American Sandwich Project – Reubens, Rachels, and Monstrosities
I have this very strange dream of cooking all the American sandwiches. Why? Because sandwiches are delicious, not horribly complicated, and they’re a great way to learn about the history and geography of the United States. Old and new, East and West, North and South, red states and blue. It’s a project I’ve set out to do several times and then been too broke or busy to follow through with it, but in this time of bubbles and divisiveness it seems like a noble cause. After all, who can hate a sandwich? They’re both yummy and apolitical. Maybe sandwiches are just the thing we need to heal the rifts in our country and bring us together again -- at a picnic table, in the sunshine, passing the napkins, talking about the things we all agree on.
Big T is tablespoon, small t is teaspoon, c is cup.
Saint Patrick’s Day is here again and it’s time for blarney, green beer, Shamrock Shakes, and sandwiches. Corned beef sandwiches, to be precise. And even if you aren’t as fully full of faith and begorrah as I am, we Irish are a welcoming lot and everyone is allowed to join our tattered clan for one day a year.
Except for snakes. No snakes allowed.
The story of the Irish and corned beef is about as all-American as you can get. It actually starts in England, where the villainous English (Boo! Hiss!) sailed across the sea and captured this random island sitting innocently beside them and started doing oppression to people. One of the most oppressive things the English did to the Irish was that they made the Irish grow food for them, and then wouldn’t let them eat any of it. The Irish grew grain, raised sheep and beef and dairy cows, and caught lots and lots of fish, and pretty much all of it went to their wealthy (and usually English) landowners and in turn, England. The Irish themselves subsisted on prayer and also potatoes which had been brought over from South America some years earlier.
How many potatoes does it take for an Irishman to subsist, you might wonder? Well, 7-14 pounds of potatoes a day, since you asked, and they didn’t have any butter or bacon bits to go on top of them because the English had eaten it all. They didn’t even have chives! The Irish ate boiled potatoes dipped in salt, morning, noon and night, while sending all the good stuff over to England to feed to the Queen or whoever.
This was a sad state of affairs but things quickly got sadder because potatoes are totally clones. That’s right, even though potatoes make beautiful purple flowers and set fruit that look like small and much more toxic tomatoes, they don’t reproduce by seeds. They reproduce by the replanting of very small baby potatoes that grow on the mama potato alongside their bigger and tastier siblings. This means that all potatoes of any given variety are genetically identical. This system works pretty good in places like Idaho and Peru where the weather is dry, but in rainy and damp Ireland, the potatoes quickly contracted this awful fungus called potato blight which makes the potatoes rotten and inedible. It’s so gross looking that I won’t even post a picture because I don’t want to put you off your sandwiches. And since the potatoes the Irish grew were all clones, they were all highly susceptible to the blight. From 1845 to 1849 (particularly 1847, called “Black 47” that’s how terrible it was), and off and on less severely for another 15 years, the Great Famine raged.
A million Irish people died and a million and a half more got out of Dodge, or Dublin if you prefer, and emigrated to America.
In America, the Irish were quickly hired as household servants, particularly cooks, which was tragically ironic because none of them knew how to cook. The only thing they had ever eaten in their whole entire lives was potatoes and so they had no idea how to prepare even the most basic things like bread and meat. They had to be taught how to do everything in the kitchen department, and they weren’t very good housekeepers either since they lived in hovels that didn’t require much in the way of skill with feather dusters or silver polish knowhow. Most people decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to retrain the Irish even though their accents were so totes adorbs and quickly fired the poor unfortunates as fast as they’d hired them. This led to a couple rocky decades where Irish people turned mostly to lives of crime to get by until gradually they settled in and decided to become slightly corrupt policemen and alcoholic writers instead.
But none of that gets us to corned beef, now does it?
Even more horrifically ironic, practically all the good farmland in Ireland that could have been used for growing things other than potatoes had been turned into pasture for the making of corned beef, of which the Irish got to eat precisely none. They raised cattle and then they mixed the resulting beef with salt and seasoning to create delectable corned beef in cities like Cork and Belfast, then the subsequent corned beef went off on ships to England and America. Very little of the corned beef made by the Irish, was ever eaten by the Irish, even though it’s commonly considered to be an Irish delicacy. So even as her people starved in droves, Ireland’s best farmland was reserved for growing luxury food for others and to add insult to injury, those others pretended all the while that it was something Irish people actually ate.
