The hero in our family is my youngest brother, Michael, 38, who has been a quadriplegic for 16 years. Like the rest of us, eating is one of his favorite pleasures. So when he has a yen for a particular food which he often does one of his siblings invariably steps up. And since Michael has a highly discriminating palate, we scour the area to find the very best Buffalo has to offer. Tom brings the region's finest desserts, including Buffalo Chips from the Quaker Bonnet. Betsey gets egg rolls from Ming Teh in Fort Erie. Kitty provides her own taco platter, upon which there can be no improvement.
Earlier this fall, Michael told us he wanted a Reuben sandwich. None of us was sure why. But when Michael wants food, it's like a general alert to the rest of the family. The word was out, and the phone calls and personal inquiries began.
I never buy anything, including Reubens, without consulting experts whose track records are impeccable. But that day my Rolodex and network of food-savvy friends failed to find anyone to advise me. I even tried my banker, Al Luhr, recalling that the smartest Jesuit high school president I ever met said never make any move you are unsure of without your banker. But Al was out. So I began calling delicatessens and sand-wich shops, confident someone would say, absolutely, Reubens were a specialty. There were 15 calls. I kept track. Forget any talk about specialties. I couldn't even find a Reuben.
Perhaps a break, a strategic retreat, is needed to praise the excellent Reuben. Michael knows what it takes. The corned beef is the most important ingredient, he says. But a Reuben, as Michael will tell you, is not a corned beef sandwich.
It is a Reuben.
The Reuben rises and falls on two factors: the quality of each ingredient and finding the proper combination. Each factor is essential, says Michael. In this way the Reuben is similar to a BLT. But the Reuben is more complicated.
Good corned beef for a Reuben must be lean, salty and properly cooked. No matter how good the rest of the ingredients are, so much comes down to the corned beef. The thinner the slices, the better. A light layer of Thousand Island dressing on each piece of thinly sliced rye bread is essential. And speaking of bread, finding a very fresh loaf is most important. Stale bread tastes stale, regardless of buttering or grilling, and this is especially true of rye.
The sauerkraut can be canned, but fresh is best. That sauerkraut should be placed above the corned beef, and there should be just a little less of it than corned beef. And a Reuben connoisseur knows the varieties of Swiss cheese. Finding a good one makes all the difference.
Once the quality ingredients are located and assembled properly, the sandwich is buttered on the outside and placed on the griddle or grill. How much butter? A perfect Reuben has enough butter so that even if the sandwich were more manageable, the diner would choose to eat it with utensils. And in any perfect Reuben, the melted Swiss cheese bonds the corned beef to the sauerkraut.
This Buffalo Reuben story has a happy ending. Somehow, I did what any good citizen and devotee of his city should do: Looked around and started the search in my own neighborhood. I stumbled across Chef's Deli at 547 Elmwood Ave. The fact it was a short walk from my office was a bonus. I've passed there often. It was in my own and Michael's back yard. The nearest Reuben was the best.
And since it's November, it's worthy of note: If you replace the corned beef with turkey, your Reuben becomes a Rachel.
The Rev. James P. Higgins, S.J., is the president of Canisius High School.