The Reuben Sandwich Probably Wasn’t Invented Where You Thought It Was

The surprising history of the iconic sandwich.

The Reuben sandwich — the creamy, salty combination of meat, cheese, and sauerkraut that is a mainstay of diners and delis all around the United States — was created one night in a hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, to satisfy a group of hungry Jewish poker players. According to the Schimmel family, the sandwich was created by their ancestor.  

“Our grandfather, Charles Schimmel, came to America as a stowaway,” says family historian Judy Weil. “He left Odessa, Russia and his Jewish family of hoteliers, when he turned 13, to save himself. He wanted to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s army.” His plan, she says, was to enter the hotel business in the United States, which he eventually did. Bernard Schimmel and his three brothers came to own many hotels, several of which were in Nebraska. 

“Grandpa Schimmel wanted to build a hotel for each of his four sons, and he did that. He sent them to school to learn about the hospitality industry. AQ, the eldest, studied at the University of Chicago. Walter and Edward attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. The youngest son, my father, Bernard, went off to study at the best hotel school in the world at the time: the Ecole Hoteliere in Lausanne, Switzerland,” said Weil, Bernard’s oldest daughter. 

Bernard Schimmel returned to the family-owned Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska in 1928. He was close to 20 years old, and he had spent two years studying culinary arts in Lausanne. Schimmel focused on food service at the Blackstone, a hotel known for its elegance and widely considered the finest hotel at that time between Chicago and San Francisco. 

As the story goes, Charles Schimmel had a Sunday night poker game on the top floor of the Blackstone with a bunch of his local buddies. Reuben Kulakofsky, the Jewish Lithuanian-born owner of a highly regarded wholesale and retail food market in downtown Omaha, was a regular. One night, the group got hungry. Charles asked his son, Bernard, to send some sandwiches up to the poker game.

“Reuben Kulakofsky had barrels of sauerkraut in his establishment, Central Market,” said Mary Bernstein, Bernard’s youngest daughter. “Grandpa Schimmel said to dad: Create something special with corned beef and sauerkraut. Reuben wants a sandwich with sauerkraut.”

“Dad made the sandwich, and sent it up to everyone at the game,” said Mary. As requested, the corned beef sandwich had sauerkraut. Having just returned from Switzerland, where he discovered Emmental cheese, Schimmel layered on some of his favorite cheese. He mixed Russian dressing into the sauerkraut. And then he grilled it all together on pumpernickel bread.

“The sandwich was such a hit that they suggested to Charles that he feature it on the Blackstone coffee shop menu.” The sandwich, named the Reuben, in honor of Kulakofsky, eventually was added to the menus of all of the Schimmel hotels. In 1956, the Reuben sandwich received the National Restaurant Association’s Sandwich of the Year award. The recipe was printed in the association’s member magazine and from there, its fame spread to restaurants across the United States.

Bernard Schimmel had three daughters and seven grandchildren. Were he alive today, he would no doubt be delighted that almost all of his progeny love to cook and appreciate delicious, beautifully presented food. Some of them, however, would not eat his most famous creation, the Reuben.

According to Connie Shapiro, Bernard’s middle daughter, “We all recall what an amazing chef our father was. Whether it was dollar pancakes on Sunday morning or barbecued ribs or Steak Diane, a perfectly roasted chicken or an omelet, each meal was dazzling for the eye as well as the palate. However, like most families, some of us do not eat red meat; some are vegetarians; some are vegan; some don’t eat cheese. Some of us relish biting into a Reuben. Some would rather recall the lore and the love that went into our father’s creations. And all of us are exceedingly proud of the sandwich’s place in American culinary history!”

However, the Reuben’s hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, is not ambivalent. It has named March 14 Reuben Sandwich Day. Should you find yourself in this midwestern city, you have your choice of close to two dozen restaurants that offer it on their menus.

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