September 21, 2016
We’re pleased to present our first episode in “Mouthwashed!,” a series of reviews of cult-run restaurants. This week, the Spiritually Adventurous Eater visits the Yellow Deli in Rutland, Vermont, run by a group known as the Twelve Tribes.
This week, the Spiritually Adventurous Eater visits the Yellow Deli in Rutland, Vermont, which the Twelve Tribes group owns.
“Would you guys like a table”?
“Yes, for four.”
“That’s so nice!”
As the Spiritually Adventurous Eater, I am accustomed to establishments with creepily friendly staff members, but the Yellow Deli in Rutland, Vermont, manages to exceed even my expectations. The host, a middle-aged bespectacled man with a ponytail, is so enthusiastic about our arrival I momentarily worry he might throw out his back. But instead he snaps up a couple of menus (“We serve the fruit of the spirit!”) and leads our party of four (future-Jew, Jew, recovering Catholic, and atheist) through a maze of woven textiles and repurposed tree branches to our booth, shaded from the low light of the main room by a faux-roof like a hobbit hovel.
As you’ll probably have noticed by now, the most bizarre and fascinating thing about this place is the décor. I can only sum this up in this way: if the set designer of Willow had a love child with sixties activist group Another Mother for Peace, it would look like the inside of the Yellow Deli. No wait, another way: if Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre ate a plate of Margaret and Walter Keane paintings and then took a shit in a twee forest, it would look like the inside of the Yellow Deli. Wait, sorry, just one more: if David the Gnome was on acid at a Phil Lesh and Friends concert, his hallucinations would look like the inside of the Yellow Deli.
All this is somewhat unnerving to me, as a person with a natural thresh-hold for kitsch, but I am comforted to see little unfamiliar about the menu. The Yellow Deli – one of eleven in the United States, Canada and Australia-features typical American cafe fare like sandwiches, salads, chili and a small selection of breakfast items. There are a few nods to hippie Vermont in the form of maté blends, “green drink,” and the fact that one sandwich is named the “Deli Rose,” but other than that, an unassuming patron would be hard-pressed to recognize how seriously the proprietors take their peace-and-love ethos. Hard-pressed, that is, unless they were to take a quick jaunt to the bathroom, wherein they could partake of a variety of free “literature” while they waited to use the facilities. The newspapers and pamphlets available outline-however vaguely-the beliefs of the Twelve Tribes, known in some areas as the “Yahshuas,” who run the chain of Yellow Delis in addition to a handful of coffee shops, hostels, tanneries and organic food markets throughout the United States and the world.
The Twelve Tribes began somewhat organically (no pun intended) in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the early seventies, one of a few individual attempts within the “Jesus Movement” to blend hippie culture with Protestant ideals. The group has a long history in the food industry; its original members gathered at a coffee shop called the Lighthouse, run out of the home of longtime church leaders Gene and Marsha Spriggs, before founding the first Yellow Deli. Though they have recently branched out into real estate development and construction, the Delis have all but financially sustained the Twelve Tribes, who consider all possessions and earnings communal, for almost forty years.
On my walk back to the table, I pass by the counter, and watch as uncharacteristically mean-looking women, dressed in palazzo pants and dowdy Amish-esque tops, slap together cold cuts and bread for sandwiches. Our happy waiter is at our table when I return, ready to take our order, a giant red flower on the end of his pen shaking as he hastens to write down our requests. No beer on tap, of course- Twelve Tribers don’t drink alcohol, and they follow certain Levitical dietary laws, like eschewing pork and shellfish- but you can get a frosty mug of root beer if you have a hankering. We order sandwiches and veggie burgers, which a young smiling woman brings over to us within fifteen minutes. The presentation is crunchy – snack- bar- sandwiches in woven baskets, accompanied by the requisite piles of Lays chips and a pickle.
“Oh yes, table ‘iron,’ this is yours,” she says. “Where are you guys from?”
“Brooklyn,” I respond.
“We have a farmer’s market there, in Brooklyn. We sell green drink.” She seems to think that I might know it, but I explain to her that Brooklyn is quite large, and there are many, many farmer’s markets there.
“But I’ll look out for you guys…. ?” I offer, and at this she seems calmed. Only after she’s gone do I realize there are tomatoes on my sandwich even though the menu had said there weren’t, but when I meekly get the host’s attention and he answers, “With all my heart?” I decide to just dump the slabs on my boyfriend’s plate. One member of our party insists his sandwich is “succulent,” though mine has much more in common with a packaged lunch you’d buy at an airport terminal than a prime rib. When I order banana bread for dessert and realize it’s almost certainly microwaved, I realize the crux of my disappointment: I had expected these happy little cult members were waking up early to bake bread – recipe calls for a dash of cardamom, a handful of walnuts and a pinch of love – but in fact, most of their fare tastes like it comes right off the shelf at the nearby Shaw’s. A follow up-call to the Twelve Tribes’ toll-free hotline confirms that while they do cook with goods from their farm when possible, more often than not, they buy commercial. All in all, I feel duped, just as I had when, at eight or nine, I realized that in fact David Bowie was not, in fact, king of the goblins.
Our check comes out. It’s yellow, of course, and embellished with little smiley faces and a big thought bubble emblazoned with the words, “We are here for you!” But the fruit of the spirit? Ain’t that tasty.
Décor 8 out of 10
Cuisine 4 out of 10
Service: 6 out of 10
Proselytizing 2 out of 10 (They didn’t try nearly hard enough to
win us over, in my view)