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By Megan Dooley
It began in the mid 1980s, when a group of women from Oak Park, River Forest, and the surrounding neighborhoods, met at one of the monthly meals served up by students in Dominican University's culinary program. The gourmet fare was more than enough of an incentive to dine at the university every few weeks, but the friendships formed over delicately crafted cuisine became the cherry on top.
Twenty five years later, the group has evolved from a band of lunching ladies to the Lunch Bunch, made up of more than two-dozen spritely men and women who have, over the years, shared in life, love, and loss, in addition to that monthly luncheon. On Friday, they celebrated their silver anniversary in the brightly-lit atrium of Dominican's Parmer Hall, over a feast of fresh and healthful fare prepared by students, as they have so many times before.
"There's a great variety, and we enjoy that, and we enjoy the congeniality," said Don Straub, of the Lunch Bunch group. He and his wife, Anna, have been dining with the group for the better part of a decade, making them relative newcomers. Others, like Mary Liebner, have been around since the beginning.
Back then, Straub said, the group was "comprised exclusively of ladies," who socialized at the Dominican lunches while their husbands were at work. "But as time went on, and their husbands began to retire, the men enthusiastically attended," said Straub.
"It's really the fellowship," that keeps everyone coming back, said Liebner. Her late husband, Dr. Edwin Liebner, was one of those early enthusiastic male participants. He considered himself a bit of a recruiter, and summoned friends to the Lunch Bunch from neighborhoods far outside his small community of River Forest.
But as the group grew, and the luncheons became more sporadic – the Dominican "Recipe Box" lunches, as they're called, do not abide by a regular schedule – the Lunch Bunch needed a place to continue to enjoy their camaraderie on a monthly basis. They now meet at Winberies in Oak Park when Recipe Box lunches aren't being offered.
But coming to Dominican remains a real treat. Dr. Judy Beto, head of the Nutrition Sciences program, spoke on behalf of the group's 25th anniversary. Beto briefly shared their long history at Dominican, and introduced her friends as "very special guests." "We're delighted you're celebrating with us," she said of the group that she has gotten to know so well over the years.
According to the Straubs, the food served is half the fun of going to the Dominican Recipe Box lunches, and has continued to draw Lunch Bunchers back even after they branched out to other restaurants in the area. A menu placed at the center of the table includes the list of courses and a short nutritional guide touting the importance of fruit in a diet. As the Lunch Bunch continues to age (one member is 102), that diet becomes an important factor.
"It makes us feel good, from a nutritional standpoint," Don Straub said.
At the Straub's table, the dialogue turns to books and history over a first course of Mandarin romaine salad, and switches gears to childhoods and health concerns over the entrée – chicken breast served with a berry sauce and seasoned rice. The diners discuss their children over the roasted plum and sorbet dessert – from their college choices to exotic travel plans. There is never a lull, just the pleasant chatter of old friends.
"We have a small village here," Straub said of the group. "Everybody knows everybody."