The women never could have imagined, four decades ago, that their gourmet club would still be meeting, every single month, over great food. (Except for the lutefisk.) Turns out friendships can weather a lot.
There was the Christmas after Kris Gruber's dad died, and she realized that, with him, went their traditional holiday meal.
We'll do it! said her gourmet group. Recipes were shared and prepared, the women gathering for beef tenderloin, twice-baked potatoes, limpa bread and lime Jell-O with cottage cheese -- a gesture that still brings Gruber to tears.
There was the time when Judy Johnson was considering adopting a child.
Let's meet at your house! said her gourmet group, whose members walked in on a Saturday morning with their kids in tow. "If she was going to adopt," Naomi Peterson said with a shrug, "we just wanted her to know what she was getting into."
There was the time when those carpooling from the northern suburbs to south Minneapolis somehow -- they can't imagine how! -- ended up in the Aquatennial Parade. "I mean, we were 'wave-at-the-crowd' in the parade," Gruber said, inciting peals of laughter.
You make some good memories over 40 years, especially when you've been getting together every month of those four decades.
No one planned it this way in October 1972, when four graduates of Gustavus Adolphus College, vowing not to grow apart, decided to meet monthly over a home-cooked meal, each month with a different ethnic theme.
Naomi Peterson kicked it off with Swedish pancakes -- a choice that now reduces them to giggles over its ethnicity. They kept eating around the world until Billee Kraut, choosing England, just about killed herself making beef Wellington and kidney pie. They adopted the more flexible adjective of "gourmet," and Diane Henning came up with a "job wheel" that divvies up who brings which course.
Truth is, the club isn't so much about the food, although 40 years reveals what's gone in and out of style. There was the year of broccoli-cheese casseroles, the trend of mandarin orange salad. Lutefisk was served. Once.
Whatever is served, "there is no judgment," said Gruber, considered the rock-solid gourmet of the bunch. "Ever."
The women have seen each other fall in love, get jobs, buy homes, change jobs, get married, have kids, see those kids get married, retire, witness health scares, seen their parents pass away. They have lived through each other's hair colors, fashion statements and eyeglass frames.
"No one ever misses gourmet," said Johnson. Life happens, of course, "but it's one of the events we always make time to do." Partly, it becomes clear, because no one wants to miss being part of a memory.
"What was the dish that Susan made that she had to send the chicken through her wringer washer?" someone asked. The memory inspires wild cackling and the response: "Something that needed to be pounded."
"This group has no secrets -- nor can it keep a secret," said Gruber, recalling the time she lined up two male friends to dress as butlers "and butle for us." (Yes, that's a real word; the others marvel at Gruber's vocabulary.) She thought it would be a great surprise, but she'd confided in someone, "and everyone showed up wearing ball gowns and tiaras!"
Only a few faces have changed. There are the founding mothers -- Johnson of Bloomington, Henning of Anoka, Peterson of Coon Rapids, Kraut of Hopkins, and Susan Gavle, who now lives in Illinois. Others joined by virtue of being co-workers or apartment mates in those early years: Gruber of Maple Grove, Suzanne Yaeger of Shoreview and Sandi ("with an 'i', like Luci Baines Johnson," she said, wryly dating herself) Martin of Maple Grove.
In 1978, Gavle married and moved away, leaving the group with an odd number, which was OK, and yet, not quite right. Several months later, Denise Remak of Minneapolis met Johnson when they each were coaching opposing girls' tennis teams at their respective high schools. They hit it off famously, and Remak was invited to round out the table.
Remak remembers coming home from that first dinner and telling her husband, "There was no discussion of children. No discussion of husbands. This is a rare group."
They are bound by age (see: Luci Baines Johnson) and career paths, all being teachers at one time or another. "Being that most of us are in the same profession, you have a lot in common," Remak said. "So if someone says they had a bad day, we all know what that means, because we all work with these little cherubs."
Other connections have developed: A trio makes lefse together. Others share tickets to Gopher basketball and hockey games. Still, as Peterson solemnly observed, "I don't think we'd still be friends if we hadn't had this group."
Remak, hosting this night's dinner, poured coffee with the dessert that Peterson brought in honor of the 40th anniversary: Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce, a lovely end to a meal of beef tenderloin, green beans with red peppers, a kale salad, garlic mashed potatoes and homemade bread.
Henning revealed that she hadn't been quite happy with her first course, a velvety pumpkin soup, so she'd added some brown sugar at the last minute, slowly realizing that she never would have known how to "doctor" a recipe when she was a fresh college grad.
Johnson laughed: "In the beginning, we were clueless."
The champagne bubbles floated in their flutes as everyone turned to Johnson, who raised her glass: "To a lifetime of memories, great food and wonderful people."
Gruber chimed in: "Here's to no more broccoli-broccoli-broccoli, cheese-cheese-cheese.
Added Martin: "And no more mandarin oranges."
Then, as the laughter settled with the bubbles, Kraut cleared her throat: "There are friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for forever. You are my friends forever."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185