Lately I've been having some excellent lunches downtown.
One day I had a fabulous repast of Poulenc and Prokofiev. Another time, I enjoyed several delicious servings of Georgia O'Keeffe. And on Friday, I chewed over some Heidegger.
I've been on a kick to use my lunch hour to enrich my cultural life. And though I'm embarrassed to confess how long it's taken me to realize it, downtown Chicago is a midday arts buffet — and most of the meals are free.
Noontime concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center, lectures at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, half-hour talks at the Art Institute of Chicago, lectures by instructors from the University of Chicago Graham School's Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults —you can have a serious encounter with the humanities in the time it would take you to eat a panini.
And it's high-level fare. My Poulenc/Prokofiev meal, part of the Cultural Center's First Monday concert series, was served by the renowned Chicago Chamber Musicians. The pianist was Meng-Chieh Liu, the group's artistic director; the guest flutist was Mathieu Dufour, principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The high quality of the free concerts attracts a core of people who attend frequently.
"You'd be crazy not to," said David Rakov, the retired general counsel of the University of Chicago Hospitals, who is a regular along with his wife, Lois.
But others in Chicago apparently don't know about the Cultural Center concerts, he said. In fact, "we probably shouldn't be talking to you."
I had known, vaguely, but I hadn't bothered to go. Look what I've been missing, I thought as I sat beneath the Tiffany dome of Preston Bradley Hall, Poulenc's sonata for flute and piano filling the gorgeous space and the names of Western civilization greats like Galileo, Voltaire and Goethe glittering in the mosaics.
I shouldn't miss the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts on Wednesdays, the Rakovs advised. Though "there's a big competition on Wednesday," Lois Rakov said, because that's also the day when the Chicago Architecture Foundation offers its Lunch Talks.
And not that the Rakovs choose on this basis, but the foundation lets you bring a bag lunch.
You can also bring your lunch into the Cultural Center's Randolph Cafe, which serves no food but three days a week presents folk, world, indie and jazz musicians in its LunchBreak Series.
I happened on jazz bassist and composer Matt Ulery. Midway through one song, I knew I had to buy his CD "By a Little Light," which I later learned the Tribune's Howard Reich described as "one of the most hauntingly beautiful recordings of this year — or any other."
And if you want to chat with Ulery or the other musicians afterward? In this small, informal setting, you can, and I did.
Ulery turned out to be a fan of the noontime Cultural Center concerts himself. "You can't find free music like this anywhere in the city," he said. "I've been coming here for years."
But perhaps you're hungry for art? May I recommend the Express Talks at the Art Institute?
At the talk I attended, a group of us stood in front of O'Keeffe's "Blue and Green Music" while senior lecturer Annie Morse talked about its suggestions of rhythm and wavelike repeating curves.
O'Keeffe was pursuing the same freedom of interpretation granted musicians, she said. "Nobody says to a musical artist, 'That doesn't sound like a tree,' " she said. "Georgia O'Keeffe was attempting to synthesize sound and the visual arts."
That was delicious. And it was fast food; Express Talks run 30 minutes.
If you want a full meal, try one of the monthly First Friday lectures given at the Cultural Center by the Graham School's Basic Program.
On Friday, I sat down for "Heidegger and Meaning," in which instructor Clare Pearson discussed the German philosopher's ideas. This was not just a meal, but a 16-ounce steak. I won't say I understood it all, but I left with my head full of thoughts of awareness of our inevitable death as a gift goading us to find meaning in life.
Then I picked up a snack on my way back to the office.
Now that I've explored the culture lunch menu options, I plan to keep enjoying them.
These arts breaks feel like mini-vacations, because when else do you have time to go to a museum or arts event?
They are fresh breezes through a workday, intellectual runs along the lakefront, reminders of how lucky we are to live in a city with so many riches.
And they're free, except for talks at the Art Institute, which require admission to the museum. But even those are free for a while; Illinois residents can visit the Art Institute for free on weekdays through Feb. 13.
So what'll it be for lunch, friends? Sandwich at your desk, or spark in your mind?