This Sunday, March 15, Zingerman’s Delicatessen celebrates its 33rd birthday.
When Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw started talking thirty-some years ago about opening a deli, they were clear on what eating a sandwich in their shop would be like. They wanted to serve sandwiches so stacked and packed that you’d have to use both hands to eat them. The dressing would drip down your arms. The food would be so good that every bite would make you stop in your tracks.
Today, the line for our huge, ultra-tasty sandwiches stretches out the front door and down the block several times a week. When it’s that busy, you can bet that the kitchen will be cranking out a whole lot of Reubens. Since the beginning, the Reuben has been the best seller. Today, even with 80 other sandwiches on the menu, the Deli makes more than 40,000 classic corned beef Reubens every year.
These days the Reuben is a staple across America. A hundred years ago, not so much.
The first delicatessens were opened by German immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the end of the 19th century. They served foods like sausages, pickled vegetables, and cold cuts by the pound. In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants from central and Eastern Europe opened delicatessens serving familiar, old-country foods cafeteria style: cured herring, pastrami, pickles. By the 1930s, there were nearly 2,000 Kosher delis in New York. They would have sold corned beef and rye bread, but it is unlikely you’d have been able to get a Reuben sandwich. Since it includes both meat and cheese, the Reuben is definitely not Kosher.
Not all delis were Kosher, though, and the Reuben might well have been invented in a New York deli. One version of the story of the Reuben’s origin is that the sandwich was invented in 1914 by Arnold Reuben of Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen on Broadway. An actress came in late at night, asked for a huge sandwich, and was given ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on rye bread. She liked it so much that it was added to the menu as “Reuben’s Special.” However, in another origin story, the Reuben was invented in 1925 by Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer who went to a late-night poker game at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha and served sandwiches of corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on rye. The hotel’s owner was so impressed by the sandwich that he put it on the hotel’s menu and named it for its inventor. What’s not in dispute is that thirty years later, a former waitress from the Blackstone won the first ever National Sandwich Idea Contest with a Reuben sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing on rye. So there you have it. The quintessential New York deli sandwich might have been invented in… Nebraska.
By the second half of the 20th century, most delis in New York were Kosher-style, not strictly Kosher. For a time, Reubens weren’t on the menu at famous delis like Katz’s, but you could order them off menu. In the 1970s the Reuben was formally added, and its status as a Deli classic was solidified.
The Zingerman’s Reuben has always been based on one key ingredient: corned beef from Sy Ginsberg.
Sy opened his business, United Meat and Deli, in Detroit in 1982—the same year that Zingerman’s Deli opened. From the start, he’s done a couple of things differently than other folks who cure corned beef. All the seasonings he uses are minimally processed. Take garlic, a primary ingredient in corned beef. Most producers use powdered garlic which is typically dehydrated with chemicals and then mixed with emulsifiers to keep it shelf stable. It tastes like a stale bouillon cube. Sy uses freshly squeezed garlic juice, which gives the beef honest garlic flavor.
To make corned beef, you start with the brisket—the breast of the cow—and then you cure it. The name comes from the traditional curing method, where you cover the brisket with large grains of salt called “corns.” These days most producers use a salty brine rather than corns of salt. At United Meat and Deli, the briskets are trimmed by hand, and then they’re run through a machine with possibly the best name I’ve ever heard in the food industry: the pickle injector. The pickle injector has a bunch of needles that inject brine into the brisket. Some corned beef producers will package the beef as soon as it comes out of the pickle injector, but Sy lets the corned beef cure overnight in brine. The longer curing lets the flavor permeate the beef more thoroughly. After a day of curing, the corned beef is ready to be cooked. Cooking the brisket is simple: you just boil it for a couple of hours in a huge pot of water. At our deli, after we cook the briskets we keep them warm in a steamer and then slice them to order for sandwiches.
When Zingerman’s Deli first opened, Sy delivered our corned beef out of the back of his Volkswagen. Then he’d stick around the deli for a few hours during the lunch rush to help out on the sandwich line. Paul sometimes introduces Sy as “the man who made the first corned beef sandwich at Zingerman’s.”
You can make a Zingerman’s Reuben at home.
Shipping sandwiches—or, the components to build the sandwiches—is a big part of our business at Zingerman’s Mail Order. That might sound a little crazy, but it’s plenty popular all the same. Last year we shipped enough Reuben Sandwich Kits to make over 24,000 sandwiches. Putting the sandwich together takes a little time and work, but given that it’s garnered praise ranging from “the best sandwich in America” in Food and Wine, to “one of twenty sandwiches that will change your life” in Esquire, many believe it’s worth the effort. I tend to agree.
How to make your own Zingerman’s Reuben:
1. Place your whole loaf of bread in the middle of a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.
2. Portion out your meat. At Zingerman’s Deli it’s 6.4 oz for a large, fresser-sized sandwich, but you can use however much you want.
3. Lay the meat in a pile on a big piece of aluminum foil. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of water on top then fold the foil closed. Place in oven to steam for 10 minutes.
4. After 20 minutes, take the loaf of bread out of the oven. Grip your now “twice baked” loaf with a towel in your hand. Roll the loaf on its side. Cut 1 inch slices at roughly a 30 degree angle—no protractor required.
5. Slather Russian dressing on each piece of bread. Don’t skimp, make it thick! Place one slice of Emmentaler Swiss in the middle and close the sandwich.
6. Warm a large, empty skillet on medium heat. Brush the outsides of the sandwich with a tablespoon of olive oil or butter per side. Grill each side for 2-3 minutes until browned to your liking, the cheese just melting. Remove from the skillet.
7. Open the sandwich. Place 2 overflowing tablespoons of sauerkraut or cole slaw on top of the Emmentaler Swiss. Heap the steaming meat in folds on the other half.
8. Cut the sandwich in half. Like Cary Grant, we prefer to cut it with a bread knife at a North by Northwest angle, the blade running between 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock. Sit down, relax, eat—ideally with potato salad, a pickle, and a brownie for dessert.
9. Take a good, long nap.