Is it still a Reuben if it doesn’t have corned beef? As I found out, the answer is yes.
Wanting to spend as much time on the beach as possible during our Sanibel Island vacation in June, our family of three headed to the nearby Sanibel Fish House to grab a to-go lunch. I wasn’t looking for anything more than a po’ boy or a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich; instead, listed under the sandwich section was something unexpected: “Crunchy Grouper Reuben: A Fish House favorite; served with Thousand Island dressing, coleslaw and Swiss cheese on rye bread.” Surprised, we ordered it. As we passed the sandwich back and forth, we agreed that it was truly delicious!
I grew up in deli, I like to say, but I didn’t know there was anything except corned beef in a Reuben. My curiosity led me to investigate the origins of the Reuben sandwich.
One story says Reuben Kulakofsky, a Jewish grocer from Omaha, Nebraska, developed the sandwich around the 1920s after a poker game at the Blackstone Hotel. The owner put the sandwich on the lunch menu, and it became popular, but gained national attention when a former employee of the hotel entered and won a contest with the recipe.
Craig Claiborne’s account is different. He attributes the “Reuben Special” to Arnold Reuben, the German-Jewish owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen, in New York City, around 1914.
There are other “origin stories.” Several of them claim that the sandwich was developed when an actress came to Reuben’s Deli after an appearance on Broadway, and there wasn’t much left for her to eat, so they combined what they had handy to make a sandwich. Still others credit the recipe to Alfred Scheuing, a chef at Reuben’s Delicatessen, who may have developed it for the owner’s son.
The real surprise on Wikipedia appeared under a list of “variations.”
Nestled between a reference for the Montreal Reuben, a sandwich that substitutes Montreal style smoked meat for corned beef, and the Rachel sandwich, substituting pastrami and coleslaw, was—drum roll, please—the grouper Reuben.
The description nailed it: “The grouper Reuben is a variation on the standard Reuben sandwich, substituting grouper for the corned beef, and sometimes will substitute coleslaw for the sauerkraut as well. This variation is often a menu item in restaurants in Florida.”
That’s what we ate at the Sanibel Fish House. So, no stranger to making Thousand Island dressing (or Russian dressing, as I knew it), I set about researching recipes, buying ingredients and recreating our delicious sandwich experience.
I had no luck finding fresh grouper, but the fishmonger advised me to use the fresh corvina from Florida that he had on hand. He also said I could use haddock, and some recipes I found used tilapia or red snapper.
I also decided to go with coleslaw over sauerkraut, but depending on taste, I think either one would do. Finally, I did see recipes with variations on traditional Russian dressing and even substitutions for rye bread like hoagie rolls, but that seemed sacrilegious.
While we ate our Reubens one dreary, rainy afternoon, I couldn’t help remembering my first time—on a sandy beach under the summer sun.