben” (sic) sandwich. Additionally, the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1956 documented a Reuben with “corned beef, Sauer Kraut (sic), Swiss cheese on Russian Rye” claiming that it was introduced to the area in 1937.
Regardless, the Reuben seemed to be local phenomenon in both New York City and Nebraska until 1956 – thanks to a woman named Fern Snider. Beginning in 1956 the Wheat Flour Institute held an annual National Sandwich Idea contest. For the next 25 years (until 1981) 20 sandwich recipes submitted by food service professionals were chosen as the top recipes from hundreds of entries across America.
In 1956, the inaugural year of the contest, Fern Snider’s Reuben Sandwich recipe was proclaimed as the best sandwich in America. Fern, a cook at the Blackstone Hotel submitted the hotel’s Reuben recipe, and the rest is history.
Notably, the Fern’s winning recipe for a Reuben sandwich consisted of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing on Russian rye bread, which of course is the typical or “standard” version of Reubens we know today. In fact, that’s the base version we serve here at Max & Louie’s, but we also give you the option of having your Reuben filled with pastrami, turkey, or corned beef. And, of course, every sandwich is grilled to order to ensure your sandwich’s outer layer of bread always has that signature crunch when you bite into it.
The history of the Rachel sandwich isn’t as controversial as its brother’s tale. A Rachel sandwich is just a version of a Reuben that substitutes creamy coleslaw for sauerkraut – and was originally made with turkey or chicken. Again, here at Max & Louie’s, we give our guests the choice of pastrami, turkey, or corned beef for their Rachel, then griddle it all to a warm, crunchy, delicious mess of a sandwich.
And, just like the Reuben, there’s always slaw and a crisp pickle on the side.
Everything we serve at Max & Louie’s New York Diner has a backstory, and a warm place in our heart. I hope you’ll come in soon and try something new, something nostalgic, or something steeped in tradition. While you’re here, ask for me and let me know what you think of this retelling of the iconic Reuben sandwich history. I’ll see you soon. Until then, happy eating!