During a scene in 1994’s Quiz Show, Ralph Fiennes’ character, Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren takes Rob Morrow’s character, Congressional lawyer Dick Goodwin, to the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan for a bite of lunch. Being a polite guest, Goodwin opts to get the lunch special, a Reuben sandwich.
When a third guest sits down an the table and a discussion about the special ensues, Goodwin shares that the Reuben “is the only entirely invented sandwich” and that the dish was created two years prior at a poker game in Nebraska by a man named Reuben Kay. He then observes, “Unfortunately they have the sandwich here, but, uh, they don’t seem to have any Reubens.”
So did Reuben Kay invent the classic deli sandwich? If you believe former New York Times Magazine writer Elizabeth Weil, not exactly.
As Weil detailed in a short piece for The Times and a longer one for Saveur, an employee of the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha named Bernard Schimmel made a sandwich during a Sunday night poker game in the 1920s featuring homemade corned beef and Swiss cheese on dark rye bread layered with drained sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. After grilling it and adding a sliced kosher dill pickle, a rose radish and potato chips on the side, Schimmel served the sandwich to the poker player who had requested it, a local grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky.
The sandwich was an instant hit, so Schimmel’s father, who owned the Blackstone, put it on the hotel’s coffee-shop menu and eventually on the menus of other hotels he owned, using the name of the first man to ever ingest one. When Reuben’s Restaurant on 58th Street in New York (now closed) and members of the Kulakofskys clan disputed Weil’s origin story, the Nebraska State Historical Society unearthed a 1934 menu from the Blackstone’s main dining room offering a Reuben for 40 cents and another one from ’37 offering it for 50 cents with chicken. If you can’t believe the Nebraska State Historical Society, then who can you believe?
Equally trustworthy: Steve Slobodski, the owner of PJ Bernstein on Third Avenue on the Upper East Side, who has been serving up Reubens ever since he started working at the family-owned deli.
Already different from the classic version of the sandwich in that it includes neither Thousand Island nor Russian dressing, PJ Bernstein’s Reuben differs from the typical offering in that it is served open-faced atop two slices of rye as opposed to being tucked between ’em.
“PJ Bernstein has been around for 55 years, and my family has owned it for the last close to 40 years,” Slobodski tells InsideHook. “One of the first years I came in and worked as a busboy or a waiter, I served a Reuben to somebody. I had never seen it before and thought it looked amazing because of the smell, the size and the cheese. I had to try it, so that’s the day I ordered my first Reuben. I really couldn’t finish it. They’re big. It’s more than a half-pound of meat.”
That meat is all made in-house and, as noted above, PJ Bernstein has not made it a habit of serving the corned beef on its Reuben with any sort of dressing — even if requested.
“We don’t serve it with Russian dressing. We actually almost don’t allow it,” Slobodski says. “If. people ask for it, we make believe we don’t have it. It just changes the flavors. The mayonnaise and the ketchup overwhelm most of the flavors except maybe the cheese. The flavors of the sauerkraut, the Swiss and the toasted bread create their own unique flavor. You can put anything on it, but in reality, you need the sour from the sauerkraut and that sweetness of Swiss and the meat with the crunchy bread for a classic Reuben. There’s no hiding of ingredients with sauce.”
Brined overnight, boiled for four hours and then sliced across the grain to remove some of the fat, the corned beef on the open-faced Reuben comes completely covered in melted cheese.
“The cheese melts completely over the entire sandwich,” Slobodski says. “With some Reubens, they grill the whole sandwich. If you do that, the temperature of the cheese and the meat is not the same and you don’t get really get the melding of flavors. When we do it, it all comes out the same and the melted cheese and the corned beef are pretty hot. It gives it a little more flavor. There’s nothing like melted cheese on anything. We like to eat it with a knife and fork.”
Someone else who liked to eat open-faced Reuben from PJ Bernstein? Howard Cosell.
“He would only eat Hebrew National hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches. That’s it,” Slobodski says. “He would want something hot and get one of those. He gave us autographs and the whole thing. He was a character. Mel Brooks still comes in, but he doesn’t order the Reuben.”
Maybe that’s because he’s making it at home with this recipe …
PJ Bernstein’s Open-Faced Reuben Sandwich
- 1/2 pound of Corned Beef
- 1/4 pound of Sauerkraut
- 4 Slices of Swiss Cheese
- 1 Tablespoon of Butter
- 2 Slices of Jewish Rye Bread
- Take two pieces of Jewish Rye Bread and butter both sides.
- Place both pieces of bread on the grill for about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Once grilled, place a half-pound of corn beef on your bread, then place the sauerkraut on top of the corned beef.
- Lastly, place 4 to 5 slices of Swiss cheese on top of everything.
- After about two more minutes on the grill, put it in the broiler until it gets to a nice crispy golden brown.
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