Seasons by the Sea: Reubensanity!

One of the most perfect sandwiches ever
Rick Babich, the chef at Provisions in Sag Harbor, with the cafe’s tempeh Reuben sandwich Laura Donnelly

This is the story of a recipe that is really just a recipe but the recipe became the story because of the labyrinthine path of coincidences and ironies by which it was acquired. Let us call it “the axis of exes.”

The recipe is the tempeh Reuben served at Provisions in Sag Harbor. It is one of the most perfect sandwiches ever. A classic Reuben happens to be one of my top five favorite sandwiches, but it is not a healthy one. The average Reuben is grilled in butter, has a lot of fatty, sodium nitrite and nitrate engorged corned beef, Swiss cheese, and is slathered with Russian dressing. This sandwich can average 67 grams of fat, most of it saturated. The sodium level is off the charts. No wonder I love it so much.

One day, years ago, I tried the tempeh Reuben at Provisions. It truly, magically, contains all of the required taste sensations that this little piggy demands of her sandwich: crunch, tang, chewiness, meatiness, creaminess, salt. If you love Reubens, you will adore this rendition.

Many, many, many years ago, I was dating a super cute, fun guy, and then I wasn’t. Fast forward a few years and I am friendly with his current girlfriend. For the sake of the story, let’s just call her Wendy Moira Angela Darling. She loves healthy food, enjoys cooking, and she thought that because I am a food writer, I could get the recipe for the sauce for the Provisions tempeh Reuben. I happened to be friends with the chef at that time and I procured the recipe for her. She was thrilled.

Fast forward again to present time. My editor Carissa Katz asked me recently if I could possibly get the recipe for that sandwich. (I am always thrilled when people ask me to find or get recipes for them, I believe all good food should be shared.) I told Carissa I could at least get the dressing/sauce recipe from Wendy Moira Angela Darling, who is now my ex’s ex on this axis. You following so far? So “Wendy” searches and searches to no avail. She thinks she may have left the recipe at super cute, fun guy’s house after they broke up. Meanwhile Carissa is toying with marinades for the tempeh and reports back that she hasn’t quite achieved Provisions’s perfection.

At this point I feel like Shaggy in the Scooby Gang and I ask super cute, fun guy if he can find it. He tries, but cannot find it, either.

Crestfallen but no less determined, I contact the current chef at Provisions, Rick Babich. He gets permission from the owner, Richard Kresberg, to share the recipe. Hallelujah! Richard Kresberg has owned Provisions for 23 years and told me the tempeh Reuben has been on the menu since before he bought it. He agrees it is a good seller, and he enjoys the dairy-free version of it. He believes that the quality of the sauerkraut (Real Pickle brand) is what makes it so good.

Chef Rick Babich loves it as well and said it is consistently one of the most requested sandwiches at Provisions. He uses the Bread Alone brand’s Nine Mixed Grain bread but thinks any good multigrain bread will work. Personally, I think it’s the sauce that makes it so good. Because Provisions uses a whole grain bread, not rye, there is a bit of toasted caraway seeds in the sauce, along with lemon juice, cayenne, and white pepper. Perhaps we will never know who created this sauce, but at least we now have the recipe for the whole shebang.

This recipe hunt became such an amusing odyssey, I told my editor Jennifer to not tell Carissa. So she literally won’t know I procured the recipe until she edits this column. Surprise!

There are several versions of the history of the Reuben sandwich. When you research recipe histories they all start to sound the same. A hotel by the railroad tracks invented the Toll House cookie. A bartender at a hotel by the railroad tracks invented a cocktail named after a famous actress and makes it out of the only ingredients he can find. A bunch of guys playing poker ask a hotel owner to create a sandwich out of nothing and the Reuben is born. They all start to sound like urban legends. I’m going with Elizabeth Weil’s story about her grandfather, Bernard Schimmel, inventing the sandwich in Omaha, Neb., in the 1920s. “The Reuben is a deeply American Midwestern creation, a Jewish sandwich that isn’t kosher, made by an assimilated Eastern European,” she wrote in Saveur magazine’s Sept. 6, 2016, issue. She agrees that it makes sense that New York delis have adopted it “because culturally it seems as if it should be theirs — it has a huge personality, it’s loud, it man-spreads.”

Okay, that’s enough Reubensanity for now. After I enjoyed my tempeh Reuben and delightful chat with Chef Babich last week, I wandered over to Urban Zen across the street to visit Monica Frisbie. I told her about the recipe quest. Her eyes got huge. “Oh, my God! I can’t believe you got the recipe! My husband and I love that sandwich! Now, is there any way you think you could possibly figure out how to get the recipe for Harbor Market’s tahini brownies?”

I sense a pattern here, or perhaps my purpose in life.

Let us all follow the wise advice of the late great singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. When he made his last appearance on David Letterman’s show, and knew he was dying of cancer, Mr. Letterman asked if he had any words of wisdom. “Yes,” he replied, “enjoy every sandwich.”

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