When the Irish came to America they were so far removed from their supposed national dish of corned beef and cabbage they started buying salt-preserved brisket very similar to corned beef, from Jewish immigrants. Most of the Irish immigrants in the United Stated didn’t have the first idea how to corn a beef for themselves. (BTW -- “corn” in this case refers to the grains of salt used to make corned beef, and not “corn” as we Americans think of it.) Bonding over a mutual love of seasoned and salted beef kicked off a relationship of affection and admiration between these two diaspora-ed peoples.
And that brings us to the Reuben, which is a cross cultural extravaganza of a sammie.
Reubens were most likely invented in Omaha, Nebraska (Nebraska again) by a grocer by the name of Reuben Kulakofsky, or possibly in New York by a deli owner by the name of Arnold Reuben. Sandwiches are funny that way, there’s always 2 or 3 obscure historical figures vying to claim them. Regardless, The Reuben is a fabulous sandwich, one of my all-time faves. Some sandwiches are obvious to the point of boring, or are so ridiculously obscure they make no sense at all. The Reuben threads the needle between weirdness and yumminess nicely.
Despite loving Reubens, I must confess that Reubens make me sad, so sad that I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to be able to write this particular sandwich article. I had a happy experience once involving a Reuben and now every time I think of them my comparative lack of delight causes me to sink into a depression so deep it takes the tangy odors of sauerkraut and Russian dressing to snap me out of it.
Because that’s what a Reuben sandwich is all about. Corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian Dressing (if Mueller is already looking over your shoulder, please feel free to use Thousand Island as a much more American-sounding replacement).
As for the bread, it must be rye. A wise man once told me that saying “a Reuben on rye” is entirely redundant, because a Reuben is ALWAYS on rye. There are few sure things in this world, but a Reuben comin’ at you served on rye bread is one of them.
Rye bread (and only rye bread)
Russian or Thousand Island Dressing (I used Ken’s)
Butter (I don’t think I should have to tell you not to use margarine at this point, but don’t)
On Russian vs. Thousand Island dressing: Russian Dressing is spicier and less sweet than Thousand Island. You can buy it in the store ~sometimes~ but most of the Reubens I’ve ever had used Thousand Island. Most people, many of whom I assume are colluding with Putin, make their own Russian Dressing but I did not feel particularly ambitious or unAmerican that day. I noticed precisely no difference in the finished product using Ken’s Russian Dressing and the Thousand Island Reubens I’ve had in the past.
On corned beef: You want thinly sliced corned beef. This is gonna be tough if you’re using leftover corned beef from your St. Pat’s corned beef and cabbage dinner, but it’s imperative if you want a sandwich you can easily bite into. I used thinly sliced prepackaged corned beef and while it wasn’t anywhere near the absolute best corned beef I’ve ever had, it was ok. I strongly suggest using a secondary pan to preheat the sliced corned beef beforehand, because otherwise the sandwich doesn’t get cheesemeltingly hot in the middle.
On Sauerkraut: Being Irish meself, I love anything involving cabbage, even sauerkraut, cabbage’s picklier evil twin. Sauerkraut is not for everyone, but if you’ve never tried a Reuben, I would strongly suggest giving it a whirl with the sauerkraut as God clearly intended, even if you have to buy it in one of those teeny tiny cans. Drain it well, though, to prevent the dreaded sandwich sog. Otherwise spring for a bottle of the good stuff if you think you can eat your way through it. Surprisingly, the stuff sold as “fresh” in plastic bags next to the yogurt, has been tested by kitchen scientists and found to be less tasty on average than the jarred kind, so stick with jars.
Sandwich assembly: Heat a pan or griddle. Butter one side of the rye bread and put it in the pan to brown (as if you’re making a grilled cheese). Working quickly, spread a tablespoon of dressing or so on the unbuttered side of the bread and top with Swiss on one side, corned beef on the other, and then a light application of sauerkraut (I found this worked best put onto the cheese side). Using a spatula and harnessing all the skill of a young Spongebob Squarepants, maneuver whichever half of the sandwich that looks less spill-y onto the other half of the sandwich and smoosh it gently with the spatula, then flip it a couple times, till the beef and cheese and sauerkraut are heated through and the whole thing attains critical and oozy mass.
Cut it in half, in triangles. You won’t be sorry. Not only is it easier to eat, but there’s an aesthetic quality to looking upon the Reuben’s innards that is not to be missed.
Sandwich analysis: It was fantastic. One of the best sandwiches, if not THE best, I’ve made in all this time, even though eating it made me terribly sad. No one else ate it because of the sauerkraut and I didn’t care, possibly because of the depths of my sorrow, or maybe because it meant more for me. I ate Reubens for several days until the rye bread ran out and then I ate whatever you call a Reuben that isn’t made on rye bread for another couple days after that. After that I ate sauerkraut from the jar with a spoon for quite some time because sauerkraut doesn’t seem to spoil, ever, and being Irish meself, I hate wasting food since you never know when a famine might happen along.
