Crystal and Corned BeefMay 28, 2014 09:29AM ● By Judy Horan
It was a short stroll from where I worked at WOWT to the hotel’s front door. The Blackstone was a second home to those of us who wanted to grab an after-work drink at the Cottonwood Room—a fun hangout with a whimsical décor and air. How could it not be an enjoyable place? In the center of the bar stood an elaborate replica of a cottonwood tree densely festooned in leaves.
Upstairs, the hotel’s Orleans Room was reserved for special-occasion dining. Presiding as maître d’hôtel was a tall, distinguished-looking black man who was always seen wearing a tuxedo. Called by diners the “Governor,” he looked like an ambassador and was just as charming.
If you had dined at the Orleans Room before, the Governor remembered your name, your preferred drink and where you wanted to be seated. Meals were always prepared tableside. It was the type of personal service rarely seen anymore.
The room attracted visiting celebrities over the years. A hallway was lined with photos of stars who had dined at the Orleans Room. Mark Schimmel remembers spending time in the coffee shop with comedian Jack Benny. The self-described “miser” would allow Mark to pay for his coffee.
Mark’s father, Edward Schimmel, was the hotel’s general manager for many years. Now living in Wentzville, Mo., Mark was the manager when the family-owned hotel was sold to Radisson in 1968. He stayed on.
A busy Golden Spur coffee shop in the hotel was good for a quick lunch. Each of the seven walls displayed a different decor, according to Mark, with whom I recently traded fond memories of the Blackstone days. “It was like going into a museum.” he said, Spurs hanging from one wall explained the room’s name. In earlier days, the room was called the Plush Horse.
The Golden Spur is where I tasted my first Reuben sandwich. For countless Omahans and Blackstone guests, this was also the first place they tasted the famed Reuben.
But, was it the first place? The big question for posterity: Was I eating a Reuben from the actual birthplace of the now-iconic sandwich? While the Blackstone is most often mentioned as the home of the Reuben, others outside Omaha have tried to stake claim.
Debate no more. The case is closed. The Reuben was invented at the Blackstone. Mary Bernstein—the granddaughter of Blackstone owner Charles Schimmel—got the story firsthand.
“Here’s the scoop,” she says. “My father, Bernard Schimmel, had just returned from school in Switzerland where he trained to be a chef. His father, Charles, held a weekly poker game at the Blackstone Sunday nights. He said to my dad, ‘Reuben wants you to make some sandwiches with corned beef and sauerkraut.’
“And my dad put together this concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and dark rye bread and grilled them, then took them to the poker players. After it later received such wide acclaim, they decided to put it on the menu at the Schimmel hotels and call it the Reuben sandwich, because Reuben Kulakofsky had requested it.”
The exact date is lost in family history. But it would have to be after Bernard returned in 1928 from Switzerland. The first menu the family has uncovered that lists the Reuben sandwich was from the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln in 1934, according to Judy Weil of San Francisco, the family historian. Because the Reuben sandwich apparently first appeared on a menu at the Cornhusker, it is sometime mistakenly assumed that the sandwich was created there.
Charles Schimmel added the Blackstone to his stable of hotels in 1920. The building became an Omaha Landmark in 1983 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. He trained his four sons in the hotel business. They along with other family members each ran one of the seven Schimmel hotels. In Omaha, the hotels were the Blackstone and Indian Hills Inn. In Lincoln, Schimmel owned the Cornhusker.
The Schimmel family’s sandwich story has been repeated throughout the nation. Bernard’s granddaughter Elizabeth Weil wrote about her family’s appetizing creation in the New York Times. Bernstein still advocates for the Reuben sandwich, but admits she no longer eats the corned beef and sauerkraut concoction. She’s now a vegetarian.