January 21, 2010: Turkey Reuben at Rachael’s Nosheri

I love corned beef. I used to wait eagerly all year for St. Patrick’s Day, until a worldly Southerner introduced me to the Reuben; and if there is one thing better than corned beef, it is corned beef, heaps of sauerkraut, and rye toast, smothered in cheese and drenched in Russian dressing.

Naturally, I was suspicious of the concept of turkey as a substitute; while a tasty meat, it lacks the necessary salt, robust flavor, iron content, and saturated fats to meet my standard. I don’t eat meat very often, but when I do, I like it red and salty.

Dish Four: Turkey Reuben at Rachael’s Nosheri Deli, 19th and Sansom, http://rachaelsnosheri.com/

The initial disappointment I felt at the turkey was overwhelming, and I put aside the sandwich to think. What is it that makes a Reuben a Reuben? The sandwich appeared in every other way to fulfill the requirements: a little light on the kraut, heavy on the Russian, cheese, and nicely buttered rye. Was it the corned beef that made the sandwich, or everything together? When does a substitute change the identity?

Would Danny DeVito still be the star we know if he was tall? What about Flavor Flav with proper inflection, or a mojito made with vodka instead of rum? At what point does a substitute create something new- was what I ate not a Reuben at all, but instead a first cousin?

It makes a difference what you change. Trading the Russian for Thousand Island is a small difference, one that I prefer, like giving Russell Brand a haircut. Every person, every dish, is made up of large, prominent ingredients, and many smaller supporting herbs and spices; while the herbs and spices can be detected if added or missing; rarely do we complain if tomato sauce is made with canola oil rather than olive, or if our best friend goes and dyes her hair red. (DON’T DO IT! Just kidding. But really, don’t.) But if you went and tried to make tomato sauce with red peppers instead of tomatoes, it would be something entirely different. Maybe neither better nor worse, but not the same creation.

And the name matters. Names give our lives definition, and by giving them definition, give them meaning. Suppose you said “Lauren, but with brown hair”. That would still be me. Whereas, if you said, “Lauren, but with brown hair and a couple of years”, you would actually mean my mom, who is an entirely different human being. Lovely, intelligent, interesting, yes, and also completely separate.

Certainly, where the dividing line falls is a matter of opinion and of argument, but I believe that because a sandwich is traditionally identified and defined by the lunch meat or protein that it features, a change in lunch meat is a change in sandwich.

Once at my philosophical conclusion, I was able to set aside the naming issue and, for objectivity, thought of the sandwich as “Turkey, Kraut, Cheese, and Russian Dressing on Rye”. And as such, the turkey was flaky and pleasantly salty, the toppings were in good proportion, and the pickles were crisp and briny. It was a good sandwich, solid ingredients, nice flavor combination- but I stop myself from thinking how much better it would taste if you substituted corned beef for the turkey.

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