One bite, I'm hooked

Boston Globe/November 20, 2001
By Brian McGrory

The first thing I notice coming through the heavy wooden doors of the Common Ground Cafe is the smell - not of food, but of incense, or maybe it's scented candles.

Then there's the music, an eclectic collection of hypnotic instrumentals and chanting vocals drifting from the sound system and congregating at the base of my brain. Almost makes me want to don a flowing robe and slap a tambourine against my thigh.

Wait a minute - the waitresses already have. Well, not the tambourines, but there they are in sexless robes carrying chili and turkey burritos across the dimly lit room.

And they seem to fit right in. The atmosphere is embracing, soothing, even caressing. The walls are brick, the floors a dark knotty wood, the ceiling a rich painted tile. And above some of the dozen or so tables are tiki hut-style drop ceilings, giving the whole place an exotic, if not mysterious, feel.

I start humming ''Kumbaya.'' I quell the temptation to announce that I've changed my name from Brian to Meadow.

Mysterious it is, this little outpost on Dorchester Avenue, situated next to the Four Provinces Market and across the street from Daisy's Nails - mysterious enough, that is, to be careful, which I'm trying to be.

The Common Ground Cafe and the neighboring Common Sense Wholesome Food Market are anything but common. In fact, they are owned and operated by what they call a ''spiritual brotherhood,'' what you and I might label a religious sect, and what the less charitable refer to as a cult.

The reviews aren't all good - on the sect, not the food. The Twelve Tribes brotherhood that owns the restaurant has been fined in the past by authorities in New York for violating child labor laws. The Boston Herald reported earlier this year that group members admitted disciplining children by whipping them with resin-dipped rods.

Indeed, Robert Redford pulled furniture made by the group from his Sundance mail order catalog. The sect leader, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former guidance counselor and carnival barker, is known to shuttle between homes on Cape Cod, the south of France, and Sao Paolo, Brazil. Religion pays.

But they make a fine turkey and cheddar sandwich, served warm on a homemade roll with plump slices of fresh tomato and a small mountain of gourmet potato chips.

Two bites and I'm ready to shed any and all worldly possessions and sign my condominium over to the talented Mr. Spriggs. My dining companion wisely advises caution.

Still, I could if I would. Twelve Tribes has group houses in Dorchester, Plymouth, and Hyannis, as well as in New York and Vermont - more than 30 compounds worldwide, places where inhabitants ''voluntarily share all they possess,'' according to the Web site.

And the restaurant, if not the religion, seemingly has its devoted followers. A pair of women at a corner table gab on cell phones. A young woman fires up her laptop computer as she awaits her meal.

The food goes heavy on the butter, but the staff is light on the proselytizing. The menu makes mention that ''Common Ground represents our desire to stand together with you in that place where men's hearts can finally have peace.''

What I want is to stand in a place that makes a blueberry muffin this good. I nibble a corner and want to shout my lifelong devotion to their cause.

That's when Yaqarah, the waitress, stops by the table with that faraway look in her deep-set eyes. Her lips move, and I think she's saying, ''Follow me to a place where the turkey is always sliced thin and the muffins are always warm.'' Alas, I'm hearing things. She says, ''Our vanilla ice cream is even better than homemade.''

I don't wait around to find out, not here, not now. The dessert course in this joint could spell the end of me.

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