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Editor's Note: Ladies Who Lunch is the first in a series of chronicles by freelance writer Robin Wheeler, who chooses her lunch companions as carefully as she chooses where they dine. Her missives will appear regularly in Relish...and always on the left side of noon.
Julie Dill doesn’t get out for lunch very often. “I'm the only gal in my department and the dudes all go out for lunch together every day,” said the technology coordinator at St. Louis University
She uses the quiet time for a little testosterone break, usually with lunch she brings from home to eat in her office. A prolific and ambitious home cook, Dill brown bags it better than a lot of people. “I try to always bring my lunch from home, usually in the form of homemade soup from a food jar and crusty bread and cheese. I pull that off at least three times a week. When I have a lunch fail, I wind up wading through students in the food court, wasting ten dollars on string cheese and chips.”
Dill, who is also a contributing editor for River Styx Literary Magazine, talent scout for the Hungry Young Poets Summer Reading Series, poet and occasional St. Louis Magazine contributor, considers lunch away from the SLU campus a rare treat. Her favorites spots include Nadoz at the Coronado, Cafe Ventana, Blues City Deli, The Good Pie, and “...the now-defunct Hare Krishna vegetarian buffet restaurant Govinda's, on Lindell. If you timed it just right, the brothers would give you their altar offerings -cookies - which were delicious.”
For our lunch we ventured away from campus and grabbed a tray and a spot in line at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral. Every Wednesday, volunteers serve Lebanese food, cafeteria-style, to clientele that ranges from elderly church members to Mayor Slay and suit-clad downtown movers and shakers.
Despite the institutional feel of the line, the food has all the flavor and personality that comes at the hands of preparers who’ve cultivated traditional dishes for years. A short order of lentils and rice (below left) is a filling lunch on its own, especially when it’s heaped on the plate by a grandmotherly woman who asks, “Is that enough? Are you sure that’s enough?” It’s hard to say when. Plump brown lentils and fluffy rice are at their best texture, bound by a hint of Lebanese spice underscored with the rich sweetness of caramelized onions that makes a simple dish interesting and addictive.
Dill opted for a stuffed green pepper (below right), hummus and pita, and a meat pie to go for her partner. Each lunch cost less than $10.
St. Raymond’s serves the traditional kibbee naya - spiced raw ground beef - but we weren’t feeling adventurous and opted for kibbee aras. The same spiced beef and cracked wheat is molded into a palm-sized football and deep fried (below left). The thick outer layer cracks open like a geode revealing fine crumbles of beef. Its dryness is fixed with a little dip of smooth hummus, heavy on the garlic.
A stuffed grape leaf (below right) only costs 65 cents. Rolled cigar-tight and the color of grandma's spinach, it bursts to reveal a dense stuffing of rice and beef with the familiar earthy, aromatic spices that connect these dishes without overwhelming.
“I'm very disappointed in myself for waiting so long to go to St. Raymond's for Wednesday lunch,” she said a few days later. “The food was hot, delicious, and extremely filling. If you show up early, the line is short and moves quickly.
“My stuffed bell pepper was so solid, I sliced into four sections with my butter knife and the rice and ground beef stuffing didn't crumble a bit. When the server asks if you want extra sauce, get extra sauce! I can't wait to go back and try the other kibbee, and dessert!”
We spoke of other things. Instead of partaking in the church gossip and community talk that filled the lush dining room, we opted to discuss what other lunching ladies discuss - the new album by The Roots, our favorite recordings of 2011, and what upcoming concerts we’re planning to attend. Work, for the most part, was left in our offices for an hour of what lunch should be - good, nourishing food and conversation that feeds the soul.
Photographs by Kevin A. Roberts