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Celebrating My Irish Heritage Like My Ancestors Didn’t

Rueben

My husband and I will dine out this evening. As much as I enjoy the taste, I am not a fan of the smell of cooked cabbage or sauerkraut in the house, so on St. Patrick’s Day we often let someone else prepare our meal. He will likely indulge in Corned Beef and Cabbage with Irish Potatoes and I will feast upon a Reuben sandwich.

As a kid hearing the word “Reuben” brought to mind Reuben Kincaid, the manager for The Partridge Family, played by Dave Madden. His wacky escapades with Danny Bonaduce have nothing to do with the sandwich but I feel compelled to share this fact as my first knowledge of a Reuben.

I loved Pastrami on Pumpernickel with some Spin Blend or Miracle Whip as a kid but I was likely in college before I actually consumed what would be considered a Reuben. I actually credit the Reuben with some responsibility for my marriage. Having only known the man who eventually became my husband for a week the first time he came to visit, I had no idea what foods he liked. Living on a college campus with dining hall privileges, despite having a full kitchen I typically had an empty refrigerator. I decided to do a little grocery shopping before his arrival and found myself craving a Reuben sandwich. While gathering the ingredients I recall thinking “What if he doesn’t like Reubens?” and then responding to myself “Would you really want to pursue a relationship with a guy who doesn’t?”. So we ate Reubens that weekend and we have been together ever since.

My maternal grandparents were born and raised in Northern Ireland, moved to the United States as young adults and became US citizens after having three American offspring. They retired to Ireland where they died a short time later when I was only eight years old. I remember my grandmother’s accent (my grandfather worked very hard to lose his) and her teaching my how to jig, those two recollections and the heavy cream-colored fisherman sweaters that they brought back for my brother’s and I from one of their visits are the only truly Irish recollections I have of them.

Despite being only a second-generation American of Irish descent, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day like most non-Irish Americans, the way people in Ireland never did, until tourism made it clear that embracing these non-traditions would be profitable. So bring out the shamrocks, tacky green beads, bedazzled bowler hats and green beer. Irish whiskey may be among the only truly Irish consumable ingested in the US on March 17th.

The Reuben sandwich, a Jewish deli mainstay. The bread upon which the delectable ingredients will be layered is of German origin. While the sauerkraut is often deemed a German food, I will credit the Chinese whose laborers consumed the fermented cabbage while working double shifts on the Great Wall. While Swiss cheese seems to have obviously come from Switzerland, if you want to purchase some while there (or most places in Europe) you will want to ask for Emmental cheese. Some put Russian Dressing on it (which is either from Russia or New York, depending on who you ask) and others (myself included) like a slathering of Thousand Island, which my research indicates is an American concoction that originated somewhere in New York.

Like much of food history, many lay claim to originating the Reuben. Restauranteurs with a son named Reuben and the last name Reuben both have compelling arguments. Locations from New York to Nebraska claim to be the birthplace of the gastronomical creation. Most indications are that somewhere between 1897 and 1920 the sandwich was invented. In 1956 the National Restaurant Association made it the National Sandwich Winner.

I am entirely unclear if my Irish ancestors ever consumed a Reuben or Corned Beef and Cabbage. It seems that in Ireland, the impoverished dined on pork and potatoes, a cured pork or “Irish bacon”. When arriving in the United States most Irish immigrants lived in poorer communities with other “undesirables”; the Italians and Jews. It is believed that economics and proximity is how Irish people became associated with Corned Beef, it was cheaper than pork and accessible at Jewish delicatessens.

On St. Patrick’s Day the United Nation of sandwiches is Irish, despite having no actual ties to Ireland, in the same way that everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s day, regardless of where they came from.

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