Reuben has a better half (or possibly a worse half IMVVVVHO) named Rachel. The duo is celebrated in a rather peculiar old song.
According to my math, a Rachel sandwich falls on the wrong side of the “weird vs. boring” divide. I was not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of The Rachel, to be honest.
The first thing you need in order to make a Rachel is cole slaw. Now as it happens as a unapologetic cabbagelover, I personally invented the best recipe for cole slaw ever, or at least the simplest one, so let’s use that as our jumping-off point.
Kristin’s Very Simple Cole Slaw
You may recall from previous installations of the #AmericanSandwichProject that I think the presence of too many extraneous seasonings all jockeying for position upon ones’ tongue, often ends up detracting from the overall deliciousness of foods. So this is a minimalist cole slaw recipe. If you MUST you could try using some freshly squeezed lemon juice instead of just vinegar, or use fancy vinegar, or toss in some hot sauce, or horseradish, or add black pepper, or onion, or even something Godawful like celery seeds, but kindly remove my name from the title of the recipe in that case because I think celery seeds are the literal worst.
2 packages of bagged coleslaw mix WITHOUT the purple cabbage (no purple, it makes the finished dressing look really dismal-colored)
½ c mayonnaise (Best Foods or Hellman’s is my fave)
½ c milk
4 tablespoons white vinegar (NOT apple cider, or wine, or balsamic)
½ cup sugar
½ t salt
On cabbage: Yes, I used preshredded cabbage. Historically I’ve found that when I get ambitious and try to shred my own, I end up never actually making cole slaw, pointedly ignoring the angry head of cabbage in the fridge until it gets shriveled and spotty. The pre-shredded stuff is entirely tolerable as long as it’s FRESH. Don’t buy it on its expiration date and then let it languish in your fridge for an additional 3 weeks before using it. If it’s fresh, it will be fine, I promise. Seriously, don’t get the kind with the purple shreds, it matters. Purple cabbage is beautiful and yummy too, this is just not the time and place for it.
In a great big bowl big enough to contain your cabbage and allow for mixing room besides, combine the milk with the vinegar (it will curdle slightly, this is ok) and the mayonnaise. Toss in the salt and sugar and whisk till the dressing is smooth. Then mix in the shredded cabbage and carrots with a sturdy spoon till the cabbage is coated with the dressing. Please note, this is a drier, more cabbage-flavored cole slaw than the standard. If you prefer a more juicy cole slaw, you can make this same recipe with only 1 bag of cabbage and carrot shreds, or 1 1/2, but personally I like cabbage and I like the flavor to come through rather than being drowned in a sea of rapidly-separating salad dressing. If you’re sitting on the fence here, let the slaw chillax for at least an hour, stirring it a few times, till it’s covered in dressing. If you taste it and find it’s not dressing-y enough for you (which has happened to me a couple times when I ambitiously managed to shred a head of cabbage rather than using a premeasured bag, and got my proportions all screwed up in addition to having my knuckles scraped bloody) you can add in a teaspoon of vinegar along with a tablespoon of mayo and sugar and stir it again and see what you think. As long as you keep the ingredients roughly in proportion and add small quantities you’ll end up with something palatable at the end, and at the least it will be a heck of a lot better than anything containing celery seed.
Addendum: No snakes AND no celery seeds.
Every time I contemplate The Rachel I get a vision of David Schwimmer wearing a hangdog expression and bursting through the doors of Central Perk in the dark of night, hoping against hope that a giant self-absorbed sandwich with a trendy hairstyle will notice him at last.
Whole wheat bread (some recipes call for rye, but I think The Rachel is a chick sandwich through and through, and women rarely eat rye bread for reasons I don’t totally understand, probably because caraway seeds make our butts look big)
Sliced turkey (you can preheat this if you like, but it was less critical than with the Reuben)
Cole Slaw (I suggest draining this first)
Sandwich assembly: Heat a pan or griddle. Butter one side of the bread and put it in the pan to brown (as if you’re making a grilled cheese). Working quickly, top the exposed, unbuttered side of the bread with Swiss on one side, turkey on the other, and then a light application of coleslaw on whichever side seems the most inviting. You’ll need to be more generous with the cole slaw than you were with the sauerkraut on your Reuben, because the cole slaw is acting as sauce, ingredient, and executioner in The Rachel and it takes a little more than you might think.
Using a spatula and harnessing all the skill of a young Monica from Friends, maneuver whichever half of the sandwich that looks less spill-y onto the other half of the sandwich and smoosh it gently with the spatula, then flip it a couple times, till the turkey and cheese and cole slaw are heated through and the whole thing attains critical and oozy mass.
