By Sarah Manhardt
Photo by Jean Lachat

Wednesday lunch is really a gem on this campus. It’s really unique that faculty members and students from different disciplines come together and eat and listen.”
—Sindhu Gnanasambandan
Student in the College

Step through the doors on a Wednesday morning, and Swift Hall smells and sounds like home. 

Every week while classes are in session, the Divinity School hosts a family-style, student-cooked lunch accompanied by an academic presentation. Open to members of the University and Hyde Park communities, the program always features a speaker and a three-course vegetarian meal. For $5, it’s the best lunch deal on campus—for both mind and body.

The program has existed for so long and is so ingrained in the Divinity School community that no one can pinpoint when the tradition started, although Richard A. Rosengarten, dean of the Divinity School believes students began the talks informally during the 1970s. Rosengarten, AM’88, PhD’94, who first attended the weekly series as a graduate student at the Divinity School, also has been a featured speaker throughout the years.

Wednesday Lunch is a great Swift Hall tradition, Janus-faced in the best sense,” Rosengarten says. Attendants get a good sense of life in Swift, of life in the University, indeed of life in the city.

The presentations span myriad of academic topics and some have included musical performances and even improv comedy. Notable past speakers have included University President Robert J. Zimmer, Dean of the College John W. Boyer, Chicago journalist Natalie Moore, and U.S. Special Representative for Religious and Global Affairs Shaun Casey.

“It’s a lunch, a chit-chat, it’s almost a salon,” says Terren Wein, director of communications at the Divinity School, who runs the program. “They’re not necessarily technical talks, so I think we get a good cross section of people who are approaching that talk from their own angle.” 

‘Incredibly warm and familial’

The talks have a set format. After some introductions, attendees eat together and share their own experiences. Then the speaker addresses the crowd and takes questions from the audience. 

On Nov. 16, Jane L. Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at UChicago, delivered a talk on her research on superstitions and magical thinking, describing why people make judgments based on non-rational ideas. Her talk was aimed at an academic level to fit the crowd, many of which followed up with questions. 

“Something about the fact that it’s home cooking, that feels incredibly warm and familial, is inclusive and community-building,” Risen says.

The lunch program draws an eclectic crowd of scholars, students, and staff, along with Hyde Park residents. Many of the attendees are regulars spanning years, while others meet for the first time at lunch. Ann Harvilla, AB’79, dean of students for the full-time MBA program in the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has attended the lunch for years. She tries to attend whenever she can take a lunch hour. 

“The program offers a diverse set of topics, speakers—some provocative, some purely entertaining, some socially responsible organizations—it’s a good consciousness raising. It’s just a really good all-around program to break up your usual week and make you think about things you don’t normally think about,” she says. 

Divinity School student Miriam Attia has attended the lunch since beginning her studies last year. 

“I come almost every week, and so do most of the people I see there—a mix of my fellow Div School students, professors, administrators, and a few people from other schools and from the larger Hyde Park community, but I also meet new people whenever I go,” she says.

Creating sense of community 

Fundamental to the lunch program is the food, prepared by a crew of students from across the University. The experience of cooking together engenders its own form of community, according to College student Sindhu Gnanasambandan. 

“One of the best parts of Wednesday lunch is the community, it’s about eight to ten of us who cook, and it’s just a morning spent chopping and talking and joking and laughing,” she says. 

The cooking extends from the kitchen to throughout the Divinity School. “I love how amazing Swift Hall smells every Wednesday morning,” Attia says. 

The weekly Wednesday lunch series resumes on Jan. 11 with Yvonne Maffei, chef, cookbook author, and founder of My Halal Kitchen, Other speakers for 2017 include Assoc. Prof. Stephen Rings, who has studied the music of Nobel-winning artist Bob Dylan; Tobias Spears, director of UChicago’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Student Life; and Assoc. Prof. John Novembre, the MacArthur grant-winning geneticist who studies evolution.

“Wednesday lunch is really a gem on this campus,” Gnanasambandan says. “It’s really unique that faculty members and students from different disciplines come together and eat and listen. It’s just a special thing that not a ton of people know about.”

Originally published on January 4, 2017.