Connections: Where’s the Beef?

A Reuben sandwich: corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese, on grilled rye

I know it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s not corned beef and cabbage I’ve been wanting. It’s a Reuben sandwich: corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese, on grilled rye. There is nothing wrong with a good, traditional corned beef and cabbage supper — with boiled potatoes, I can taste it right now! — and maybe this evening I might find myself tucking in at the St. Pat’s dinner being thrown by the Lions Club of Sag Harbor, at the Whalers Church. But, still, as far as I’m concerned, a Reuben is in a class by itself.

I had eaten a Reuben or two over the years before I came to The Star, of course, but back in the 1980s, when I was editor in chief, one of our assistant editors, Eric Kuhn, used to order them all the time, and I joined in. A Reuben may be a deli sandwich, but it is nothing like the overstuffed corned beef or pastrami sandwich you would find in a genuine Jewish deli in New York City. And, with that slice of Swiss on top of the salty beef, it is not at all Kosher, even if it is made with caraway-seeded Jewish rye. 

People can get pretty carried away arguing about the nuances of Reubens. The ones Eric ordered all those years ago came with Russian dressing, which I believe is an authentic and essential part of the recipe, and certainly part of the fun. This is a messy sandwich. You have to expect it to drip. 

Not long ago, I was hornswoggled by what purported to be a Reuben at a local food shop. It was the worst. The meat was so dry you could crack off pieces, and, as for the anticipated rye bread, it was on some kind of a wrap. Oh, dear. The words “wrap” and “Reuben” don’t belong in the same sentence.

The closest you can get to the great Jewish rye of my youth around here comes from Goldberg’s Famous Bagels, which is almost as good but not quite. (Sorry, Goldberg’s! We really do love you, though.) Eli’s Bread makes a rye that doesn’t cut the mustard — in my kitchen, at least. I noticed an internet suggestion just now that a Reuben should be made with “Russian rye,” but — current Russian scandals aside — that just sounds all wrong. (Imagine if it came with raisins in it, like dark bagels do?

I am not alone in remembering fondly the special “ethnic” foods of childhood. Ukrainian-Americans have their borscht, Scottish-Americans have their haggis, old-line WASPs have their lobster rolls. In my case, we rarely ventured to a real Manhattan deli, so a Reuben wasn’t actually a feature of my youth. More often, we had creamed pickled herring, which my father brought home in huge canisters from meetings of the men’s group he belonged to. Can you imagine a child today getting excited about a big tub of creamed pickled herring? I think the only huge canister of food that would interest my grandchildren in the slightest would be filled with Skittles.

As far as kosher eating goes, when I was a kid I never understood why a cream sauce should be okay with herring while Swiss cheese was not acceptable with meat. Actually, to be honest, I still don’t quite understand that. 

Anyway, all this talk of corned beef brings to mind Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. During World War II, it put up a sign saying, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” Does anyone remember that? I’ve been told the sign is still there. I bet Katz’s does Reubens, but, come to think of it, I bet Goldberg’s on Pantigo Road does, too. I think that might make a fine way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  Goldberg’s, here we come. Top of the morning to you.