There's a Bible propped open against the bulletproof take-out window at Turner's Family Soul Food in Auburn Gresham, where customers waiting for their smothered pork chops or meat loaf can study the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. . . ."
Despite the precautions, Gloria Turner, wife of the Reverend James C. Turner, maintains that theirs is not an unsafe neighborhood—in 15 years they've never been held up. But while it can't hurt to have God on your side, she credits good community relations, good staff, and good management for the restaurant's longevity—but mostly good cooking. Turner owns the place with her husband, but it's her mother, 64-year-old Murilee Johnson, who's the "big boss lady," she says. "This is Mrs. J's kitchen. No ifs, ands, and buts about it."
From the outside, Turner's doesn't look much different from the innumerable ramshackle independent fast-food joints and soul kitchens all over the south side. The menu is hand painted next to the door, and the sign above the awning says the place is called Johnson's. Beyond the stark waiting area it's a little more cheerful: a sliding-glass door leads to the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit dining room with a TV and a video jukebox that plays everything from gospel to Guns n' Roses. Still, it's no preparation for the heaping, luxurious plates that appear through a window from the kitchen.
Johnson arrives at six every morning, and while a short-order cook may help her with the grits and eggs for the breakfast crowd, she simultaneously gets to work on about a dozen different daily specials and 28 sides, all the heavy hallmarks of the southern/soul- food canon—turkey wings and dressing, salmon croquettes, ham hocks, liver with onions and bacon, five kinds of beans, okra two ways, mac 'n' cheese, candied yams, and greens simmered with a choice of turkey or pork. That's every single day.
Substantial dishes such as these, comforting as they are, tend to vary little from one place to the next, but Johnson's cooking is something special. She says she does it with "love," and works "by the spirit," and if you're not a believer, her chicken and dumplings—soft stewed meat and fat, toothy noodles—will set you straight. Fine-dining chefs everywhere have rediscovered the wonders of beef short ribs, but hers—dinosaur-size and falling off the bone in a simple, spicy gravy—are fundamentally righteous. (When you're done reading, you can watch Johnson in action on The Food Chain blog at chicagoreader.com.)
The seventh child of nine, Johnson was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where her family picked cotton. At 14 she left for Chicago, joining her older sister Lenora, who had a job at a Ford plant. Lenora's brother-in-law Everett picked Murilee up at the bus station, and two years later she married him. Murilee didn't know how to cook yet, but Lenora did and passed her skills on to her little sister. Lenora died last year, but many of her recipes live on at Turner's, in particular her dense, sweet peach-raisin-coconut bread pudding.
Everett worked in a warehouse, and Murilee got a job at the U.S. Steel South Works at 79th along the lake. They built a house and raised three children, and she occasionally baked cakes and pies to sell at the mill. Gloria, her middle child, had an entrepreneurial streak and opened her own restaurant, Gloria's, in 1983 at 119th and Lowe, in West Pullman. An aunt cooked there, but Gloria ran it without any help from her mother, who by then was working as a silk finisher on the north side. The following year, though, when she opened a nightclub, Hot City Disco, Murilee began catering parties there frequently.
Seven years later West Pullman turned violent—"like the OK Corral," Gloria says. She closed down the restaurant and went into real estate while looking for a new location. In 1993 she found it: an abandoned barbecue shack on the 8200 block of South Ashland. She enlisted her father to do the books and her mother to do the cooking. Business was good, and Johnson and her daughter gained a reputation for generosity.
"She gives away everything back there, and at the end of the night you have nothing," says Gloria. "All you got to do is come in and say you ain't got no money. They have on a suit, diamond rings and everything. She'll give it to you."
But Johnson says she's no pushover. "I ain't gonna feed them every day," she says. "I have to feel that they're hungry. I know when somebody's using me because I'm in the godly way."
Four years ago Gloria married James and began to divide her time between here and his home in Tennessee. But two years later Everett died, and Murilee found herself struggling on her own—there's competition now that Boo's Soul Food Cafe and Morrison's Authentic Southern Cooking have moved into the neighborhood. Seven months ago the reverend relocated to Chicago and bought into the restaurant—hence the name change.
"The Lord took a legend and he sent one," says Johnson.
Gloria says they're recovering, but there's only so much help Murilee will accept. Her daughter has tried to bring managers in to give her mother a break, but Murilee will have none of it. "She runs them off," says Gloria.
"They cook too fast," Johnson says. "You have to take your time."v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.