Last weekend, my sister and I went to the Omaha public Library’s first annual “Read it and Eat” culinary conference. The all day event included four panels, lunch and a cookbook exchange, and was, amazingly, free. I’ll have more on the conference this week and next on the blog.
One subject kept coming up throughout the day, a subject that wasn’t on the schedule. Reuben sandwiches showed up on the lunch buffet, and I think everyone started to think about the savory sandwiches after they ate one.
Reubens came up during a presentation right after lunch about the success of Omaha’s Junior League Cookbook, which features a recipe for the sandwich. Then they came up a second time when New York native Isa Chandra Moskowitz started her presentation by saying, deadpan, “I’m from New York. Where the reuben was invented.” And then the sandwich came up yet again, during a panel discussion about the history of Omaha restaurants.
Anyone from Omaha will claim the sandwich as a local invention. Two legendary stories exist, though, about the reuben. One is that a man named Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian-born grocer from Omaha, invented the sandwich as part of his weekly poker game held at the historic Blackstone Hotel. The hotel’s owner the put the sandwich on the hotel’s lunch menu. It later won a national contest and became famous.
The second story is that a man named Arnold Reuben, a German owner of the once famous, now closed Reuben’s Deli in New York invented the sandwich. The earliest references to the sandwich in print are ones from New York, though many don’t take those as conclusive evidence.
Anyway, the most interesting moment of the Reuben discussion came from Kristine Gerber, who is a publisher and book author and who was half of the duo that gave the presentation on the Junior League book. She said when researching the book, she came across a menu from an Omaha restaurant dating from 1924 that listed the sandwich. That menu would pre-date a New York menu which listed the sandwich in 1926. I’ve asked Kristine to send me a photo of the menu, or let me know where I might see a copy of it, so we can put the debate to rest once and for all (at least for Omavore readers.)
Meantime, let’s talk sandwiches: What Omaha restaurant serves the best reuben? Discuss.