Feed The Spirit

August 4th, 2011

It might be a great deal for lunch. It might be a great deal more.

Either way, you’ll walk away full.

As published in The Daily News, August 5, 2011, and in The Memphis News, August 6-12, 2011

Onie Johns


My cheeseburger was a religious experience.

Melting provolone flows over and through a mound of caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, a luscious kind of lava covering a mountain of ground beef, all between two pieces of a toasted artisan bun fighting, and losing, a battle to contain the whole eruption. What happens when flavors this diverse come together – in this sandwich and in this place – can restore your faith.

This cheeseburger was roughly the size of my head but still smaller than the heart of the woman who served it to me – Onie Johns, founder of Caritas Village. It’s kind of a campus on Harvard Avenue, a block from Yale Avenue, but as far from Ivy League association as Binghampton is from Cambridge and New Haven. It occupies an abandoned Masonic Lodge in a neighborhood of once-proud churches and once-proud, blue-collar dreams, but what she and her supporters have done is wake up the neighborhood and in so doing, let it dream again.

My bowl of chicken vegetable soup was a revelation.

You might have had soup like this before, the kind where the first bite begs the second and the second begs description and clarification. Kinda like your momma’s vegetable soup, but a little spicier, a little more adventurous than that. Kinda like your vegetable soup, but a whole lot better than that, and you want a whole lot more. It’s not necessary to understand the mystery of why it tastes so right, just take it in and let it warm you.

My second bowl was an affirmation.

Onie doesn’t talk it, she lives it. She moved in down the street a decade ago and opened Caritas Village four years ago. Her son-in-law – trained at the American Culinary Institute – moved into the kitchen. And, trust me, you’re going to be moved by what comes out of there.

Gardens from all over the neighborhood supply the produce, and all around you, people from all over the Memphis landscape are together at table. Upstairs, there’s a community theatre, an artist-in-residence-program, the Hope Gallery, a passel of kids most of the time and something going on all the time. Nobody preaches, but the sermon is pretty clear. Nobody passes a plate, unless there’s food on it. Most of all, nobody wags a self-righteous finger and tells you what you’re supposed to do or be like.

It’s right in front of you.

This from the homepage, “Caritas Village seeks to break down walls of hostility between and among neighboring cultures, and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor.” This concerning what hangs in the gallery, “work that stimulates dialogue in the community as well as generates new ideas and involvement.”

Onie calls Caritas Village just “a coffee shop and cultural center.” Yeah, and that’s just a hamburger and a bowl of soup.

I’m a Memphian, and we need an extra helping of what she’s serving at the corner of Harvard and Merton.


Carole Hanna: For a minute there, Dan...I thought you had started a sideline as a restaurant reviewer :-) I have been reading about Caritas Village but haven't been yet - shame on me. I need to check it out soon. Sounds like my kinda place.

Ann Clark Harris: This is a fabulous place! The food is reasonably priced and,oh,so good!! Obie is a doll,too! Her son-in-law caters, too; highly recommended! The work they do is so needed and because of it the neighborhood seems to be thriving!

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