A Cook's Diary

What Is a Reuben Sandwhich and How Did It Get Its Name?

Years ago, I spent a few nights at a hotel to get some writing done without distractions and interruptions. I never went out for my meals. Why should I when room service was just divine? For dinner on my first night, I had an open-faced Reuben sandwich and grilled vegetables salad. The salad was good but it was the Reuben sandwich that I will never ever forget.

What Is a Reuben Sandwhich and How Did It Get Its Name?

Reuben sandwich

What is a Reuben sandwich anyway? There are many variations but the original consists of grilled rye bread with sliced corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut filling drizzled with Russian dressing. Not canned corned beef, mind you, but deli corned beef (yes, I have a recipe for corned beef). 

But why is it called a Reuben sandwich? There are two backstories attached to this iconic American sandwich.

The first story is Omaha folklore about a grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky who was said to have served the sandwich to his poker-playing buddies. The owner of Blackstone Hotel where the poker games took place was so smitten with the sandwich that he put it on the hotel’s menu with due credit to the sandwich’s inventor.

The second story credits the origin of the sandwich to Nebraskan Arnold Reuben who opened a restaurant in New York City in the early 1900’s.

No one really knows who first came up with the recipe. What is known is that in 1956, the Reuben sandwich recipe was entered in a contest and Fern Snider, chef of the Rose Bowl Restaurant in Omaha, won first prize and the sandwich’s name was credited to Reuben Kulakofsky. It was that contest that made the Reuben sandwich famous throughout America.

So what variations of the Reuben sandwich are there? Well, sometimes, the meat component is pastrami or turkey, or even fish. In other cases, it is the dressing that is different; instead of Russian dressing, it can be mustard. There is mention of a panini-style Reuben sandwich in Ottawa and there’s a version that substitutes kimchi for the sauerkraut.

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