Unlike with the Reuben, don’t cut a Rachel in half. I tried it and then the guts fell out and looked very unappetizing, and more than a little hostile. The cole slaw retains more of its own personality than sauerkraut in a Reuben and apparently it intends to jump ship at the first available opportunity and find some mashed potatoes to hang out with instead which is by all rights where it really belongs.
Sandwich analysis: Meh. It was ok. I think some bacon might have improved matters, and I’m feeling cheddar instead of Swiss here. Something about the Swiss and the cole slaw together didn’t quite work for me and I think an orange cheese also would have broken up the white on white monotony of turkey, no-purple cole slaw, and Swiss in a nice way.
As for me, I had one Rachel, and then served the rest of the cole slaw alongside some fried chicken and mashed potatoes and I was quite happy with my decision.
They say if you stare too long into the sandwich abyss, the abyss stares back into you, and when you wrestle with sandwiches too long, eventually you will come across a monster in the form of a sandwich. This is entirely true and I believe I have discovered that monstrous sandwich.
The New Jersey Sloppy Joe.
A friend of mine told a story of how, as a young man, he came across a sign advertising “Free Sloppy Joes” and being of rational mind, decided to go and have one. Because who wouldn’t? Sloppy Joes are awesome, and free Sloppy Joes are well-nigh irresistible. Unfortunately our enemies know this and more than one sailor has been lured to their deaths by following a sign advertising “Free Sloppy Joes”. Much to my friend’s dismay he found not the gooey messy Sloppy Joes of the rest of the universe knows and loves, nor a rock full of murderous sirens, but a New Jersey Sloppy Joe, the cold, heartless bastard cousin of the Rachel.
It is true. There is another sloppy joe out there, a terrible one, and it’s coming for your children.
Seriously though, it’s not that bad. Even though I think a more accurate name would be The Jersey Devil, the New Jersey Sloppy Joe was entirely edible. Put on a Springsteen album (please turn the sound down real low so I can’t hear it though, would you) and join me in eating a sandwich that sounds like it should be way worse than it actually is.
The New Jersey Sloppy Joe
After all, I just can’t wrap my head around a Sloppy Joe not being on our side, can you?
At least two of the following meats:
Tongue (I wish I was making this up)
Russian dressing or Thousand Island
American cheese (or whatever fancy schmancy cheese you prefer, you superior bastard)
Pickles (optional but way recommended)
On meat: Since I prefer my food can’t taste me back and I need my beef hot (wow the jokes practically write themselves sometimes, don’t they?) I went with ham and turkey here. You should eat corned beef on yours though since it’s St. Patrick’s Day and everything.
On cheese: The original recipes I read call for Swiss, but I prefer Swiss melted and I recalled that the Swiss and cole slaw flavor combo on The Rachel did not quite work for my beleaguered tastebuds. So I went with American and I think you should too, unless you’re an unremitting snob which you probably are since this is, after all, Ordinary Times magazine. Why don’t you try a really expensive and obscure cheese instead and tell me in the comments about how it makes you a better person?
Sandwich assembly: The New Jersey Sloppy Joe is meant to be a triple-decker sandwich. I personally don’t love triple-decker sandwiches but if you like them, you’re meant to slather butter on one of the pieces of bread. I chose to forgo this step not only because of the triple-decker-y-ness and my utter lack of frilled toothpicks, but also because the idea of butter on a cold sandwich did not appeal to me. I ended up with dressing on my bread, ham on one side, turkey on the other, American cheese and cole slaw in the middle, and then I said a prayer to the ghost of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair and took a bite of this monstrosity.
Sandwich analysis: I liked it. It needed pickles, but it was way better than the Rachel. The New Jersey Sloppy Joe was one of those things that sounds kind of repulsive but then once you get into it, you decide “wow this weird thing I didn’t think I would like at all is actually for me in a big big way”. So eating a New Jersey Sloppy Joe was like the first time I saw Jeff Goldblum without a shirt on, basically. Plus, it was much easier to make than a Reuben, and it didn’t make me even a little sad.
Suggested side dishes: I strongly suggest picking up some Herr’s Chips and some Boylan Soda (it’s SODA in New Jersey, not pop!) for the full New Jersey experience, and IMO both of these things would go great with Reubens and Rachels, as do leftover sauerkraut and cole slaw just in case you might coincidentally have a massive amount of either of those things laying around your kitchen for some reason.
And of course, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the greenest beer of them all, Rolling Rock, which is currently being brewed in the Garden State.
Photo by jeffreyw